Missouri should hold its head high in 2013

The SEC championship game was great for one set of Tigers and excruciating for another.

The Auburn Tigers won 59-42 and are headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif., to take on No. 1 Florida State.

But Missouri walked out of the Georgia Dome last Saturday with its tail between its legs and BCS hopes dashed. In a game that looked like it could have gone either way for three quarters, Missouri just didn't have enough steam on defense or offense to keep up with the Tigers from the Plains.

Mizzou was gashed for 545 rushing yards and was left panting along the way. It wasn't a good night for Mizzou, but it shouldn't define Mizzou's season.

"They're crushed. I mean, they are absolutely crushed," coach Gary Pinkel said after Saturday's loss. "And that's good. I mean, that's OK. They're used to winning, and this game was real important to them. Hopefully, we get in the position again, and we'll play better. Maybe we'll handle it a little bit better.

"But I thought we did all right things. I'm proud of them, proud how they competed and battled."

After an injury-riddled 2012 SEC debut equated to just five wins for the Tigers, Mizzou bounced back to win 11 games and play in the SEC championship game. Red-hot Texas A&M hasn't been to Atlanta yet, and it has been a couple of years since Easter Division counterparts Florida and South Carolina have visited Hotlanta for the SEC title.

In a year in which the Tigers could have fallen further behind their SEC mates, they pushed ahead and were a quarter away from playing out west. Mizzou might have been blanked 14-0 in the fourth quarter of the SEC title game, but the Tigers dominated a season in which no one was quite sure what to expect out of these cats.

A bowl game? Sure, but an East title? A trip to Atlanta? Please, only for a layover at best.

Mizzou proved the haters and the doubters wrong all year. Their only regular-season slip-up came at home against South Carolina, in which they blew a 17-0 fourth-quarter lead before losing in double overtime. We all thought their East dreams were over, until they won their next four, including at No. 24 Ole Miss (24-10) and at home against No. 21 Texas A&M (28-21).

A year after resting near the bottom of the SEC barrel in total offense (356.4 yards and 25.8 points per game), the Tigers head into their AT&T Cotton Bowl matchup with Oklahoma State ranking third in the SEC in offense (492.9 yards per game) and scoring (39). The Tigers averaged 6.7 yards per play this year, after averaging just 4.9 yards last year.

With a healthy James Franklin at quarterback, an offensive line that didn't need to be patched together by bandages and Henry Josey back at running back, Mizzou enjoyed an offense of riches in 2013. In consecutive weeks, the Tigers beat Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida by a combined 128-71. Josey ran for 1,074 yards, and Franklin surpassed last year's touchdown total of 10 in Week 4.

After Franklin went down with another shoulder injury, Mizzou went 3-1 behind Matty Mauk. Again, adversity didn't faze these Tigers.

On defense, Mizzou ranked second in the SEC and 14th nationally in rush defense (119 yards per game) before taking on Auburn. After losing first-round defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, defensive end Michael Sam led the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.

This was a tougher team than we saw in 2012. Yes, being healthy helped, but the mindset was so much different. There was confidence and swagger that last year's team wished it had. Injuries certainly affected that, but this team believed it could make it to Atlanta and beyond ... and it was almost right.

The trip to Jerry's World might not be as exciting as one to Pasadena, but Mizzou should pat itself on the back after the season it had. The Tigers should be proud and hold their heads high as they get a chance to play in a major bowl to open the new year.

"I was excited about our program a year ago," Pinkel said. "We do what we do, and I'm excited to keep building it."