In watching the Missouri-Vanderbilt game, it was difficult to tell which team was the one with nothing but pride to play for and which was scratching its way toward a program-turning bowl berth — and not just because both teams wear black and gold.
The Commodores came to Columbia needing to win two of their final three games to reach the postseason for the first time in coach Derek Mason’s three seasons. The Tigers started the night on an 11-game SEC losing streak and 0-5 in the conference this year.
They flipped the script, though, in jumping out to a 19-0 lead and holding on for a 26-17 victory. That was a breakthrough for first-year Tigers coach Barry Odom and a big blow to Mason’s team, which now must beat both Ole Miss and Tennessee in Vanderbilt’s final two games to reach a bowl.
The Commodores (4-6, 1-5) started the night with so much hope, having won at Georgia and given Auburn hell on the road. All four of their previous league losses had come by a touchdown or less. They were close — it seemed.
Missouri (3-7, 1-5) was mired in a five-game losing streak, including a home loss at the hands of Middle Tennessee, and most of those were not close. But that all changed Saturday night, when the Tigers’ offense came to life against a strong Vanderbilt defense.
The Commodores had allowed an average of just 352 yards and 17.8 points the last five games, but Missouri piled up 481 yards and would’ve had more than its 26 points if not for a botched snap by the backup center on first-and-goal at Vanderbilt’s 1-yard line.
Suddenly, it looks like the Tigers, not ‘Dores, have reason to be hopeful about the future. Consider: freshman tailback Damarea Crockett ran 20 times for 154 yards, sophomore quarterback Drew Lock completed 22 of 37 passes for 297 yards and junior J’Mon Moore caught 8 passes for 138 yards and both of Lock’s touchdown tosses. That’s a nice nucleus on which to build a potent offense.
There is no such expectation in Nashville. An impotent offense struck again for Vanderbilt, as quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw a pair of interceptions and was sacked 6 times. Star running back Ralph Webb’s nagging ankle injury limited him to just 11 carries for 34 yards Saturday.
Now the Commodores are going to beat the Rebels and Volunteers with a converted linebacker and career kick-return specialist as the answers in the backfield? Khari Blasingame and Darrius Sims actually performed pretty well against the Tigers — 21 carries, 150 yards combined — but that’s not the long-term ticket.
The most likely outcome now is that neither Vanderbilt nor Missouri makes a bowl game, but the Tigers look like they might have more reason for optimism about next season.