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PREVIEW: Missouri taking SEC swagger into Cotton Bowl

Missouri offensive linesman Max Copeland, left, and quarterback James Franklin walk off the field after losing the SEC championship game to Auburn. The Tigers were among the best teams in the SEC in 2013 and are looking for a win in the prestigious Cotton Bowl today vs. Oklahoma State. (Reuters)

Missouri offensive linesman Max Copeland, left, and quarterback James Franklin walk off the field after losing the SEC championship game to Auburn. The Tigers were among the best teams in the SEC in 2013 and are looking for a win in the prestigious Cotton Bowl today vs. Oklahoma State. (Reuters)

Missouri, which will face off against Oklahoma State in today’s Cotton Bowl, slogged to two conference victories during a maiden voyage through the SEC in 2012.

The perception was the Tigers were out of their league and the reality was they were doomed to a losing season for the first time since 2004.

But senior receiver L’Damian Washington said the Tigers set “high, high goals” before the start of this season. Among the goals was a national championship.

Seriously? Missouri was picked sixth in the seven-team SEC East and oblivious players were talking about pie in the sky?

Let the record show that Mizzou was part of college football’s upper crust in 2013.

“Not too many teams at the end of the day when week 13 came around can say they were playing for a national championship,” Washington said after falling to Auburn in the SEC title game.

“Basically it was Florida State, Ohio State, Auburn and us who played for a national championship yesterday out of every team in the nation. So you have definitely got to have some pride in that. We are just happy with the outcome we had this year. We fell a little bit short, but definitely it was a successful season.”

Missouri jumped from 5-7 in 2012 to 11-2 in 2013 to orchestrate the second-biggest turnaround in college football this year. The Tigers lost in the SEC championship game to Auburn, which was responsible for the biggest turnaround in college football this season.

Asked to talk about the bounceback year, Washington said it’s hard to put into words. “But I think whenever you have great leadership, anything is attainable.”

Missouri’s leader is Gary Pinkel, who can gain sole ownership of the title of winningest coach in school history with his next victory. Pinkel is 101-63 in 13 seasons. Don Faurot won 101 games while coaching the Tigers from 1935-42 and 1946-56.

Pinkel was named as one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, presented annually by the Football Writers Association of America.

Under Pinkel’s guidance, Missouri evolved from a team that did not receive a top 25 vote in preseason to a team that will take a No. 9 ranking to the Cotton Bowl.

“We got respect back around the country,” Pinkel said one day after the SEC title game defeat.

“Obviously, I am still disappointed. We were so close to maybe playing in the national championship game. But you have to live with that and that’s part of the deal. We are hoping to learn from it so if we can get back to that game again, maybe we can play better.”

Missouri’s only other loss this season came in double overtime to South Carolina. The Tigers played that game without starting quarterback James Franklin (third in school history in career total offense) and starting cornerback E.J. Gaines. What caliber of player is Gaines? In a regular season finale against Texas A&M, he limited All-America receiver candidate Mike Evans to 8 yards on four catches.

Mizzou beat A&M by “only” seven points. Every other win was achieved by a minimum of 14 points.

The Tigers are trying to reach the 12-victory plateau for only the second time. On the way to a school-record 11 regular season wins, they went 5-0 on the road for the first time since 1979 and, for the first time, won three road games against conference opponents who recorded at least seven victories.

The numbers reinforce what the Tigers knew (never mind what those outside the program were saying) heading into the season: This was a good football team waiting to happen.

“That was our goal at the beginning of the year, just to get Mizzou back in the old traditional way of winning, and I think we’ve done that this year,” Washington said. “Our goals aren’t over. We’ve got to win the bowl game.”