Missouri senior wide receiver L'Damian Washington thought of a clever way to prepare his teammates for the 2013 season. A year removed from a less than impressive 5-7 season, their first in the SEC, the Tigers are taking a different, more immediate approach.
Saturday's game at Vanderbilt will mark Step 5 of a 12-step program Washington designed just before the Tigers' opener against Murray State. Each game represents a step. So far, Mizzou has made it through the first four steps in impressive fashion, outscoring opponents 182-84 in route to its first 4-0 start since 2010.
The Tigers were still in the Big 12 then and went 8-5. A victory over Vandy on Saturday and the Tigers would be 5-0 for the first time since starting 7-0 during in 2010. The Tigers finished 10-3 that season.
"Each game is a different step to wherever we want to go this year," said Washington, who is second on the team with 254 receiving yards and three touchdowns. "Whether we fall short or not, each game is still a stepping stone.
"The chemistry on this team is unreal, and all the guys have bonded and bought into exactly what we're trying to accomplish this year."
What Mizzou is trying to do is win an SEC championship. Washington heard laughs this summer at SEC media days when he said that was the goal for a team that had a sluggish SEC start in 2012, but heading into the first conference game of the year, something is different in Columbia.
Last year, Mizzou was mocked for leaving SEC media days with a degree of arrogance about it. This year, there was little talk and the Tigers entered the season as unknowns. Despite being the only undefeated SEC team other than Alabama and an offense averaging 549 yards and 45.5 yards per game, the Tigers are still an enigma. They're flying under the radar because of a relatively soft nonconference schedule, but players still feel like the pressure is on. Their own expectations and their obsession with erasing last year's bad memories have them alert for Saturday's critical SEC matchup.
"I feel like the weight is all on our shoulders right now and it's time to step up," said Gaines, a senior cornerback who is tied for the league lead with three interceptions. "We still have a sour taste in our mouth after last season.
"If you lose one [SEC] game, it can ruin your whole season. Any game right now is a big game for us, especially with it being an away game; getting a win would be huge."
At this time a year ago, Mizzou headed into the Vandy game 3-2 with two 20-point losses in SEC play and mounting injuries. Quarterback James Franklin was dealing with a shoulder injury and just about every offensive lineman was stuck in the infirmary.
Saturday, the Tigers will be healthy. Their quarterback looks sharp, averaging 282.3 passing yards per game with nine touchdowns. Four players have 215 or more rushing yards and two touchdowns, and the offensive line is upright. The defense is about middle of the road in the SEC, allowing a little less than 400 yards a game. But unlike East rivals Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the Tigers have yet to allow 30 points.
"One thing from the outside looking in that people don't notice is the chemistry of this team, how resilient this team is," Washington said. "The injuries last year helped us be a better team this year."
Almost the forgotten team in the East, Washington knows how important Saturday's game is for a group desperate to right its ship. Mizzou had experienced eight winning seasons under coach Gary Pinkel before 2012. Washington has been around for three, while Gaines has seen two.
"To start off 4-0, that's been a little while coming," Washington said. "Right now, we're not taking anything for granted. Going into SEC play, we're 0-0 and we're just trying be 1-0."
Don't mistake that humble approach; this team is ravenous and confident. Good health has the Tigers playing loose and a more positive attitude has players grinning for the first time in a while.
"It's just a different feeling going in," Gaines said. "You can tell it going around and you can tell with the demeanor of the football team that we're definitely feeling sky-high right now."