The path cleared for the Missouri football team in the Southeastern Conference in more ways than one Saturday.
The Tigers defeated Mississippi 38-27 on homecoming to cap an extended homestand with their fifth straight win. But that’s not all. Their primary competition in the SEC East, Georgia and Florida, lost on the same day.
Missouri leaves the comfort of home for the next month, starting a series of road tests that will bring definition for better or worse. Halfway through the regular season, the Tigers have plenty to play for between now and when they next play at home Nov. 16 against the Gators.
“We’ve got to find a way to win one next week,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said of next Saturday's game at Vanderbilt, which is 1-5 after a 34-10 home loss to UNLV. “I know it’s boring. Nobody wants to look at the here and now. But for us, we better have a really, really good Sunday meeting, off day on Monday, helluva practice on Tuesday, a better one on Wednesday, a great one on Thursday and find a way to go win a game on the road.
“Then hit the reset button and do it again.”
Long before Missouri made a goal-line stand to preserve a five-point halftime lead against Ole Miss, before it put 23 points on the board in the third quarter, before quarterback Kelly Bryant threw for 329 yards, before running back Larry Rountree rushed for 127 yards and before receiver Johnathon Johnson caught eight passes for 110 yards, the Tigers were glued to television screens in their game-day hotel.
The afternoon contest between Georgia and South Carolina was on the tube, and the .500 Gamecocks, who Missouri dismantled 34-14 three weeks ago, handed No. 3 Georgia its first defeat of the year in a double-overtime thriller.
“There was a little uproar,” said Missouri running back Tyler Badie, who gained 93 all-purpose yards and caught a 49-yard touchdown in primetime Saturday night. “Everyone was a little bit excited. You know what I mean?
“At the end of the day, we control our own destiny.”
Moments after Missouri moseyed its way off Faurot Field after its victory, No. 5 LSU sent No. 7 Florida to its first loss of the season by a score of 42-28, making Missouri the only team in the East without a conference loss.
Johnson didn't know the Tigers are in first place until asked about it by a reporter.
“When you all bring it up,” Johnson told local media in a postgame scrum, “we pay attention to it, but other than that we’re just trying to stay focused on what our goals are for this year and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Point well taken.
But regardless, now seems like a fitting time to give credit to a program that has not looked back since its Laramie Letdown back in August.
The Tigers have beaten each of their past five opponents by double digits.
Until facing Ole Miss’ fierce rushing attack and multiple-look, two-quarterback offense, Missouri had surrendered no more than 61 yards rushing per game. Ole Miss managed 204 yards on the ground against Missouri in the Tigers' first game without senior linebacker Cale Garrett, but the MU offense more than made up for it.
Missouri executed a balanced offense of 233 yards rushing and 329 yards passing, converting 9 of 15 on third downs and recording eight drives of 60 or more yards. The Tigers put 28 unanswered points on the board after falling behind 7-0.
“It just shows that we don’t blink,” Rountree said of the resiliency. “When anything happens, we’re ready to score. The only thing we talk about is defense doing their job and offense doing our job. Whatever happens, we’ve got to go out and score points. Our job is to go out there every drive and score, and that’s the standard.”
The standard the Tigers have cultivated at home, they now take on the road. Matchups against Vanderbilt and Kentucky lead into a bye week before a date Missouri must have circled on its calendar: Nov. 9 "Between the Hedges" at Georgia.
If not before then, we’ll learn a lot more about this Tigers team that day. And it’s safe to say they will also learn a thing or two about themselves as well.
This season’s trajectory will take shape by the time the Tigers next play in Columbia.
“It definitely will be good stepping out of our comfort zone and getting into a different environment,” Badie said of the next month, “just seeing what’s all out there, flying around and stuff. We’ve been at home for a long time.”
“It’s nothing different,” Rountree echoed. “You’ve just got to go out and not do (any) more than what you’ve been doing.”