For the last twelve years, this has been the happiest week of the year in this gold-and-black-bonkers town.
It has been only during these precious days, the few directly after opening night on the gridiron, that Missouri fans can guarantee that they are at least tied for the top spot, no matter the bracket. The Tigers haven’t lost an opening game under coach Gary Pinkel, and that’s why for the past decade-plus, this, today, has been Christmas in September. Someone get those guys presents.
This year is no different. Make your list and hang your stockings, your Tigers are 1-0 once again, this time thanks to a 58-14 melting of Murray State at scorching Faurot Field on Saturday.
Everything you could have asked for showed up under that tree of lights, though they made you wait a while.
After a first quarter that saw Missouri fumble, miss a PAT, shake, bait and fall for a flea-flicker and eventually finish behind to Murray State, it looked like maybe, just maybe, Santa may have missed the exit on Interstate 70. Three minutes into the second quarter, the drenched and dizzy student section fell silent as Andrew Baggett missed another kick, this from a measly 30 yards out, the disappointed disciples of easily extinguished hope.
But then just as it were told, something came hurtling out of the sky to give the children back their grins. E.J. Gaines, who spent so much of last season chasing numbers and cleaning messes, flew through the air to grab a ball that wasn’t his, splashing water on the crowd and the Tiger offense, which went on to score 45 unanswered points.
Missouri opened last season with a 62-10 shellacking of Southeastern Louisiana in a game that was basically won by two kick returns. That’s a less dependable formula than what the Tigers showcased on Saturday, when the names and numbers under the TOP PERFORMERS tab — James Franklin: 318 yards, 3 TD; Russell Hansbrough: 104 yards, 2 TD; Henry Josey: 113 yards, TD; Dorial Green-Beckham: 4 rec, 83 yards — offered a cocktail nostalgia and excitement.
When Josey sprinted past defenders — despite a bad angle — for a 68-yard score, literally stomping on the same patch of turf that robbed him of his legs 658 days ago, well that was confirmation that if anything is sure its that this year will not be like last’s.
Yes, the schedule is still brutal, quasi-monstrous even, with Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M leading a list of dangerous teams so long even the ones snubbed have snipers. But the Tigers have their backfield healthy and unlike last year, they’re no longer the new kids in class. On top of that, they don’t have to go to school right away.
Missouri’s conference schedule doesn’t start until October 5 at Vanderbilt. That’s a far cry from last season, when Georgia came to Columbia just a week after Southeastern Louisiana and welcomed Missouri to the SEC, Bulldog style. Two weeks later the Tigers were in South Carolina, 0-2 in conference before the first day of fall.
The last time Missouri finished a season with ten wins was two years ago, when it didn’t open its conference schedule until six games and more than a month into the season. Vanderbilt will be game five, giving the Tigers ample time to work out the kind of kinks that crippled them in 2012.
They still have the big boys to beat, the Georgias and Floridas and South Carolinas and Mississippis. Those defensive lines will be bigger and those cornerbacks will be faster, some even too fast for Josey to outrun when he has the angle. But this time around the Tigers won’t be forced to jump right in the pool.
They have more than a month to find out exactly who they are before the task gets taller. That’s enough time to test the water and for the snow to melt.