The BCS standings -- a major news item in the world of sport every week but of particular import this time of year -- came out last night, and ESPN was on it. The rankings, according to the frothy stew of digits brewed by the mysterious, perhaps theoretical, soon-to-be extinct BCS formula, as relayed by the Bristol giant:
"1. Florida St
2. Ohio St
Suffice it to say, it's difficult to imagine any other national championship contender -- one representing an actual U.S. state, one of the 50 -- having their name misspelled by the four-letter mothership of sports. The Tigers are having one of the best years in their history -- one of the most remarkable seasons, really, in recent memory -- and no one is really noticing, and no one seems to care. That's OK, though: Missouri is used to this. And Mizzou's fans surely know that more pain is surely coming.
Pat Forde, an excellent college sports writer for Yahoo Sports, is a Missouri graduate. (Lots of people who bake your sports journalism pie went to Missouri, including Wright Thompson, Michael Kim, John Anderson and Matt Winer.) Thusly, he knows his Missouri football, and he always knows what's coming. In October, with Mizzou off to a 7-0 start, stunning the college football world, Forde sketched out the landscape: "Missouri alums know that the critical error or fluke disaster is lurking out there somewhere, waiting to reintroduce itself at precisely the wrong time."
Two days after that column went up, Missouri lost to South Carolina in just about the worst fashion imaginable. The Tigers dominated the first three quarters, taking a 17-0 lead into the fourth in front of a rabid home crowd. (Albeit one that might have been occasionally checking the score of Game 3 of the World Series on their phones.) Behind Connor Shaw, the Gamecocks rallied late, but they still should have lost. Then the Mizzou gods, who hate Mizzou, brought forth :
* An SC touchdown in the final minute to tie;
* An SC fourth-down conversion in overtime to tie again;
* A Missouri doinked chip-shot field goal in double overtime that would have tied it again.
It was a total implosion. It was totally Missouri.
The most famous play in Missouri football history, of course, was the fifth-down play against Colorado. But that one ended up affecting college football more than it did Missouri. After all, that Missouri team ended the season 4-7; it was Colorado, who ended up winning the "mythical" national championship that year (despite a tie against Nebraska and a loss to Illinois), that made that horrible call end up counting. (There's also the crazy "flea kicker" game.) For my money, of all the painful moments in Missouri football history, all of which Forde does a great job chronicling, the most recent worst was 2007, when Missouri was ranked No. 1 all the way into December before losing the Big 12 Championship Game and ultimately being left out of the BCS all together while Kansas, the rival they'd already beaten, got an invitation. Even when Missouri breaks through, something goes wrong.
This year, that South Carolina game aside, not that much has gone wrong. Missouri has taken advantage of a tumultuous year in the SEC East to mostly blitz through the league, smashing Georgia in Athens and blasting Florida and Tennessee. Two of their tougher games were supposed to be their final two weeks, at Mississippi and home against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, but they breezed through both. And now they're in the SEC Championship game. Missouri.
This has been a particular affront to the denizens of SEC Nation, who haven't quite accepted this Midwestern school into its ranks. Texas A&M, the other SEC addition, made a little more sense, but Missouri? They were only here because the Big Ten never had the right fit, you needed an even number of teams and there was a brief delusion that cable television in St. Louis and Kansas City somehow mattered. Missouri's struggles in its first season in the SEC -- when the Tigers went 2-6 and weren't particularly competitive -- didn't help either. This team that had competed for the national title fairly recently and had been a legitimate force in the Big 12 looked outmatched in the SEC, and was mocked for it. Even culturally, there was confusion; when Georgia and Alabama visited Columbia last year, I had several friends in Missouri tell me how overwhelmed the city was when the wild SEC tailgaters arrived. That's not something Midwesterners could possibly be prepared for.
That led to the general sense that that Missouri didn't belong, and was not to be taken seriously. Even after the Georgia win -- which is probably the first real look out moment -- the Tigers' talent level was questioned … they were the interloper catching a few lucky breaks. After the brutal South Carolina loss, they were essentially forgotten. And now here they are, one game away from winning the conference whose members have been mocking them since they arrived in the league.
Which means something terrible is going to happen, this being Missouri and all. Every Missouri fan knows the pain is coming. So the only real question is how. Which scenario is worse?
Missouri finally makes it to the big stage, with everyone watching … and Auburn wipes them out. No, even more painful: Auburn does what it has done all season, keep a game close until something magical happens in the final seconds that makes Charles Barkley do tequila shots for a week and breaks every Mizzou fan heart again.
That one's bad, but here's the most fitting one, I think:
Missouri beats Auburn, somewhat convincingly even. (This could very well happen: Take away the Auburn pixie dust, and a strong argument can be made Missouri is deeper and more talented.) Missouri wins the SEC! They have fought back the Southern guffaws and claimed their place atop the toughest league in the country. And then … Ohio State and Florida State both win, and Missouri ends up shut out of the championship game. It would be the last time an SEC team would ever be left out of a playoff, with the new system coming next year. Missouri would make it to the mountaintop … but not quite.
That would be the Missouri way: To win the SEC the one year winning the SEC doesn't get you a shot at a championship. That's sort of how it has to go down, doesn't it? It may be torture, but hey, at the very least, it'll move Missouri a step closer to getting ESPN to spell its state's name correctly.