ATHENS, Ga. -- Amid all the injuries, inconsistent play and simply not measuring up at times, Missouri almost looked out of place in its first season in the SEC.
But that was then, and this is now.
The Tigers, unbeaten and grinding away, look right at home in Season No. 2 and delivered their most convincing statement yet Saturday that they’re going to be anything but a punching bag in this league.
Their 41-26 victory over No. 7 Georgia was impressive on a couple of fronts.
For one, it was their second road win in the conference in as many weeks, and they did it with two of their best players on the bench in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback James Franklin separated his shoulder, an injury that could keep him sidelined for the remainder of the regular season. Cornerback E.J. Gaines was already on the bench with a strained quad after leaving the game in the second quarter.
Not only that, but all the momentum had shifted back to Georgia after the Bulldogs cut a 28-10 halftime deficit to two points early in the fourth quarter.
Sanford Stadium was roaring, and it was fair game to wonder how the Tigers would respond, especially after seeing the way things unraveled a year ago.
“These guys battle, man. They've got a lot of heart and believe in each other,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Our leadership has been great, and it’s a special group of guys. I don’t know how the next half of the season is going to turn out, but these guys are a special group of guys.
“It’s going to be exciting.”
With redshirt freshman Maty Mauk filling in for Franklin, the Tigers turned to a little trickery three plays after their senior quarterback went to the sideline.
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson called for a throwback pass with Mauk lateraling the ball to Bud Sasser, who threw one up in the end zone that L’Damian Washington showed his hops on and pulled in for a 40-yard touchdown.
“The corner was biting all day on the bubble,” Washington said. “I told Bud, ‘You can count on [No.] 2.'"
“You could tell just by their fans with what they were saying to us and the way they were looking at us that nobody respects us,” Mauk said. “This is our first stepping-stone to getting that respect, and we’re just going to keep going.”
Washington, who finished with seven catches for 115 yards, was bellowing that it still “wasn’t good enough” as he was leaving the field.
Even with two road wins and the No. 25 Tigers being one of only two unbeaten teams in the SEC, Washington knows there still will be doubters.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to get now that Georgia was banged-up, so I’m not sure if we earned any respect,” said Washington, who talked openly at SEC media days this summer of the Tigers' winning 10 or 11 games this season.
Reminded of that Saturday, he shot back, “And they were laughing at me.”
Nobody is laughing now.
Missouri (6-0, 2-0 SEC) is the first team in the league to become bowl eligible, and that’s after missing the postseason a year ago on the heels of eight consecutive bowl appearances.
It only made it worse that it was their first season in the SEC, raising more than a few eyebrows around the league.
“We heard it all: that we were soft, that we weren’t physical enough, that we couldn’t cut it,” Missouri defensive end Shane Ray said. “We don’t get a lot of respect, being new to this conference. It’s definitely a step forward in our program, and we plan on taking many more steps and keeping these wins coming.”
As disappointing as last season was, Washington thinks it might have been for the best.
“It’s bad to say this, but I’m glad we went through what we went through last year,” Washington said. “We’d been to eight consecutive bowl games, got very complacent and got our asses handed to us. This year, I saw a fire in this team.
“Sometimes, you need to be knocked down to be brought back to reality. Winning isn’t easy. You’ve got to bring it every day. This team came back and is resilient. I’ll go to war with them any day of the week.”
It doesn’t get any easier for the Tigers from here in what is now a wide-open Eastern Division race. The good news is their next three games -- Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee -- are at home.
But at least for the foreseeable future, they’re going to be without Franklin.
“This is why everybody came to Missouri,” Mauk said. “Everybody has to be ready when their time comes.”
A year ago at this time, Pinkel was just trying to keep his team afloat as the injuries and losses mounted. Now his greatest challenge might be keeping his Tigers grounded.
With that in mind, he called his captains together Saturday and reminded them that the real race is just beginning.
“There’s no question that one of the goals of the seniors on this football team was to get back to Mizzou’s winning ways,” Pinkel said. “That’s a big deal to them because they came in and inherited a lot of winning, and they want to go out with Mizzou winning.
“That’s real important to them, trying to raise the bar and compete for SEC championships.”
Pinkel has also been in the profession long enough to know that everything is fleeting. After all, he was the most popular choice in the offseason as the SEC coach with the hottest seat.
Now, at the midseason point, he’s probably the Coach of the Year.
All that really matters is what happens from here, and that starts with Florida next Saturday at Faurot Field.
With that in mind, Pinkel harkened back to a conversation he had with his old college coach, Don James, after Missouri beat No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010 to end a seven-game losing streak to the Sooners.
“He said, ‘You know what? The toughest game you’re ever going to coach is next week,'" Pinkel recalled. “I didn’t listen very well. In fact, I was kind of mad at him. I didn’t want to hear that.”
Sure enough, Mizzou went out and lost its next two games, to Nebraska and Texas Tech.
That conversation will be mentioned a few times on the Mizzou practice field over the next few days.
“A lot of things are going to happen for our team this week,” Pinkel said. “We have to get rid of all this stuff and get focused to play our best.”
And keep earning respect.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Pinkel said. “You have to earn it.
“That’s the way it should be.”