Don’t look now, but Missouri is 5-0. Coach Gary Pinkel’s team had a rough, injury-plagued debut in the SEC in 2012, but it came into this season healthy, as most teams do. (Ignore Florida out of the corner of your eye. If you make direct contact, your lungs will burst.) Apparently, health was all the Tigers needed to rattle off five early-season wins, as many as they tallied all of last year.
It’s not a secret how they’ve been able to enter their trip to Athens undefeated. Missouri runs the football well, and the run sets up the pass, allowing quarterback James Franklin to get favorable coverage for his three favorite targets: Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington.
Mizzou has a formula that most teams — especially in the SEC — would like to follow. But it’s easier said than done at times, and health certainly plays a factor in that. Just ask Georgia, which has already lost two receivers (Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell) and a running back (Keith Marshall) for the season. Receiver Michael Bennett is already out for the game against the Tigers, and star tailback Todd Gurley is “doubtful,” according to Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“Georgia, man, I feel for them,” said Missouri running back Henry Josey, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. “They’re having some of the things we had last year on this team, and you’ve got to find someone else to step up and offer encouragement to everybody that you’re still the same team no matter who goes down. … It’s just so hard to watch your team play from the sidelines, but you have to smile and show them you’re working to get back and get better. They have to just keep fighting the whole time.”
Missouri has four players, including Franklin, with at least 35 rushing attempts on the year. Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough average 8.4 and 7.9 yards per carry, respectively, and a healthy Josey (54 carries, 307 yards, six touchdowns) is capable of taking on a heavy workload and picking up tough yards. The offense has looked much more cohesive since Franklin got completely healthy and Josey returned to the field.
While a 4-0 start in nonconference play that included wins over Toledo and Indiana was encouraging, a 51-28 victory over Vanderbilt to open SEC play finally got Missouri national recognition. The Tigers entered the week ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll. Mizzou went up 30-7 at the half, including a 20-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, and the outcome was really never in doubt.
“There is chemistry and determination on this team,” Pinkel said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “A combination of both of those and high leadership skills affects the whole team. This team wants to win. We are willing to pay the price to do that, and I felt that these guys had it in them. They have taken that goal really personal, especially the seniors. Most of the seniors have been here for five years and they went to bowls every year except last year, and they want to get back.”
Georgia has a Heisman candidate in quarterback Aaron Murray. It has a host of talented backups, including receiver Chris Conley and freshman running back J.J. Green. But for the Bulldogs to withstand their rash of injuries, the defense has to show it can hold up its end of the bargain. The Dawgs are allowing more than 32 points per game and needed a Pig Howard fumble while reaching for the end zone in overtime to escape an upset bid from Tennessee in Week 6. Georgia ranks 78th in the country in defensive S&P on passing downs, and Missouri’s spread attack will hope to exploit that on Saturday.
The test against Georgia is going to be tough, and winning between the hedges is never easy, no matter how banged up the Bulldogs are. If Missouri were to somehow pull out a win, though, the door to the SEC East would suddenly be wide open.
Kicking is winning
Most fans talk about college kickers for their knack for costly misses. For Georgia, the opposite is true. Richt has enough confidence in Marshall Morgan that he sent the sophomore out on Georgia’s first drive against the Volunteers to attempt a 56-yarder. Morgan drilled it. Later, he kicked the game winner in overtime against the Vols.
Morgan also converted a 55-yard attempt against LSU on Sept. 28. He’s only had to attempt eight field goals through Georgia’s first five games (he’s 6-for-8), as the Bulldogs have converted many scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Morgan missed the first two games as punishment for boating under the influence charges.
If the offense shows a little rust with new players suddenly stepping into key spots, Morgan’s role becomes more important. Special teams outside of the kicking game hasn’t been Georgia’s best friend, and it’s an area Richt has repeatedly mentioned the Dawgs need to address.
Now in its second season in the SEC, Missouri can no longer play the newbie card. The Tigers weathered their transition into a different style of play, and with the league as a whole moving to a high-scoring pace behind strong quarterback play, it seems like Mizzou never left the Big 12.
“There are guys with the same size and the same speed as guys on your team,” Josey said about playing in the SEC. “Usually it’s just whoever has the better day and who wants to win that next play. I love the competition, and usually I just can’t wait to play the next one.”
Eight SEC teams are averaging 30 or more points per game, and this isn’t a league dominated by strong cornerbacks, defensive linemen and running backs anymore (although there are still plenty of great players at those three positions). Quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger, Murray, AJ McCarron, Connor Shaw, and by and large, Franklin are bringing a new element to an already dominant league.
Missouri has played in plenty of shootouts before, and the league’s shift to points on points on points could end up benefiting the Tigers down the road.
• Missouri WR L’Damian Washington: While Missouri’s three running backs put up the biggest numbers, the Tigers’ offense might ultimately tip the scales on the outside. The 6-foot-4 Washington averages 15.5 yards per catch and can sneak behind the defense for a critical play.
Washington’s father died when he was young, and his mother passed away when he was a sophomore in high school. The second youngest of four brothers, he had to take care of his younger brother until he eventually enrolled at Missouri. His brothers mean everything to him. His teammates look to him as a leader on the field.
“When you lead by example and you’ve overcome the things our players know he’s overcome, and you’re still an exceptional person, student and football player, you have great respect for guys like that,” Richt said during the weekly SEC teleconference.
• Georgia RB J.J. Green: Coming into the year, Green was a bit of an afterthought. With the duo of Marshall and Gurley, the Bulldogs’ backfield was crowded, and Green could take his time learning behind two very good players. Now Marshall is out for the rest of the year and Gurley is nursing a sore ankle. Green might have to take center stage for this week and possibly beyond.
“If he wasn’t a mid-year enrollee, I don’t even know if he’d even be playing tailback right now,” Richt said during his weekly press conference. ”We didn’t have a lot of backs for the spring and we wanted to see what he could do there. When we signed him, we weren’t sure if he was going to be corner or wide receiver. We didn’t really think tailback. We kind of saw a need in the spring, and he was willing to do it. He learned it, and he actually was pretty darn good at it in the spring. We feel like he’s found a good home.”
The freshman, a three-star recruit from Kingsland, Ga., got 17 carries against Tennessee after Marshall went down and piled up 129 yards. If Gurley is unable to go, Green could be a real key to determining whether or not the Dawgs can pull out a win.
• Bill Connelly, SB Nation, Rock M Nation and lots of other places: “All I can say is that Mizzou is 12th in the F/+ rankings, so their performance to date has not simply been a mirage or a product of an iffy schedule. The Tigers have been great on offense and good enough on defense. The bottom could always drop out, especially if injuries kick in again, but their performance through five games has been legit. And I would say they will never have a better chance of beating UGA in 2013 than this week. The timing is perfect with the injuries the Dawgs have suffered.”
• Senator Blutarsky, Mumme Poll: “What’s that line from Major League? ”We should’ve got the live chicken?” I can’t figure out if it’s the sheer numbers or the weirdness [of the injuries] that gets me more. I mean, who loses their top receiver to an ACL tear celebrating a touchdown?”
The extra point
This game is going to tell us a lot about both Missouri and Georgia. The narrative keeps shifting with the Bulldogs — from the opening week loss to Clemson, to the wins over South Carolina and LSU, to a narrow escape at Tennessee — and now it’s on overcoming injuries. There’s no question Georgia at full strength is a top-five team, but just how much attrition can it take?
On the other side, Missouri remains a mystery. A loss at Georgia wouldn’t derail the Tigers’ season, but it would silence the talk of Mizzou as a dark horse contender in the SEC East. Win, though, and the Tigers open a lot of eyes.
When it all plays out, I still think the Bulldogs win at home. They know the stakes, and every guy that goes down forces the rest of the team to rally and become a tighter unit. Sooner or later, that defense will pull it together, even if it doesn’t happen this week.