As the clock began to wind down on the second quarter in Saturday's Missouri - Kansas game, I said to no one in particular, "Maybe it was a rebuilding year." I didn't like the sound of that, nor the looming specter of a 7-5 regular season record.
Thirty minutes or so of football later, after Derrick Washington had weaved his way down to around the Kansas five-yard line, and Missouri was positioning the ball directly in front of the goal posts for Grant Ressel's fourth field goal of this glorious afternoon, I was feeling really, really good about the state of Missouri football. This was a very big win! This win was the difference between night and day.
We'll never know what might have been. Because of the ankle injury that Blaine Gabbert suffered in the rain during the first quarter on October 8th, we'll never know if a healthy Gabbert would have directed the Tigers to their third straight Big 12 North Division title. Coming into this season, I expected no less from this team. This was a young team, but Gary Pinkel's most talented team to date. That fourth quarter on that Thursday night at home against Nebraska, when a hobbling Gabbert fueled the Cornhuskers' momentum with his first two interceptions of the season, is all that separates the Tigers from a trip to Dallas this Saturday to play in their third straight Big 12 Championship game.
Notwithstanding what we'll never know, there is what we do know, what we learned about the Tigers this season. Youth and inexperience were at times a hindrance. Gabbert turned out to be more inexperienced than I knew, but showed great toughness while playing hurt, and appears to have emerged from his mid-season injury playing like a more seasoned QB.
Some of the other young guys have really stepped up, too. As the season went along, several young players have emerged, and appear to be on track for stardom at Missouri. Dominique Hamilton, and the Smiths, Aldon and Jacquies, Will Ebner, Zaviar Gooden, and Kip Edwards are all exciting young players who are demonstrating that they will form the nucleus of a promising defense. A year in the program, and of maturity, will help safeties Jasper Simmons and Jerrell Harrison play to the level of their considerable talent next year. Jerrell Jackson is stepping into the spotlight, and Rolandis Woodland is beginning to emerge from the shadows. Kendial Lawrence looks like he will be a star, and the young offensive linemen have established themselves.
As disappointing as it is to not be playing in Dallas this Saturday, an 8-4 season, with a chance to go to 9-4 in a bowl game, is not a rebuilding year. Missouri reloaded while winning 8, or 9 games. The Tigers fought through adversity, and bounced back from a tough mid-season stretch, and a disheartening home loss to Baylor. Riding the crest of a three-game win streak into a very winnable bowl game, after closing out the regular season with a double-comeback win over the Jayhawks feels just great! The horizon couldn't be rosier! That rosy horizon, like the Tigers' big win on Saturday, is the difference between night and day.