COLUMBIA, Mo. — Growing up in Kansas City, Shane Ray was a "Big 12 kid." Through his redshirt season in 2011, Missouri was a Big 12 school.
Three years later, the Tigers find themselves competing for a berth in their second consecutive Southeastern Conference championship game.
"When we moved to the SEC, I realized the program was going into change," Ray said. "Being young, I realized I had to be a person that would help build this program."
Ray, a junior defensive end, leads the league with 13 1/2 sacks and 19 1/2 tackles for loss. He highlights a unit that, in conference play, ranks second in total defense (302.6 yards per game), first in rushing defense (109.3 yards per game) and tied for first in sacks (26).
Missouri (9-2, 6-1) also owns the SEC’s longest active winning streak on the road (10 games).
To clinch their second East Division championship outright, though, the 17th-ranked Tigers must win at home Friday against Arkansas (6-5, 2-5), which has shut out LSU and Mississippi the last two weeks. Should Missouri lose, Georgia will advance to the SEC title game.
"They know it’s out there," Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. "I’d like to believe they understand that all their attention and focus has to be on themselves. You don’t want your players playing with any fear at all. You want them to play with a lot of confidence."
Confident or not, many of the Tigers will be playing with a lot of emotion. The team plans to honor 19 seniors before the game, each one individually recognized and hugged by Pinkel as he walks onto the field.
The coach, a self-described "basket case," said it will probably take a few minutes into the first quarter until he can pull himself back together.
"You grow such a great bond because you go through so much together," left tackle Mitch Morse said. "It will be a sad day. I’ve had way too much fun with the guys, and I told them how much they mean to me and how they’ve made this season of mine so special."
Morse — "the dad of the offensive line," according to center Evan Boehm — said he’s fortunate his final home game could have a lasting impact on the school. Two years removed from a 5-7 season filled with a myriad of injuries, Morse knows how many variables need to add up to find success.
Missouri found a winning formula last year, when it lost to South Carolina before winning its final four matchups to clear the Gamecocks by a game in the standings. The Tigers lost 34-0 to Georgia this season on Oct. 11, but have won five straight to set up a win-and-in game against the Razorbacks.
"We’ve just got to get out there and play hard and do it," said senior defensive end Markus Golden, who has 8 1/2 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. "We’ve set ourselves up for greatness, and we’ve got the chance to achieve it."
Missouri will need one of its better performances from its offense, which has eclipsed 400 yards the last two games but still averages only 360.7 yards — 13th-best in the SEC. The team also commits a league-high 7.9 penalties per game, including 12 last Saturday at Tennessee.
"It’s the biggest game of the season," senior running back Marcus Murphy said. "We’re going to come out and give a championship performance."