Gary Pinkel has been here before. Saturday will mark the third time Pinkel has guided the Missouri Tigers to a conference championship game, in search of its first football conference championship since 1969. With what is probably his best team at MU, 2013 has been his most impressive coaching effort yet.
Pinkel has had plenty of detractors following the 2012 football season and in the buildup to his second season in the SEC, Pinkel found himself on every list for coaches on the hot seat entering 2013. It’s safe to say that can all end now. He has successfully navigated the Missouri Tigers through some of the toughest terrain a college coach can, outside of NCAA sanctions. Moving conferences isn’t easy. Ask TCU, West Virginia, Colorado and Utah. Those teams are a combined 48-77 since moving conferences, with only three bowl appearances combined.
A season like this was almost unthinkable one year ago. The Tigers finished 2012 with a 5-7 record and won just two conference games. Just three months ago, a season this good was a pipe dream, especially in year two of its new beginning in the most cutthroat college football conference in America.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. There is supposed to be a transition period. Turns out the Missouri Tigers only needed a transition year. Missouri’s 28-21 over Texas A&M Saturday cemented 2013 as Gary Pinkel’s best and most important season in Columbia. Fifteen months removed from its jump to the SEC, Missouri has gone from being picked sixth in the 2013 SEC East preseason polls to the 11-1 SEC East Champions preparing to play the Auburn Tigers in the SEC Championship game Saturday.
When Missouri’s jump to the SEC was announced in 2011 it was a curious decision. A move to the Big Ten? Sure, that made sense. But to the SEC seemed ludicrous. They seemed out of place last year, missing a bowl game for first time in the last nine seasons.
What a difference a year makes.
Gary Pinkel is a finalist for the Maxwell Coach of the Year Award, rightfully so. In less than two seasons, Pinkel assembled an SEC caliber defense to go with an offense that SEC pundits said wouldn’t cut it against the SEC speed. The Tigers have a receiving corps that the Kansas City Chiefs would kill for and he’s on the cusp of winning the SEC title.
A healthy James Franklin to start the year, a competent back up quarterback to fill the void when Franklin went down, and a team that finished the regular season ranked first in the SEC in turnover margin, second in rush defense, third in pass defense efficiency, and first in sacks. The Tigers are one bad quarter, one bad hold, one unlucky bounce off of the upright, away from the No. 1 spot in the BCS rankings.
That loss to South Carolina stings and it will sting for a while, especially if Missouri goes on to win the SEC this weekend. That game will be remembered as the game that cost the Tigers their shot. Yet, Missouri could have folded and treated the final four games of the regular season like they didn’t matter. Pinkel wouldn’t allow it.
Making it to the BCS championship game, while still a possibility, is unlikely. MU sits fifth in the BCS standings and need a win and either Ohio State or Florida State to be upset in their respective conference championship games, neither of which is impossible. Of the 30 teams that have played for BCS title, eight of them entered the final week of regular season outside BCS top two, four of which moved up after winning the SEC Title Game.
Alabama stayed ahead of the Tigers in this weeks polls because they’re Alabama. But the only way the Crimson Tide can stay ahead of MU if the Tigers win Saturday, is if the voters fraudulently rank Alabama ahead of Missouri.
Regardless of how great Missouri has been this year, it will take several years for the Tigers to earn any respect. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, lover of all things SEC, said on Sunday that he would pick Auburn if they were playing the Denver Broncos. Impressing guys that have been entrenched in the SEC for years like Finebaum or Fox Sports One’s Clay Travis will take time. Their schedule was soft they say. To which I’d respond, who cares that MU didn’t have to play Alabama or LSU. If the SEC is as great as those two would like us to believe, it shouldn’t matter.
The only story that might be more polarizing that Missouri this year is that of Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers. Malzahn will likely win the SEC coach and probably national coach of the year awards ahead of Pinkel. My vote would go to Pinkel because let’s be honest, winning at Auburn is a whole lot easier than winning at Missouri. Auburn isn’t a team void of talent. They’re three years removed from winning a national championship. Yes, Malzahn took over a complete dumpster fire left to him by Gene Chizik, but Pinkel has navigated his team to the SEC Championship Game in only his second year in a the league. Not just any conference, but the conference that has provided college football with its last seven national champions.
Auburn is coming off of two of the most ridiculous victories in recent memory. If the win over Georgia was a miracle, I’m not sure what adjective I can use to describe the way the Iron Bowl ended. I have to think there will be a serious hangover effect on Auburn. Missouri is the better team, with the better and more experienced coach.
Regardless of the outcome for Missouri, this season needs to be used as a springboard for future success. Make 2012 the anomaly, not 2013. If Pinkel can find a way to sustain success in the SEC and challenge for division and conference titles every year, the questions and criticisms from the fans and media that were puzzled by the move will quickly cease. If they go back to the inconsistencies of last year, his seat will begin to warm again, and it will warm and a much quicker pace than it ever did in the Big 12.
In the biggest game of his career, Pinkel has the chance to become the winningest coach in Tiger history. Currently tied with Don Faurot with 101 wins, I’m sure that’s the last thing on his mind. But win this game, and Missouri officials might have to start thinking about what to name after Coach Pinkel.