I've been wanting to chime in about this for some time, both here and elsewhere. Not many people thought the Tigers would amount to much this year (or ever) in the SEC. Given the consistent dominance of Florida, UT, Georgia, and recently USC, most thought they take their place next to Vandy or UK in the pecking order.
Now people are asking, "How did they get here from there?"
I've watched Missouri football for years and years. It was one of the schools I considered attending as a student-athlete when I was in high school. Just like UK, it was one of those schools that couldn't quite get over the hump in a heavily biased and supported conference hierarchy. There were a lot of Big 12 conference games against top teams where those big boys got favorable calls to boost them into the big money bowls. The Tigers got the bad end of the stick more than a few times.
The move to the SEC was a great one for them in many ways, but the opportunity to excel was one of the best. Who knows if it will continue, but it's awesome to see them take advantage of it this year.
That still doesn't answer the question, though, because teams don't usually go from 2 conference wins and a losing record in one season all the way to a division title. Not without top 5 recruiting classes and someone named Saban or Bryant coaching the team, right? Pretty much.
The differences were that they were not a known quantity to anyone and they weren't as bad last year as they looked on paper. I watched them play a few games in 2012. They were a missed assignment here and there from being an 8 win team, winning 3 more games, or a 2 win team losing 3 more. It's what they did and what you knew they could do from there that made the difference.
The fan base was behind them, they had continuity and were growing into a veteran led club. They hadn't played easy competition as they grew, either. Last year their out of conference games included Arizona State, U Central Florida, and Syracuse. Their conference slate included conference front runners Georgia, Bama, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas A&M. The last three in that list were road games as well.
Early in 2012 they played the team that would win the SEC East, Georgia, and led the game 17-9 and again 20-17 deep into the 3rd quarter before The Bulldogs pulled away late. That bright spark got them through some dismal games where they got trounced to say the least.
The thing is, they never gave up. No matter how far behind they were, they just kept working their offense and their defense, trying to get better. The results are evident this year.
They wound up losing to Georgia and South Carolina by 21, Bama by 32, and A&M by 30, while losing close games to Vandy by 4 and Florida by 7.
This year they turned the tables on almost everyone. They took it to Vandy, winning by 23 in Nashville, @Georgia, winning by 15, beating the Gators soundly by 19 points and A&M by 7. They made up a lot of ground on the Gamecocks, controlling the game for 3 quarters before going conservative and losing the lead late in the 4th and the game in OT by a FG. They also put some distance between them and others, beating both UK and Tennessee by larger margins than they had in 2012.
They learned from their adversity and stayed focused and determined. They beat who they were supposed to and played whistle to gun for all but one game, putting themselves into the SEC Championship Game in just their 2nd season of SEC football. I'd be willing to bet they didn't look back, except to motivate them for the future.
They didn't let their talk become defeatist. They didn't listen when people told them they couldn't win in the SEC. They won and they won big with a roster that isn't stacked equally with the talent of Florida, Bama, or LSU. They did it in the SEC East, where they were supposed to be "another doormat" for the powers that be. Along the way they earned 3 road wins in the SEC. Yep, 3. 2 against Eastern Division and 1 from the West.
The way that Missouri got where they are right now from where they were in the Big12 and where they were last year is simple. They didn't believe with their mouths and with their fingers.
They believed with their feet.
They took hold of their "destiny" with their hands and shaped it. They looked and listened carefully, spurning the words of negativity and seeing defeat only as a tremendous opportunity for growth. They turned "you can't" into "we did" as all great people and teams do.
Follow in their footsteps, but make your own path, Kentucky.