You would have been laughed out of the bar in mid-October if you said this, but the Missouri Tigers are in bowl preparation mode. The Tigers (7-5) will face the Texas Longhorns (6-6), an old rival from their Big 12 days, in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl in Houston.
"It's awesome," head coach Barry Odom said. "Any time you have a chance to play somebody in an atmosphere (like) a bowl game, and then you add the historic references to it about having the opportunity to play somebody from a conference that you were once in, that means a great deal to our fan base and I know our kids are excited about it."
The Tigers started the season 1-5, including 0-4 in the SEC, before rattling off six straight wins to close the season. They became the first team in SEC history to start the season 1-5 and finish with a winning record. With a victory against Texas, they would be the second team in college football history to win eight games after such a terrible start (Rutgers 2008).
"Our team has shown great resolve over the course of the year," Odom said. "We didn't play very well on game days early in the season. We were doing so many really good things; we just weren't transferring that over to playing a complete game. Finally, we started getting a little bit better, really in all three phases of the game and doing it collectively together as a football team. Getting confidence, we prepared better as the season went on. We understood who we were. Our margin of error was absolutely zero."
The Tigers' six straight victories were by an average of more than 30 points, and they scored at least 45 points in all six games. They did it with offense, defense and special teams. Throw in better coaching, more fan support and maybe even better popcorn at Faurot Field.
Mizzou's offense is averaging 7.24 yards per play this season. The only SEC schools with a better mark since 2008 both had Heismann Trophy winners (2010 Auburn, Cam Newton and 2013 Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel).
Drew Lock is the only Power 5 conference quarterback this century to pass for at least three TD passes in eight-straight games. He holds school records for most 400-yard games (five) and games with five TD passes (six).
Mizzou is one of just three teams nationally to rank in the top 15 in both tackles for loss (13th) and tackles for loss allowed (1st). Their 2.83 tackles for loss allowed per game average is one pace to be the best mark in FBS history since the NCAA began tracking the stat. Mizzou set the record last season at 2.90.
The Tigers will face the Longhorns, who finished in a four-way tie for fourth place in the Big 12 (5-4 in conference, 6-6 overall), after coming into the season with much higher expectations. New coach Tom Herman was expected to hit the ground running, much as he did at Houston in his previous stop. But they started with an unexpected loss at home to Maryland.
They had close losses to USC (in two overtimes), Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (in overtime), but they never could gain much traction. They never won more than two in a row and they never won more than two in a row.
Herman is impressed with the Tigers' turnaround.
"They're playing some of the best football in the country right now," he said Sunday. "The quarterback (Lock) finished the season with the most touchdown throws (43) of anybody in FBS. They're playing really, really well offensively. I haven't watched them on video, but I know just from the numbers that are pretty gaudy.
"And I want to commend Coach Odom. This is a guy that's had some adversity early in his tenure there and has stayed the course and has turned this season and this team around."
This is Mizzou's first bowl appearance since the 2014 season, when the Tigers beat Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl. That same season, the Longhorns lost to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, then followed with a pair of 5-7 seasons under Charlie Strong. Strong was fired after the 2016 season. The Longhorns replaced Strong with Herman, who led the University of Houston to 22 wins the two previous years.