By The Associated Press
COLUMBIA — There’s one more hurdle to clear for No. 5 Missouri.
Beat No. 19 Texas A&M at home on Saturday and the Tigers, an SEC afterthought back in August, goes to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Coach Gary Pinkel acknowledged on Monday that it’s a big deal.
“We’re excited about playing this game,” Pinkel said. “We worked real hard to get to this position. You know what, you compete for a championship, you’ve got to beat good people.”
Missouri (10-1, 6-1 SEC) must win to get to the Dec. 7 title game in Atlanta.
A loss would result in a tie for first place in the SEC East with South Carolina (9-2, 6-2), which would get the nod based on head-to-head competition.
Whatever happens, much has been accomplished.
“In any business, when you have adversity, that’s what you get judged by,” Pinkel said. “When things get really, really tough. We persevered. I’m really proud of our staff and our players. I shake my head, how they play and how they compete.”
There’s more to do. No one’s looking ahead to the title game or a BCS berth. It’s all about beating A&M (8-3, 4-3).
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” guard Max Copeland said. “The bigger the stakes, the most fun it gets. We’re rock and rollers, all our chips are in, man. Let’s go!”
Offensive tackle Justin Britt wrinkled his nose at the notion it’s been a “satisfying” season after last year’s SEC debut disaster. The 5-7 finish complicated by numerous injuries ended a string of eight consecutive bowl games, and expectations were low.
“You use that word and you get complacent,” Britt said. “It’s felt real good. I’m happy and the team’s happy with what’s happened and we’re all just trying to reach our goals.”
The Tigers have stumbled just once, losing in overtime to South Carolina at home.
Early on they showed their mettle with a win at Georgia, the school’s first road victory over a Top 10 opponent since 1981, and they overcame another crowd, beating Ole Miss 24-10 on Saturday night.
School is out this week, but students will flock back to campus early to be there for A&M.
“It’ll be just nuts,” senior quarterback James Franklin said, “because it’s Senior Night and because of how we’ve been doing this year.
“The fans want to come for what’s on the line.”
The practice schedule will be altered somewhat so players have a chance to go home for Thanksgiving. No classes means more preparation time, too.
Not too much.
Pinkel said he used to get so wired on game day, especially for a night game.
“That’s just my intensity, that’s how I am,” the coach said. “This is fun, this is really fun competing for a championship. This is why you do it.”
Over the years, he’s learned to better harness those emotions. He’ll downplay the implications with players.
“I’m not going to talk about that much. It’s all clutter,” he said. “We call it the grind. Wake up Saturday and play your best game.”
During the Senior Night ceremony, Pinkel always sheds some tears and hands out hugs all around, and hopes everyone snaps back to attention and uses it as inspiration and not a distraction.
“I’m sure it’s going to be more than I’m expecting,” Franklin said. “Right now I don’t see it as being too emotional, but I’m pretty sure once it comes around it will be.
“It’ll be sad, it’s my last home game at Mizzou, but it’ll be exciting, too.”