Mizzou gets the last laugh on doubters who said Tigers couldn’t ‘handle’ the SEC

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Gary Pinkel grinned to the heavens. Henry Josey ran to moonlight. Ray Charles sang to the stars, lifted by the public-address system at Memorial Stadium, as tens of thousands in black and gold danced and dreamed and pinched themselves silly on the turf below.
“Georgiaaaaa …” Brother Ray sang. “Ohhhhh, Georgiaaaaa …”
“It’s crazy,” Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers said, beaming, after his Tigers beat Texas A&M, 28-21, to clinch the program’s first-ever SEC division title and a berth in the league’s championship game in just its second season as a member institution. “No one expected it. I knew what we were capable of. I knew that we were going to get it done.”
Mizzou — the Boston Red Sox of the old Big Eight, Fifth Down U, where Scott Frost’s heave somehow found Shevin Wiggins’ foot, where gridiron glories have been crushed like so many aluminum cans — is the king of the SEC East, Atlanta-bound.
Think about that for a second. Dropped onto the block where Georgia (48 bowl games all-time) and Florida (41) and Tennessee (50) and South Carolina (18) call the tunes, Team Pinkel — 7-1 in the league, 11-1 overall — was the last one standing on the floor.
“Oh, it’s been great,” Brothers continued. “We’ve always heard that we don’t belong in the SEC, that we’re not good enough, we need to stay in the Big 12.
   
“But this year, we took the SEC by storm. I mean, game after game, people would continue to dog us.”
 
Every week, it was a new, “Yeah, but …”
 
Yeah, but Georgia was decimated by injuries.
 
Yeah, but Florida had a turkey calling the offensive plays.
 
Yeah, but Tennessee was going through a regime change.
 
Yeah, but Kentucky, come on!
 
Spare us.
 
No lousy caveats. No stinking apologies. No asterisks.
“Yeah, that’s something that always motivated us,” Brothers said. “We hated hearing that. If (excuses) were the case, we could’ve said the same thing last year.”
  
A year ago at this time — it feels like longer — the Tigers were putting the bow on a 2-6 record in SEC play, their first since jettisoning the Big 12. And oh, how the critics howled. Little Mizzou, a “basketball” school, had taken a bridge too far, a path to sure-fire gridiron irrelevance, all for a money grab. Kansas fans doubled over in laughter.
 
The Tigers are a victory away from an SEC title, which means a berth in the BCS title game — the big crystal ball — is very, very much in play.
 
Who’s laughing now?
“I mean, that’s awesome; it’s just awesome,” senior left tackle Justin Britt said. “But what we want is the SEC Championship hardware. That’s our goal. That’s what we’ll strive to get.”
  
It was a night won the way the division was won — defensively. The Aggies, led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at quarterback, notched 11 first downs at the half. They managed just four in the fourth quarter. First-half yards: 226. Second-half yards: 152. A&M’s final three possessions netted a grand total of a yard.
 
“If you can hold Texas A&M to 21 points, you’re playing pretty good defense,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “And that’s an understatement.”
It was a night won on the guile of senior quarterback James Franklin (233 passing yards, 80 rushing yards) and the grit of junior tailback Henry Josey (96 rushing yards), whose healthy return this fall after a long, painful comeback from knee problems seemed to galvanize an already airtight locker room.
 
So it seemed only fitting that it was Josey who broke the tie, taking a third-and-1 carry from his own 43 with 3:34 left in the game, cutting back to his left, and racing into the clear.
 
“We kept telling him, ‘Hey, they’re flowing with us, watch that cutback right there,'” center Evan Boehm said.
 
“I was blocking my guy and I heard cheering and I saw him running,” was how Britt recounted Josey’s 57-yard touchdown run, his third of 50 yards or more this season. “And I don’t know if you guys know this, but he’s pretty fast.”
 
No lousy caveats. No stinking apologies. No asterisks.
 
It’s Mizzou, 2-6 in the SEC last year, versus Auburn, 0-8 in the league in 2012, for all the peaches Atlanta has to offer.
 
Just an old sweet song …
 
The long and winding and crazy road leads to the Georgia Dome, in a matchup that few in August thought remotely possible, much less sensible.
 
“You couldn’t have written a better script,” senior wideout L’Damian Washington said.
 
Or a better ending.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter (@seankeeler) or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.