KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What's said in the locker room stays in the locker room, except when a voice booms through the walls. The Missouri locker room was a blasting zone of emotion after the Tigers' 19-15 home loss to Vanderbilt.
“It better hurt!”
And a moment later ...
“We are better than that!”
Coach or player? I didn't get the license plate, but the players who spoke afterward understand the stakes.
“We're upset,” kicker Andrew Baggett said. “A lot of guys have put a lot into this. The more you put into it, the more it hurts.”
Missouri reaches halftime of the regular season at 3-3, a record that falls somewhere north of disaster and south of meeting expectations, although based on sports' most neutral source of information — betting lines — the Tigers are right on schedule. They won as an underdog at Central Florida and lost as a favorite to Vandy, and held serve on lines with Georgia, Arizona State and South Carolina.
Still, those who have long followed Missouri's program believed this would be a smart-money kind of season. The Tigers would surprise their new SEC mates, running an offense that had its share of success against good, if not top-notch SEC caliber, defenses.
That's what makes what's happened to this point ultimately discouraging. Hopeful of making a good first impression, the Tigers instead stand 0-3 in SEC play.
There's nothing Mizzou could do about the poor timing — South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are elevating the Tigers' East Division to the most top heavy in college football — but Vandy was supposed to be a pivot in the right direction.
“We get Vandy at home for a ”Gimme“ and our first SEC win, and our Starting QB gets hurt when he was rolling and moving the ball,” tweeted former Mizzou basketball player Kim English during the game after James Franklin injured his knee.
A terrible run of injuries to Franklin and the offensive line has undermined the preseason promise, and it's becoming painfully obvious to the Tigers that O-line depth is a requisite for SEC competitiveness.
Stocking up on front-line beef has always been important; now it's about survival in a conference that dominates the sport on the strength and skill of its heaviest athletes.
Most SEC teams also discourage their quarterbacks from venturing outside the pocket except in emergency situations. Franklin, who had led the Tigers to 123 yards on two possessions, left the game after taking a helmet to the knee on a scramble. The scoreboard for Franklin shows seven missed quarters this season because of hits absorbed in two conference games, and the total is about to grow with Gary Pinkel's postgame announcement Saturday that Franklin wouldn't play against Alabama this week.
Even as the wounded population grew, Mizzou still would have won Saturday and changed the perception of its season with better focus. They couldn't overcome dropped passes and the three points surrendered in the kicking game, among other offenses.
But given the problems, the season isn't lost. Think about where Missouri was at this juncture a year ago.
The record was 3-3, with Oklahoma State, which would go on to win the Big 12, headed to Columbia. The Cowboys rocked Mizzou, and although the locker room wasn't melted by angry voices, Pinkel spoke of the team's “frustration and anxiety ... because they're used to winning at a higher level.”
The muscle memory of success eventually kicked in. By winning the final three regular-season games, the Tigers clinched their seventh straight bowl season. Winning that postseason game gave the Tigers an eighth triumph, and they haven't won fewer since 2005.
The eight-victory 2012 season streak seems out of reach, which makes bowl qualification the primary objective.
For the dreamers who believe Missouri could compete for a division title right off the bat, that won't be enough. But in a new home, and painfully adjusting to a new culture, matching the first-half record of 3-3 would be an achievement.
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