Division championships don’t have to be pretty. While national titles require dominance and style to rise in the rankings, division titles are decided by a cold, calculated comparison of records.
Wins don’t have to be pretty either. And Missouri, a team whose only productive player for half of the game was its kicker, pulled out a 21-14 win over Arkansas on Friday. The Tigers' victory means a team who suffered embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia claims the SEC East title. The division title, the No. 17 Tigers’ second straight, will send them to Atlanta to face either Alabama or Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game. Had Missouri lost, Georgia would have claimed the division title and conference championship game berth.
After trailing 14-3, Missouri closed the game with 18 unanswered points as its offense demonstrated renewed vigor in the second half. First, the passing game found its stroke as quarterback Maty Mauk found Jimmie Hunt -- who had a brutal first-half drop that would have moved the Tigers within the Arkansas five-yard line -- and Bud Sasser for critical completions on a 98-yard touchdown drive. Then the stagnant ground game finally kicked in. After gaining just 54 rushing yards through the first three-plus quarters leading up to the drive, Missouri rushed for 90 yards on 11 players to take a 21-14 lead on a 12-yard run by Marcus Murphy.
The Tigers defense ensured that lead stuck by blanking Arkansas in the second half thanks to a fourth-down stop and a game-sealing fumble. With the Razorbacks driving to the Missouri 37-yard line late in the fourth quarter, defensive end Markus Golden stripped running back Alex Collins and recovered the fumble to preserve the win. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen, who suffered a back injury in last week's win over Ole Miss, was clearly in pain throughout the contest and grew increasingly ineffective as the game wore on and the temperature dropped. Allen finished just 13-of-30 for 133 yards and two touchdowns, and his inconsistency prevented Arkansas from maintaining drives despite earning 5.2 yards per rushing attempt.
It was hard to imagine that Missouri would get to this point back on Sept. 20 when the Tigers fell to Indiana 31-27. A 34-0 blowout loss to Georgia seemed to confirm early impressions. But six games later, the Bulldogs’ beatdown remains Missouri’s only SEC loss. The Tigers remain an odd SEC East Champ; they almost never routed their foes (apart from a 29-point win over Florida,) and didn't beat another conference opponent by more than 10 points. But their beastly front seven, led by standout defensive linemen Shane Ray and Golden, kept opponents in check while Mauk learned to avoid costly mistakes. After his four interceptions against Georgia, he threw just three the rest of the season.
While plenty of jokes can and will be made about the SEC division champ who lost to a team that is currently winless in the Big Ten, all Missouri asks is that you remember to note their title when making those jabs. Then they’ll get back to preparing for conference championship game.