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Resilient Mizzou controls own fate in SEC

It hasn’t always been pretty. At times it has been downright ugly.

Missouri has endured more than its fair share of criticism this season, for losing to Indiana in September, for getting shut out by a Todd Gurley-less Georgia three weeks later. A 42-13 win over Florida was met with praise for Missouri’s defense and special teams but snickers for its offense, which generated only 119 offensive yards (including 20 passing).

Yet here are the Tigers, with three games left, controlling their own fate in the SEC East.

Starting with Saturday’s trip to College Station, Texas, to face No. 24 Texas A&M, Missouri (7-2, 4-1 SEC) has its eyes on a prize: a second consecutive SEC East championship and berth in the SEC championship game next month.

"It's been the same thing from Day 1," sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer told reporters after the Tigers’ most recent win over Kentucky on Nov. 1. "We've got to finish out the season and win the rest if we want to be back in the championship.

“It's on us.”

Missouri has won multiple ways this season. Early on the Tigers piled up the points in nonconference play, averaging 41.6 in their first three games. They pulled out a nail-biter, 21-20, at South Carolina on Sept. 27. The aforementioned Florida win included two special-teams touchdowns courtesy of Marcus Murphy in addition to two defensive touchdowns, a Markus Golden fumble return and a Darvin Ruise interception return.

The Tigers’ defense responded well to the Georgia loss, holding Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to a combined 37 points in the next three games. Defensive end Shane Ray’s career year continues as he leads the SEC in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (16) and the junior now possesses Missouri’s single-season sack record, notable considering the school’s history of defensive line talent.

In their last five games, the Tigers have allowed almost 100 fewer yards per game (299.6) than they did in their first four (391.8), have cut opponents’ number of 20-plus yard plays in half (20 to 10) and allowed only 4 yards per play after giving up 5.3 in the first four games of the season.

More importantly, the Tigers have shown resiliency after suffering their two defeats this season.

“I'm just proud of our team for competing and battling,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “You're going to have adversity and we talk about that in August around here. We have a plan and I tell the players, ‘When it happens, we'll have a plan to get through it.’ I think the leadership has been good, it's been a battle each and every week, but I'm proud of our football team and I think we have an opportunity here.”

The opportunity begins on the road at Kyle Field against Texas A&M on Saturday, a team the Tigers have had success against in recent years under Pinkel. Missouri beat the Aggies in four of their last five meetings, including a 28-21 home win last season that clinched its SEC East title.

If the Tigers take care of business on Saturday, they’ll maintain their SEC East lead heading into Knoxville for a meeting with Tennessee. They then wrap everything up Nov. 28 when they host Arkansas at Faurot Field.

Two of the final three games are on the road, where the Tigers have had great success the last two seasons. Missouri has won eight consecutive true road games dating to last season.

"I do not have a magic formula,” Pinkel said of the road success. “All I'm doing is focusing on this game. We prepare certain ways and we do what we do and we're very fortunate. We have another game, another opportunity, so we'll see what happens.”

Regardless, the Tigers are right where they want to be. They’re 1-0 this month hoping to go 4-0. If they do, they return to Atlanta, simple as that.

“This is Game 2 in November and you have to take care of your business,” Pinkel said. “In order to get the big prize you have to beat good people. That's our challenge and that's everybody's challenge in November. I'm real proud of our team and we'll see where we go.”