ATHENS – It’s getting to be a tired refrain, really. But what other choice do the Georgia Bulldogs have at this point but to say, “We’re really, really concerned about [ENTER OPPONENT HERE].”
Enter Missouri here.
The Tigers arrive at Sanford Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, SECN) dragging a 1-4 record, owning a winless ledger in SEC play, and sporting the conference’s worst defense both in total yards (459.2 per game) and scoring (40 points per game). Meanwhile, No. 4-ranked Georgia (6-0, 3-0 SEC) is coming off its third consecutive blowout of an SEC opponent. After the 45-14 win last Saturday over Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have won their three conference contests by a combined 100 points, or 33.3 per game.
Appropriately, that’s right about where the betting line is for this game. Georgia is favored by 31 points.
The good thing for the Bulldogs is there is so much on the line at this point, there’s not much chance that they’d overlook anybody. But coach Kirby Smart is taking no chances.
“We have a good opponent to get ready for,” he said after detailing Missouri’s “explosive” offensive and “underrated” defense at his weekly news conference. “It will be a good challenge for us. Obviously, their record does not indicate how good they are, and we know that as coaches. Our job is to get that message to our players.”
Later in the week, the players acknowledged that they have received that message and are buying in.
Here’s what the Bulldogs have to do to move to 7-0 for the first time since 2007:
Keep Tigers grounded
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock carved up the Bulldogs a year ago in Columbia, Mo. At least he did in the first half. Then a sophomore, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Lock passed for 2 of his 3 touchdowns in the first two quarters. He finished with 376 yards through the air.
But Lock also threw 3 interceptions and Georgia ultimately was able to hang on for a 28-27 victory after Jacob Eason connected with Isaiah McKenzie with 1:29 to play.
The Bulldogs can’t afford to let the Tigers hang around as long this time, and that means they’ll have to control Mizzou’s passing attack. That won’t be easy as the Tigers feature many of same weapons they used last season – namely J’mon Moore. Moore is a 6-3, 205-pound senior wideout who got loose last year to the tune of 196 yards on 8 catches and scored TDs of 79 and 6 yards. And he’s not the only weapon they can unleash.
Meanwhile, because of Missouri’s quick game and hurry-up tempo, it’s difficult to get pressure on the passer. Georgia’s secondary will be tested to a degree it hasn’t faced all season. Senior defensive backs Dominick Sanders, Malkom Parrish and Aaron Davis will need to lead the way.
Possess the football
Because of Missouri’s quick-strike, high-octane offense, it’s more important than ever that Georgia keep it off the field. The best way to do that is by orchestrating long, time-consuming drives on offense itself.
The Bulldogs have been able to do that for the most part. Only Arkansas has dominated time of possession more in the SEC. Georgia’s holding on to the football on average just shy of 33 minutes per game. Missouri, by contrast, has held it 21:59 a game.
Obviously running the football is the best way to do that, and everybody knows Georgia is capable of that with its stable tailbacks, led by seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. But that also can be done by completing a lot of passes and keeping the sticks moving. This might be a week where quarterback Jake Fromm and Georgia’s receiving corps can show some more progress.
Missouri is vulnerable on both counts. The Tigers are 11th in the league against the run and 13th against the pass, hence an SEC-worst 40 points and 459 yards per game. So the Bulldogs can kind of pick their poison here and take whatever the Missouri defense is giving, which apparently is a lot.
Stuff the run
As well as Missouri throws the ball, it actually wants to run the ball first. And the Tigers have a pretty good option in that regard in sophomore Damarea Crockett. The 5-11, 225-pound sophomore is third in the league in rushing at 89.8 yards a game and is averaging 6.3 yards a carry.
Meanwhile, a lot of Missouri’s short passes are utilized almost like runs, from forward laterals on jet sweeps to quick hitches and flanker screens in the flat. This is all designed to keep perimeter defenders and defensive backs guessing and creating a numbers advantage for the backs.
Only Alabama (73.3 yards per game) has been better than Georgia (86.0) at stopping the run. And Georgia has one of the best linebacker units in college football, led by Roquan Smith, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. But the Bulldogs will be severely challenged to maintain or improve upon that position.
This area will be one of the more decided advantages Georgia has enjoyed in any game this season. Missouri just flat out hasn’t been good on special teams.
The Tigers do punt the ball well, averaging an SEC-best 47 yards a game and allowing only 4 returns for less than a yard all season. But they enter the Saturday contest last in the SEC in punt-return average and kickoff coverage. Also, the Tigers have missed 3 field-goal attempts and an extra point this season.
Georgia has some areas in which it can improve as well. The Bulldogs have experienced a decided downturn on punt returns in the absence of Isaiah McKenzie, averaging just 7.8 yards a return with no touchdowns.
Only Auburn’s Daniel Carlson has recorded more touchbacks on kickoffs (37) than Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship (29).