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Keeler: Road to SEC East title now runs through Columbia -- the one in Missouri

With big win at Georgia, Missouri is gaining respect as a legit contender in the SEC East

There are no "buts" between the hedges. There are no such things as "half-wins in the Southeastern Conference. No asterisks. No apologies.

So before the world starts calling for Missouri to hand its 41-26 victory at Georgia back to the league office because of the Bulldogs' rash of injuries, it's worth nothing that: a) the Tigers' biggest drive of the game happened under the direction of its backup quarterback and b) the Tigers' biggest touchdown pass of the day was, in fact, thrown by a wide receiver.

It's like a wise puppet once said: Do, or do not. There is no try.

Saturday presented a chance at the program's first road win over a top 10 team since October 1981, when gas was $1.35 a gallon and MTV was only a few months old. The Tigers took it. No conditions, no regrets.

And so, in a span of a few hours, the script in Columbia flips, the stakes and the storylines amped to a crushing, beautiful volume.

The 6-0 Tigers can't look ahead, but you sure as heck can. And funny how that schedule keeps smiling back.

No. 17 Florida at home.

No. 14 South Carolina at home.

Tennessee at home.

Trips to Kentucky and Ole Miss.

Until the Tigers host Johnny Football and Texas A&M on Nov. 30, there isn't a tilt left on the docket, you'd think, in which they shouldn't be favored.

And yet ... 

A rose is a rose is a rose, right down to the thorns. The Tigers snatch the catbird seat in the SEC East race, affirm their stance as real, honest-to-goodness players in the best football conference in the country, and the quarterback who helped get them there, James Franklin, separates his right shoulder. It's always something, isn't it?

So CoMo turns its lonely eyes to redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, who'd thrown all of three passes as a collegian before being thrust into relief duty at Sanford Stadium.

At first blush, the kid kept his cool on the big stage -- a good sign. Although the Ohio native's best toss of the day, with 9:22 left in the contest and the Tigers up by just two, was technically a lateral.

What started as the slowest screen play in the history of western civilization was, as it turned out, a complete deke, in which wideout Bud Sasser flashed to Mauk's right, snared the backward swing pass, then waited and waited ... 

And waited ... 

And waited ...

... and lofted a rainbow up the right boundary, which L'Damian Washington fought for and snatched in the end zone to push the lead back to eight, 34-26. 

It was a schoolyard play with genius timing, the final jewel in an afternoon that saw Washington (seven catches, 115 receiving yards, two scores) crowned as the king of Athens.

Of course, the eye test always said that the Tigers could run with the Dawgs, given space. The burning question was whether they could maul with them, slug it out with them, in the trenches, the tightest of corners. Banged up or not, Georgia had won 15 straight at home; whatever you get there, you have to earn.

"Grown man football," Dawgs quarterback Aaron Murray called it last year after Georgia had run roughshod in the second half up at Faurot Field. That 41-20 home setback to Murray and his pals on Sept. 8, 2012, set the tone for the disappointing 5-7 campaign that followed.

On Saturday, the Tigers sacked Murray twice, picked him off twice, converted one of his strip-fumbles into a 21-yard touchdown, and held the ball for 30:37 to the Dawgs' 29:23.
 
Who's the grown-up now?

"I just think we earned a little more respect," coach Gary Pinkel told the Associated Press. "The respect level just went up a couple of notches."
 

And the road to the SEC title game now runs through Columbia. Just not the Columbia that everyone expected.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.