COLUMBIA, Mo. – At the halfway point, Missouri's season was on the verge of ruin.
Losing to lightly regarded Indiana at home was one thing. Just one of those stinkers to be shrugged off.
Getting smoked 34-0 by Georgia two weeks later while the student body retreated back to the dorms was the true turning point. The Tigers were 4-2 after the loss, seemingly on the way to justifying preseason predictions that the defending SEC Eastern Division champions had nothing for an encore.
Emotions in the locker room emotions were raw.
"It was tough, it was rough," quarterback Maty Mauk said. "Personally, I'd never shut out in my life and I know a lot of other people hadn't either. How we bounced back, that's how you want it to be."
Coach Gary Pinkel let players know he believed in them, but also put his foot down hard. Committing five turnovers had him really riled.
"I didn't flip out on them," Pinkel said. "I said, 'Everybody's frustrated, disappointed. But we have a chance to do something about it." He added: "I think we can be really good still."
There has been no real wow factor about Missouri this season. But there has been no looking back since that game, either. The key drive, the critical stop, the game-changing takeaways — it's all been there just enough to keep the program rolling.
The Tigers finest quality, perhaps, is perseverance.
Missouri (10-2) is ranked 14th and totes a six-game winning streak into Saturday's conference title game against top-ranked Alabama (11-1) in Atlanta. Last week's comeback from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat Arkansas and repeat as top dog in the East was the latest, hard-earned triumph typical of the second half of the season.
They're far from the high-scoring outfit Missouri has become accustomed to, topping 40 points just once and leaning on a defense that could be Pinkel's best in 14 seasons. They began their current six-game winning streak with a 42-13 victory at Florida but the last five have been decided by 10 or fewer points.
They led Vanderbilt by three points late in the fourth quarter before Bud Sasser's 25-yard touchdown catch, trailed Texas A&M by a touchdown in the third quarter before charging ahead on two touchdown runs by Russell Hansbrough, and pulled ahead to stay after halftime at Tennessee.
Andrew Baggett missed two extra-point kicks against the Volunteers, making the 29-21 victory over the Volunteers interesting for the wrong reasons, then rallied with gusto against Arkansas with the first two 50-plus yard field goals of his career.
Mauk passed for just 97 yards against Georgia and was intercepted four times, but has totaled three picks against eight TDs since then. Most of those games, he was dealing with a nagging injury to his throwing shoulder.
"If you look at him in high school and here a little bit, you see he has the ability to make big plays," Pinkel said. "He's showing that right now when it comes to crunch time."
Sasser made two clutch plays to key the Arkansas victory, a 25-yard sideline grab that set up Jimmie Hunt's 4-yard score the following play and a conversion pass off a reverse that tied it at 14.
Markus Golden's fumble recovery with 2:13 to play clinched the Arkansas win. Golden and fellow defensive end Shane Ray have combined for 22 sacks, and during the winning streak the defense is allowing just 281.5 yards per game.
"That's all I've heard about, how good their defensive line is," Alabama offensive tackle Austin Shepherd said.
No matter how it happened, the bottom line speaks volumes for a school that after its initial SEC season in 2012 had appeared outclassed. None of the Tigers seem to care that they are two-TD underdogs against Alabama.
"This is what we've worked for, this was the goal we've set," Golden said. "I knew we were going to be in this position and we've just got to keep going hard."