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Mark BradleyMark Bradley

Missouri winning the SEC East? Still hard to believe

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The team from the Show-Me State showed the SEC. (Butch Dill/AP)

The team from the Show-Me State showed the SEC. (Butch Dill/AP)

HOOVER, Ala. – The coach of the reigning SEC East champion took the podium this morning, and it still comes as a surprise that said coach is Gary Pinkel of Missouri. Not that Pinkel isn’t good at his job. (He demonstrably is.) But even now, Missouri’s achievement hasn’t been afforded its due. What the Tigers did was astonishing.

The SEC is a snooty place. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.) SEC folks believe the best football, if not the only real football, is played in the Deep South. Missouri isn’t located in even the Shallow South. It’s as Midwest as you can get. For the Tigers, who figured to add more to the SEC in basketball than in football, to win the East in Year 2 as a conference member deserved to resonate more than it has.

Why hasn’t it? Probably because Auburn’s worst-to-first rise, built on the strength of the season’s two most famous plays, trumped Missouri’s feat for drama — and also because Auburn beat Mizzou 59-42 in the SEC championship game. But also because the East, at least to those in the Deep South, wasn’t so much won as lost.

Florida got hurt and went 4-8. Georgia got hurt and went 8-5. South Carolina, as ever, lost the game it couldn’t lose. (To Tennessee, which would finish 5-7, in Knoxville.) Missouri barely registered until it came to Athens and beat Georgia on Oct. 12, and beating Florida the next week a lot of folks expected the Tigers to spit the bit. Sure enough, they lost to South Carolina in overtime the next week, which meant they’d have to win out to hold on. To their immense credit, they did.

In 2012, its maiden SEC voyage, Missouri went 2-6 in conference play, the two victories coming against Tennessee in OT and Kentucky. Four of the Tigers’ league losses came by 21 or more points. They seemed, in a word, overmatched. A year later they graced the Georgia Dome on the first Saturday in December and gave Auburn a go until the fourth quarter.

It would be nice to report that the season ahead looks to be a time when Mizzou could consolidate gains. Alas, that won’t happen. The Tigers are without quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey, receiver L’Damian Washington and the hugely heralded wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who was booted from the squad. The defense is missing Michael Sam, the SEC’s co-player of the year, and Kony Ealy, who was nearly as good.

Pinkel makes no apologies for his program — he noted that Missouri ranks among the nation’s 10 winningest programs over the past eight years, even with its “crummy” 2012 season thrown in — but almost nobody believes his Tigers will repeat as division winners. On the contrary, Missouri figures to be picked fourth in the East behind Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

Which doesn’t mean that Missouri’s improbable SEC East championship didn’t happen. It did. Kudos all around.

More Media Days fun and frolic:

From Tuesday: There’ll be no sudden rise for Jones’ fallen Vols.

From myajc.com: At 69, Spurrier can see success without SEC titles.

Also from myajc.com: Auburn’s Malzahn will have a tough time topping 2013.

From Monday: SEC Media Days – way too much of a dull thing.

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