Seventh-ranked Georgia is starting to look more like a M.A.S.H. unit than a football team contending for the SEC Championship.
The news out of Athens last Sunday wasn't good as coach Mark Richt said running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are gone for the season with torn ACLs. He also said running back Todd Gurley is still listed as day to day with his ankle sprain, and wide receiver Michael Bennett will have his knee scoped on Tuesday.
With the mounting injuries, one has to wonder if Georgia’s promising season may come to a premature end when upset-minded Missouri comes into Sanford Stadium on Saturday looking for an upset. Is Missouri good enough to pull it off?
The No. 25 Tigers have been flying under the radar, and many will be quick to dismiss them because their schedule has been tremendously weak. That would be a mistake. Coach Gary Pinkel’s offense is loaded with skill players that will test the Bulldogs’ defense.
The Tigers come into the game with the nation’s seventh-ranked offense averaging 543 yards and 46 points per game. Quarterback James Franklin has been hot passing for 1406 yards with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The remnants of his abysmal junior year appear to be far behind him.
His favorite target so far has been Dorial Green-Beckham who has 364 yards receiving with four touchdowns. The Bulldogs’ secondary will have their hands full with the 6’ 6”, 225-pound receiver who is finally showing why he was the No. 1 overall prospect coming out of high school. Franklin will try to find him early and often to stretch the field and keep Georgia’s defense honest.
In the backfield, Pinkel has taken the running back by committee approach. Russell Hansbrough, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy have combined for 979 yards and 13 touchdowns. Franklin has added 278 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Tigers four legitimate options in the running game. Expect the rotation to continue against Georgia to keep the legs fresh.
Defensively, Missouri is stout upfront. Senior defensive end Michael Sam has been a beast over the last two weeks, recording three sacks in the games against Arkansas State and Vanderbilt. Sam also has 10 tackles for loss. The Bulldogs’ offensive line will need to account for Sam on every down to keep Murray upright.
In the back, the Tigers’ aggressive style is paying dividends in turnovers. They already have 11 interceptions which is second best in the FBS. Senior cornerback E.J. Gaines is leading the way with three picks.
Oddly enough, the defense has yet to recover a fumble, but it might not matter if the interceptions continue.
On special teams, the Tigers are fairly solid except for kicking field goals. Andrew Baggett is just six-of-nine on the year with all of the misses coming on attempts less than 40 yards. The Tigers could have a serious problem if his leg is needed to win the game.
Three keys for Missouri to pull off the upset:
Do the Little Things Right
Winning on the road in a hostile environment is tough enough as it is, but sloppy mistakes and lack of discipline are typically daggers. So far this season, Missouri has protected the ball, converted well on third down and avoided costly penalties. These trends must continue if the Tigers want to win the game.
Put Pressure on Aaron Murray
Since the season opening loss to Clemson, Murray has been on fire passing for 1211 yards with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Between the injuries and Gurley’s probable status, Murray likely will be surrounded by unproven talent. He’s not going to make many mistakes regardless of who is on the field, but Sam must make him uncomfortable in the pocket. If Murray has time, he’ll pick apart Missouri’s secondary.
In the wins over Vanderbilt and Indiana, the Tigers jumped out to big leads in the first quarter. We know teams can score against the Bulldogs’ defense, so Missouri's best chance is to score early and make it a shootout like every other Georgia game this year. If a similar pattern unfolds, Missouri has a strong chance of picking up its first signature SEC win.
Unlike Texas A&M, Missouri has been unable to establish itself as a viable threat in the SEC. The Tigers are improved, but the real test will come Saturday afternoon. Franklin, Gaines and Murphy were on the field last year when Georgia exploded for 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull away for the 41-20 win. The Tigers’ season imploded after the defeat. The heartbreak of the loss and the desire to have a statement game in the conference should fuel Missouri’s motivation.
This year’s SEC is built for Missouri. The Tigers have a dynamic offense that can score a lot of points and the defense is opportunistic. The defense will get after Murray, and Franklin will rise to the occasion. Missouri does enough to win 35-27.
*Stats provided by NCAA.com