(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JAKE KREINBERGAssociated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - L'Damian Washington didn't hesitate to identify the secret to Missouri's surprising success this year.
''If I had to pick an MVP of this season, it's the whole offensive line,'' the receiver said.
A group of five contrasting personalities, the offensive line for the fifth-ranked Tigers has collectively become the heart and soul of a team just one win away from the Southeastern Conference championship game.
''I wouldn't call it redemption as much as I would call it rebirth,'' guard and spare-time philosopher Max Copeland said.
Lighter practices and a stroke of good fortune have allowed the Tigers to start the same linemen in nine of 11 games, a far cry from last year when only one lineman was healthy enough to start all 12 games.
Players say the continuity allows them to become more comfortable on the field and focus on the opponent rather than on helping a new teammate become acclimated. Because many practice drills are technical in nature, any time missed takes on greater importance.
Statistics verify those assertions, as Missouri finished tied for 12th in the SEC last year with 138.5 rushing yards per game as part of a 5-7 campaign. This season, the Tigers (10-1, 6-1 SEC) rank second in the league in both rushing yards (238) and points (39.7) per game.
''Without us, the running game wouldn't happen,'' tackle Justin Britt said. ''We don't ask for the fame. We understand the role on the team.''
Sometimes the job is simply to keep the Tigers on the field, as was the case last Saturday in a 24-10 win at Ole Miss.
With 8:08 remaining in the game, Missouri possessed the ball and a two-touchdown lead, but also vivid memories of frittering away a 17-0 fourth quarter advantage against South Carolina. The Tigers wouldn't experience a case of deja vu, though, as they used 13 rushes and two quarterback kneels to run out the clock.
The prolonged drive set up this week's titanic matchup with No. 19 Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3), which defeated Missouri 59-29 in College Station last year. The Aggies' defense has regressed since then, yielding an SEC-worst 221 rushing yards per game and allowing 324 yards on the ground at LSU in a 34-10 loss last week.
A win would tie Tigers coach Gary Pinkel with Don Faurot for the school record (101) and earn the school the chance to capture its first conference championship since 1969.
''This is about self-respect, and the way we get that is by doing our job on Saturday,'' Copeland said.
There's always time to mix work with play, though.
The offensive line leads the team in sing-a-longs before practice every Wednesday and conducts ''Christmas Thursdays,'' where the group dances in the parking lot to seasonal tunes after watching game film. Adding to the spectacle is the lengthy facial hair affixed to each lineman - tackles Britt and Mitch Morse, guards Copeland and Connor McGovern, and center Evan Boehm.
''As you would have guessed, we've got varying personalities and so forth,'' co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker said. ''I think they work together because they respect each other, because they all work hard, they all care about the team and they all care about the guy next to them.''
Quarterback James Franklin says having the same linemen each week makes him feel more secure in the pocket, and adds that the fun they have helps other players lighten up. Boehm explained that the line's antics are only meant to ease the stress of the season.
The same holds true for his new hairdo.
''This is what the season's all about, is going out and having fun,'' said Boehm, who usually sports unkempt dirty-blond curls. ''And what's a better way to go have fun than doing some designs and getting some cornrows in your hair?''