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Post The next biggest game of the year

Friday October 11, 2013

I guess we’ll find enough players to put together a team and take the field. Suddenly a game most of us overlooked has become a potential turning point for the season and a contest to remain atop the SEC East.

Missouri has to come in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. They struggled through 2012 with a 5-7 record. Many SEC partisans scoffed at their results and questioned whether they belonged in the league. But that Missouri team was hit with significant injuries from the start, and they were never firing at full strength. That’s changed in 2013. They’ve started strong, they’re fairly healthy, and they’ve been able to cruise to a perfect 5-0 record entering this weekend’s game at Georgia. Now a program that was mocked and patronized for much of last season has a chance to turn the SEC East on its head midway through the season. It’s the beginning of a tough stretch of consecutive games against Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. They’ll be plenty worn down and tested by the end of October, but they come to Athens riding high and confident.

The Crowd

I think we all know how noon kickoffs usually go. There’s usually not much at stake – it’s Homecoming or a cupcake opponent or something. Mark Richt knows it too. He’s spent more time than usual this week imploring fans – especially students – to show up early and in force. It’s a reflection of two things. One is the magnitude of the game. Missouri became yet another ranked opponent, and the winner will remain undefeated in the division and the conference. The other is a tacit admission that Georgia needs every edge they can get in this game, and the crowd could be the kind of factor it was in the LSU game. I expect that the stands will have some openings at kickoff, but those who do show up will be in full voice.

The Mindset

One thing is sure after the escape at Tennessee and the magnitude of the injuries: there’s no overlooking this game. A few weeks ago we’d describe this as a trap game – a potential upset of a complacent favorite with a sleepy noon kickoff. That’s out the window. The potential for the upset is still there of course, but Georgia’s gone from any possibility of complacency to a situation of triage and survival. The injuries on offense have raised the stakes for the defense, and they’ve spend all week hearing about their problems and the threat posed by the Missouri offense. Aaron Murray and his next wave of receivers have had to stay after practice to hold a crash course in the routes and timing they’ll depend on in the game.

So I don’t worry about Georgia’s mental edge or focus. I also think they’ve had time to get over the shell-shock of what happened at Tennessee. What does concern you is the physical and mental exhaustion. Not only have they played consecutive down-to-the-wire SEC games, but several key guys will be playing a lot more than they’re used to this week. On one hand, the team is about as battle-tested as you can get. On the other hand, Missouri hasn’t had to bloody themselves much so far.

The Start

A few weeks ago, we noted that LSU came into the Georgia game with a ridiculous 62-3 edge in first quarter scoring. Missouri’s first quarter edge isn’t as pronounced, but they are still outscoring opponents 64-23 in the first 15 minutes. What’s odd is that this edge is most pronounced against opponents from the major conferences. Missouri jumped on Indiana and Vanderbilt by a combined 34-0 in the first quarter.

Georgia has taken the opening kickoff in the past two weeks and put points on the board. They held their own against LSU in the first quarter (no small feat) and had Tennessee down 10-0. Another strong start won’t guarantee success, but a quick start by Missouri could put a ton of stress on Georgia’s pieced-together offense.

The Line

Georgia’s 42-20 win at Missouri last season was an impressive job, coming on the road against an opponent amped up for its SEC debut. We all had a good laugh over “old man football” and enjoyed tweaking the newbies as they struggled in their first SEC season. We forget though that Missouri held the upper hand for much of the first three quarters, and Georgia didn’t take their first lead until the final minute of the third quarter.

What turned that nailbiter into a runaway win? We can put a lot of it on Jarvis Jones doing Jarvis Jones things. In a more general sense, Georgia’s pressure forced turnovers, and the offense put the game away with a couple of short-field scores.

With so much attention paid to skill players on both teams, it’s easy to overlook line play. Fortunately Georgia has been spared along its lines, and they’ll need all hands on deck. Missouri did a good job against the Georgia run last season, holding the Dawgs to 113 yards on the ground. They’re quietly 3rd in the SEC against the run and give up just under 120 yards per game. But along with a pretty good run defense, Missouri can bring pressure. Only Arkansas has more sacks. With that kind of pressure from relatively few men, Missouri can drop defenders into coverage and leads the SEC with 11 interceptions.

Getting back to last year’s game, can we expect Georgia’s defensive line and pass rush to have the same impact that Jarvis Jones had by himself? That’s asking a lot, but it’s Georgia’s best chance of slowing down the spread passing attack of Missouri. Ray Drew has been very effective at defensive end, and Leonard Floyd has become dangerous off the edge. This would be a really good week for Jordan Jenkins to step up. He had his first sack against LSU and is still among the best on the team at quarterback pressure, but he was relatively anonymous last week.

The Little Things

Some leftover thoughts:

  • We hope the newcomers at tailback and receiver can run and catch well. I’ll also be interested in how well they block. Can Green and Douglas pick up pressure? Will Reggie Davis or Blake Tibbs make the key block that turns a 6-yard run into a 35-yard run? The ability and willingness to block is often what keeps some of these guys on the bench, and so much of our offense depends on blocking by the receivers and backs.
  • Will tight ends Lynch and Rome (whose ankle is now in much better shape) feature more in the passing game with so many receivers out? Or, conversely, if Missouri’s pass rush off the edge is causing problems for the line and tailbacks, will a tight end be forced to stay in for protection?
  • Though the Missouri passing game gets special attention thanks to Georgia’s issues in pass coverage, the Tigers actually lead the SEC in rushing with over 250 yards per game. It’s truly a team effort. No Missouri player is averaging over 76 yards per game, but four players are getting at least 50 yards each game and over 5 yards per carry.
  • Missouri’s rushing attack includes quarterback James Franklin. Franklin was dinged up last season but has emerged in his senior year as one of the SEC’s most dangerous dual threats.
  • Georgia had been doing better against the run in games against North Texas and LSU, but Tennessee put up 189 rushing yards behind a stout offensive line. Missouri presents a slightly different running style – more Clemson and South Carolina than LSU and Tennessee. Can Georgia have better success against a spread running game than they had earlier in the season?

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