COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A man approached Mike Slive in the back of the press box at halftime of Saturday night's Georgia-Missouri game. He wore a Missouri T-shirt. He beamed with a giddy smile.
"I just wanted to say thank you so much for letting us in," he told the SEC commissioner. "I'm a teacher here at the school, and this is just so exciting."
Excitement reverberated throughout jam-packed Faurot Field for Missouri's inaugural game in its new conference. A stadium that once depended on visiting Nebraska fans to pump up attendance numbers was filled beyond capacity, with Tigers fans ringing the grass around the Rock M in north end zone. Some spectators were seen tearing up when Slive was introduced during a pre-kickoff welcome ceremony. They even mowed #MIZZSEC into the grass behind the Missouri sideline.
And then, Jarvis Jones and the Bulldogs went and spoiled their party.
By scoring 24 unanswered points over the last 15:51 for a 41-20 victory, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs ensured the Tigers -- like fellow SEC newbie Texas A&M before them -- endured a proper rookie hazing. How seriously did they take that duty? The moment the game went final, receiver Tavarres King tuned to the stands and held up a whiteboard with the words "Welcome to the SEC" inked in black marker. Linebacker Christian Robinson held another: "Grown Man Football." And seemingly half the team jumped into the Georgia cheering section afterward as the fans mockingly chanted "S-E-C" at a fellow SEC member, followed proudly by "Old Man Football" -- a reference to Mizzou defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson's zinger a week earlier.
"They're a good ballclub. They play hard," said Jones. "But this is SEC football."
Give Mizzou some credit. Despite what the final score indicated, the Tigers delivered exactly the type of primetime thriller normally beamed to your living room from Baton Rouge or Knoxville for most of the night. The teams first traded turnovers, then traded touchdowns, and it took nearly a full three quarters for the seventh-ranked Bulldogs to take their first lead, 24-20.
But once they did, Jones -- Georgia's star junior linebacker -- helped seal the deal by turning Tigers quarterback James Franklin into his personal plaything.
With Missouri down 27-20 and stuck at its own 19-yard-line with about eight minutes remaining, Franklin looked to pass downfield. Georgia's All-American linebacker normally rushes the passer, but this time he sat back in coverage, read Franklin's eyes and picked off the pass, returning it 21 yards to the Missouri 1-yard-line. Dawgs freshman Todd Gurley rushed for the dagger touchdown one play later.
"We just needed an extra play," said Jones, who finished with eight tackles. "My teammates look to me as a leader. I'm the one that gets the guys going. I had to step it up."
But then he added an exclamation mark on the Tigers' next possession, racing around end on third and 2, sacking Franklin and swatting the ball out of his hand, causing a fumble recovered by teammate John Jenkins at the Missouri 5. Georgia would go on to add another touchdown shortly thereafter.
"That's Jarvis," cornerback Malcolm Mitchell said nonchalantly.
But there's no understating Jones' display of one-man dominance. It called to mind ex-LSU star Tyrann Mathieu's game-changing forced turnovers last season that helped earn him a Heisman invite. Jones may soon start eliciting similar buzz. At least he should.
"Jarvis is a great football player, obviously," said coach Mark Richt, who disclosed afterward that Jones was playing with a strained groin suffered earlier in the week -- as if it showed. "It may be he's the best defensive player in America."
As crucial as Jones' plays were, neither warranted Richt's assertion as "the one that made me most happy." That came earlier, with the outcome still in limbo, and resulted from a regrettable decision by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
Early in the fourth quarter, just after Georgia took the lead for the first time, 24-20, Mizzou called a fake punt on fourth and 11 from its own 35-yard-line. Punter Trey Barrow took off running. He only made it three yards before Dawgs running back Richard Samuel stopped him cold. In doing so, Pinkel seemingly showed little confidence in an offense that, after scoring on three of four drives in the second and third quarter, was struggling to gain traction, particularly on the ground.
"I've been doing this for a long time and a coach never calls something that he thinks will not work," said Pinkel. "When they work, they are good calls and when they don't work, they are bad calls, and I will take responsibility."
Many of the listed 71,004 spectators (it's believed there were many more inside) likely drove home grumbling about Pinkel's decision. Taking a step back, however, the Tigers' 11th-year head man, who led Missouri to No. 1 in the polls in 2007 and consecutive Big 12 title games in '07 and '08, is the man most responsible for Slive jetting to Columbia on Saturday and to soak in the school's newfound prestige. It's safe to say the nation's preeminent football conference would not have been nearly as interested in Mizzou's mostly undistinguished program of the '80s and '90s.
A moment that seemed implausible just a year ago, and illogical to anyone that still believes realignment should involve a map, felt quite natural when it finally arrived. Curious red-clad visitors from Athens spent the weekend filling up Columbia institutions like Shakespeare's and Booches, while the natives decked themselves out in black-and-gold T-shirts with SEC logos. The SEC, as Slive will repeat for perpetuity, was not looking to expand in 2011, but when the opportunity presented itself and a need arose for a partner to accompany Texas A&M, the league tossed a very lucrative life preserver to a program that once had its heart set on the Big Ten and subsequently fell out of favor with the Big 12.
After a competitive three quarters, "Old Man Football" (or "Grown Man Football," as the Dawgs prefer to call it) eventually wore down the Tigers in the fourth quarter. So, too, did Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who, after a jittery first half, calmed down and finished 22-of-35 for 242 yards, three touchowns and one interception. Gurley followed up last week's breakout showing against Buffalo with 65 yards on 10 carries, most notably a 44-yard dash from his own 8 during a key fourth-quarter sequence.
Mizzou can still be a factor in the SEC East. The Franklin-led spread offense will create headaches for other defenses. "They're going to contend in the SEC," said Murray. But Georgia came into the season the favorite to repeat as division champ, with a chance to win the conference, and Saturday it thrived in its first major test.
"I'm just proud of the way we closed it out," said Murray.
They closed down the party.