COLUMBIA, Mo. • As the final seconds slowly ticked away, as this long-overdue improbable dream was finally transforming into an incredible and unbelievable reality, from every corner of sold-out Faurot Field, cell-phone flashes flickered like so many stars on this brilliant, near-perfect night.
There were 67,124 witnesses here on Saturday night, and everyone wanted to record this moment. So moments before the final seconds ticked off the clock and the scoreboard confirmed something that no sensible Mizzou fan could have ever conjured in their wildest dreams three months ago — a trip to the SEC Championship game — the camera lights twinkled away.
And if you have ever bothered to wish upon a star, a lot of Tiger wishes just came true.
Mizzou is 11-1.
Mizzou is the newly-crowned champion of the SEC East.
The fifth-ranked Tigers are on their way to Atlanta for the SEC championship showdown against No.4 ranked Auburn (11-1) with — gasp and swoon — a legitimate shot at reaching the Bowl Championship Series national championship game.
“Wow, How about my football team?” said coach Gary Pinkel, gushing with pride for the shocking one-year turnaround that took the Tigers from SEC neophyte pushovers into second-year SEC Beasts of the East.
On Saturday night, at the conclusion of Mizzou’s 28-21 victory over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, Pinkel’s Tigers made history. This victory put them on a pedestal where not many other Mizzou teams have ever ventured. Winning the SEC East wasn’t just a victory that wrapped up the SEC East. It was a cleansing victory that purged generations of cruel and unusual punishment from the damaged psyches of so many Mizzou loyalists. After so many ghastly endings that twisted guts and convinced Tigers fans that something wicked was always destined to spoil nights just like this, there was this delightful sight on Faurot’s artificial turf.
It was a swarm of black-and-gold clad Mizzou fans engulfing their Tigers with giddy affection and swaying to the sounds of Ray Charles crooning over the Memorial Stadium PA system.
“... With that sweet, sweet sound of Georgia on my mind ...”
Everywhere your eyes darted, there were players, coaches and fans absorbed in the moment that none of them will ever forget. Players were jumping up and down like pogo sticks in this sea of humanity. They were all part of what Pinkel would call a “private mission” to return Mizzou football back to its rightful place.
“It’s big-time for this program, especially from where we were last year,” said sophomore center Evan Boehm. “Everyone counted us out this year at the beginning. But we knew as a unit and as a team that we could be the best … We didn’t let anyone else tell us differently. It’s a special moment right now to be a Missouri Tiger.”
Yet when you witnessed this mad scene on Saturday night, when you saw the faces in this crowd that covered so many generations of cursed and dispirited Mizzou fans, you realized that it really wasn’t such a private mission after all.
What happened here was a collective mission shared by so many Mizzou fans who have spent their entire lives flinching, recoiling and fearing the worst possible nightmare would happen on big nights like this.
But on Saturday night, that gawdawful luck finally changed. There were kids rolling around on the field and parents taking pictures, trying to document the night when the bad luck for Mizzou football finally changed.
There were rowdy students rolling off into the streets of downtown hoping to extend the party deep into this cool night.
But most of all, there were the players who were reveling in their incredible accomplishment, surrounded by all these fans who wanted to hug them, hold them, never let them go.
Because the crowd was so large, because the celebration seemed to grow like a black spawn that blocked out every patch of green artificial grass, it was almost impossible to notice what sort of good time two of the most deserving folks on this Mizzou team were having.
You could barely pick Pinkel out of the crowd as he soaked in the scene after becoming one of the winningest coaches in Missouri football history, tying the legendary Don Faurot with 101 career victories on the Mizzou sidelines. This game, this season, this SEC East title were all part of the redemption process for the coach who began this season on the coaching hot seat, but today is the toast of the town.
No one wants him fired now. Pinkel fought to get this thing fixed and few outside his locker room imagined that he could create such a spectacular one-season turnaround as this.
Not too far away from Pinkel in the madness was senior quarterback James Franklin, perhaps the only other guy in the Mizzou locker room more embattled than Pinkel at the start of the season. Franklin, the guy who a year ago was being treated like public enemy No. 1 by some elements of Mizzou nation, was the best QB on the field, and considering who the other quarterback was (Johnny freakin’ Football), that’s saying a lot.
While he was not the key factor in the Tigers’ go-ahead scoring drive – Henry Josey took care of that with a 57-yard dash through the heart of the A&M defense with 3:34 left – Franklin proved that he could lead this team with his arm and his legs all night long.
He accounted for more yardage in the air (233 to 195) than Manziel, threw for more touchdowns (2-1) and gained more yards on the ground (80-21). Franklin put on the sort of show on prime-time TV that makes you wonder all that could have been had he not gotten injured and sat out those four starts.
Franklin stole the show with the sort of pinpoint passing that made him look like the best quarterback on the football field on Saturday night (18 of 28 completions and a stunning 157.8 pass efficiency rating).
The first passing beauty that he threw was the 38-yard TD completion to Dorial Green-Beckham that seemed to descend from the heavens and right into DGB’s waiting arms as he galloped into the endzone in full stride. A&M cornerback Deshazor Everett had absolutely no chance of breaking this pass up.
The second beauty was a 35-yard bullet that hit L’Damian Washington in his gut with a defender draped on his back to set up the Tigers second TD of the game. Franklin fit it into such tight coverage that it was hard to tell until the replay whether Washington actually caught it.
But perhaps the prettiest pass of them all was Mizzou’s third TD that gave the Tigers a 21-14 lead midway through the third quarter. It was another needle threading job in the corner of the north endzone with Franklin lofting it high enough to allow Washington to out-leap Everett before twisting and falling to the ground with the ball pressed to his chest.
And oh yes, it happened in the north endzone, too, where so many Mizzou football dreams have always gone to die. When the refs initially called Washington out of bounds, it sort of figured. But a replay review overturned the call on the field, which should have been the first sign that this was going to be no ordinary Saturday night for the Tigers.
At last there was a reason to celebrate, not bury your head in agony.
Finally, there was nothing wicked, cruel or unusual in store for these Tigers, who proved just how special they are. Finally, Mizzou has a team capable of exorcising the ghosts. Mouths dropped. Hearts fluttered.
So this is what it looks like on the other side of the nightmare.
Enjoy the view.