COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Gary Pinkel wanted Missouri players to celebrate the SEC East title, representing a great leap forward for a school that didn't look ready for the new league a year ago.
Pinkel has a coaching milestone to relish, too, with his 101st victory tying legendary Don Faurot for most at the school.
Thousands stormed the field after the fifth-ranked Tigers beat Texas A&M 28-21 in their regular-season finale Saturday night to earn a berth in the conference championship game, and they stuck around for several minutes to soak it in. Everyone involved was a bit giddy, the coach included.
"This is awesome, this is great," Pinkel said. "Honestly, I'm just so happy for the players and the team."
But he also reminded players there's more to do. Referencing the late Don James, a longtime coaching mentor, Pinkel said his job to help everyone adjust mentally in a hurry and begin preparations for Saturday's title game against No. 4 Auburn in Atlanta.
"Coach James would say, 'Get the guys back fast. Get their heads back fast,'" Pinkel said. "I'm honestly — I'm so happy and so excited for my players and team.
"But we've got to flip this thing."
Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC) certainly did a good job of flipping Texas A&M aside, rallying from a 14-7 halftime deficit with 21 points after the break.
Henry Josey's tie-breaking 57-yard touchdown jaunt with 3:34 to go ended frustrations against one of the nation's worst defenses against the run.
"I thought it was pretty cool," quarterback James Franklin said. "In my head, I was thinking it was time for Henry to break for it."
The defense stepped up with big stops in the fourth quarter and held Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to 216 yards in total offense.
"We made some plays. You have to make plays, it is not magic out there," Pinkel said.
Missouri is almost as big of a surprise entrant as Auburn, which stunned previously top-ranked Alabama to win the West. After going 5-7 in 2012, expectations were low.
The school has invested heavily in the conference move, and Pinkel was rumored to be on the hot seat even though the losing season ended a run of eight straight bowl appearances.
"It is big-time for this program, especially from where we were last year," center Evan Boehm said. "Everyone counted us out at the beginning."
"We knew we were going to have a special group of people, but an SEC championship is way beyond my expectations," linebacker Kentrell Brothers said.
While noting Auburn's rise from just three wins last year, Pinkel also pointed out Auburn has a long tradition of success. For Missouri, Pinkel said this season has been a "mission."
"Our guys got back here in January and what they did is they said, 'Well, this is what we have to do.' January, February, March, methodically going through their schedule, the preparation," Pinkel said. "I told you before, these guys play, they flat-out play."
Missouri has 11 wins for just the third time in school history, and twice under Pinkel. One more victory, and a BCS berth awaits.
Pinkel said whoever emerges is definitely deserving.
"My only concern with the BCS is I never felt strength of schedule was significant enough," Pinkel said. "That certainly will have to be taken into consideration, but we can't do anything about that.
"All we can do is win a game."