COLUMBIA, Mo. – While taking the long way to Missouri, Markus Golden never lost sight of the goal.
Going the junior college route gives the standout senior defensive end so much more appreciation for the opportunity presented by the SEC championship game Saturday against top-ranked Alabama.
"Just to look back and know what was going on when I was in JUCO and thinking it was so long ago, it just came fast," the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Golden said. "To be here and have this situation, to really just live out my dream, is a blessing."
Golden has an older brother who, like Markus, failed to qualify academically out of Affton High in suburban St. Louis but never made it to Missouri. Assistant Cornell Ford, who recruited Golden, said that was a driving force. He will be the first of his family to earn a college degree.
"I think that kind of motivated him," Ford said. "'I'm going to make this happen. I'm going to turn this into something positive.'"
After just a bit of prodding, Golden even embraced a position change. He'd been a star running back in high school and a productive linebacker at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, and initially was against the thought of getting into a three-point stance.
Missouri coaches sensed an opportunity to maximize pass rush potential with linebacker speed.
"He kind of looked at me like I had lost it," coach Gary Pinkel said. "He said, 'Coach, if you think that's the best for me, that's where I'll be the best player, then I want to help the team win and I'll do that.'"
Alabama must deal with two highly productive defensive ends. Both Golden and Shane Ray are first-year starters who were overshadowed last season by NFL first-round pick Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, the SEC co-defensive player of the year.
Ray leads the SEC with 13 1/2 sacks, breaking Aldon Smith's school record, and 20 1-2 tackles for loss. Ray, a fourth-year junior, is projected as an early first-round NFL draft pick.
First things first, he'd like to take home a championship. Last year, Missouri faded on both sides of the ball in a high-scoring loss to Auburn.
"It's huge, controlling the line of scrimmage," Ray said. "It's our job to make the quarterback uncomfortable."
Golden figures to go early in the draft, too. He was hampered early in the season by a hamstring injury but has 8 1/2 sacks and had a fumble recovery that clinched a victory over Arkansas and a second straight SEC Eastern Division title.
"I've seen their defensive ends are really good, they're quick," Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. "We have to get a hand on them blocking them in the running game."
As a reserve last season, Golden had 6 1/2 sacks and came on so strong that by the end he was sharing snaps with Sam.
"Basically, we tell those guys if they want to play more they've got to produce," defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "And he really did. Once he started getting into games, his intensity started showing up, his passion."
Though he hasn't been around that long, Golden has emerged as a leader. Pinkel said the senior "carries the big stick around here."
"He's always been a guy that has always tried to do the right thing," Pinkel said. "He's a company man."
Golden tells teammates facing Alabama can be a defining moment in their lives. He scoffs at the 14th-ranked Tigers, who have won six in a row since a mid-season swoon, being two-touchdown underdogs.
"Of course we see it, but it don't mean a thing," Golden said. "This is a big game, this is big, this is real big. We want to bring home a championship and we believe we can."