Missouri hosts No. 21 Texas A&M on Saturday in a game that is being billed as the Tigers' biggest home game ever.
James Franklin still reads the things people tweet at him. These days, they're mostly filled with praise, which is why the quarterback for No. 6 Missouri – on Twitter, he's @JFrankTank1 – keeps typing, over and over, some variation of: "Thank you!"
But Franklin has not forgotten the other messages. He has many terrible tweets saved, screen shots he took last season or last winter or even last summer, insults captured because he wanted to remember.
"I use it," Franklin said, "as motivation and fuel to the fire."
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There was plenty to work with. The criticism was prompted by Franklin's injury-riddled 2012 season, in which he struggled to stay on the field and wasn't very good when he did play. And it was prompted by the Tigers' corresponding struggles. In their first season in the SEC, the Tigers slumped to 5-7 overall and won just two conference games. It was their first losing season since 2004.
"I thought we were a very good football team last year," senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. "We just didn't put the pieces together."
Or maybe, they simply couldn't put all the pieces back together.
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That the praise is flowing now, to Franklin and his teammates, shows just how much can change from one season to the next – or perhaps, what can happen when people aren't hurt.
Missouri hosts No. 21 Texas A&M on Saturday in a game that is being billed as the Tigers' biggest home game ever. They're not calling it that, of course, but the Tigers, who are ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings, understand what's out there:
A division championship. A shot at the conference championship and a BCS bowl berth. Maybe, if things fall right, a BCS national championship. And yeah, acceptance by others that they belong in the SEC.
"We know what's at stake," Gaines said. "We just have to not think about it. I think we've proved it week in and week out, what we can do. I think we've answered a lot of questions people had about us."
Missouri (10-1, 7-0 SEC) might be a surprise contender, but they have credentials to back up their status. The Tigers rank No. 2 in the SEC in scoring defense (allowing 19.3 points) and scoring offense (39.7 points).
"We've got good players," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "They can play and compete in this league."
As the Tigers struggled in 2012, finishing 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC, it was fashionable to say they simply weren't ready for the competition in a new league, that it was too much of a jump from the Big 12. At the same time, Texas A&M was shredding that narrative, but with Missouri it took hold.
Never mind the Tigers' recent success in the Big 12, winning at least a share of three division championships in their last five seasons in the league and playing in eight consecutive bowl games (a school record). Pay no attention to the effect of a debilitating run of injuries. Just chalk it up to the easy perception – which, given this season's success, appears to have been mostly wrong.
"The perception was it was the SEC that did it," Pinkel said. "We weren't good enough to play in the SEC, the SEC was a much better conference than we anticipated, all those kinds of things. But you can't say anything. All you can do is get ready and go back to work."
In other words, there was motivation to go around.
Along with Franklin, the Tigers lost five of their top 10 offensive linemen for at least some portion of the 2012 season. But Franklin's star-crossed season – and the questions and criticism it prompted – was the most visible. The quarterback, then a junior, struggled to overcome injuries to his shoulder and knee, as well as a concussion.
Pinkel says he's never had a season in his coaching career with a starting quarterback hurt as much. When Franklin played, he didn't play well – in parts of nine games, he threw 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Though some of his struggles were due to the injuries, he also was undoubtedly affected by the attrition in the offensive line.
"When things got ugly, he was hurt," the coach said. "Most of it was not fair."
But it was there, everything from "James Franklin is terrible" to suggestions he should kill himself. Franklin said one guy repeatedly tweeted, "saying things like, 'I hope Alabama breaks my neck,' and stuff like that."
Franklin's reply was something like, "Do you know where I could get some good life insurance?" But Franklin – who has a perpetually optimistic personality fueled by his Christian faith – admits that at some point he let the criticism get to him, allowing doubt to creep in. "I started to believe a lot of it," he said.
Last July, Franklin started a brief firestorm at SEC media days when, asked which fan base is the SEC's rudest, he said: "Well, actually, probably the rudest fans that I experienced were Mizzou, my own fans." Franklin clarified shortly afterward in another interview session, telling reporters he'd meant to single out an individual fan.