Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
For the past four years, either Missouri or Georgia has represented the East in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Tigers and Bulldogs find themselves on the outside looking in as they face off today (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) in Athens, Ga.
Missouri has lost two of its last three games, at Kentucky and against Florida. Georgia has lost two straight, to Alabama and at Tennessee. In the process, Missouri (4-2, 1-2 SEC) lost its starting quarterback, Georgia (4-2, 2-2) lost its tailback, and both teams lost their top-25 rankings.
With multiple L’s in the SEC, getting a W is a must if either team hopes to keep its visions of ATL alive. But the most significant loss between the two might have been that of Georgia tailback Nick Chubb.
Chubb was second in the SEC and eighth in the country with 747 rushing yards before suffering a devastating knee injury last Saturday at Tennessee. His absence marks the third straight year Missouri won’t have to face Georgia’s top tailback. Todd Gurley was suspended days before the teams met in 2014 and missed the 2013 matchup with an ankle injury.
The 2013 game was a memorable one for the Tigers, as their 41-26 defeat of Georgia established them as a serious contender in the East. Last year’s game was one Missouri would like to forget. The Tigers lost 34-0 in their first home shutout in a more than a decade.
“I don’t even want to remember that,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “… Once that game was over, I couldn’t wait to get that out of my head.”
The Tigers struggled offensively in that game, turning the ball over five times and gaining less than 150 total yards. The numbers haven’t been quite that ugly, but the Tigers have struggled offensively this year as well. Missouri has had 300 total yards of offense just once this year against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Missouri’s straits would be more dire if not for its defense. The SEC’s worst scoring offense has been kept in games by the conference’s best scoring defense. Teams are averaging just 13.5 points per game against the Tigers’ D in its first year under coordinator Barry Odom.
Missouri gave up two touchdowns in Florida’s first three possessions last Saturday but shut down the Gators the rest of the game.
“I was proud of the way that defensively we responded and played down the stretch,” Odom said. “You never want to give up a score. We gave up two. You’ve got to get the ball out. There’s some good things we did. We responded well in a sudden-change situation. We were decent on third downs, but our ceiling is to be better than that, and at the end of the day, we didn’t play well enough to win a football game. That’s frustrating that I didn’t have them prepared enough to go win one.”
Today, Missouri’s defense faces the SEC’s second-best rushing offense as it begins life without Chubb in earnest. Sony Michel will look the fill the void. Michel has run for 421 yards this year, more than any Missouri player, and he already has seven touchdowns this year — tied for sixth-best in the SEC.
The Bulldogs’ offense is coached by first-year coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who held the same position from 2012-14 with the St. Louis Rams.
Brothers said Georgia’s offense doesn’t seem to have changed much since last season, judging by the film of the Georgia-Tennessee game.
“They actually just ground and pound,” he said. “I understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, but regardless, it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
Georgia is quarterbacked by Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert, who has completed 62.1 percent of his passes this season for 1,098 yards, nine touchdowns and an interception.
Behind center for Missouri is true freshman Drew Lock, starting his third collegiate game in place of suspended starter Maty Mauk. After a strong, if limited, performance in Missouri’s win against South Carolina, Lock struggled against a stout Florida defense. He threw two interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown — and completed just 41 percent of his passes.
Lock is far from the only young contributor on the Missouri offense. The Tigers’ depth chart lists seven underclassmen at receiver — including two true freshmen at second string. And with junior Sean Culkin questionable with a knee injury, sophomore Jason Reese could once again be the main tight end used in the passing game.
Head coach Gary Pinkel has no delusions about his team’s lack of experience at quarterback and receiver.
“Let’s put it together and have some fun,” he said. “And that’s just the way it is. I mean, that’s the way it goes. There’s no excuses. We’re not going to ask for things and say, ‘Well, we’re a real young football team, especially the full perimeter.’ We’re not doing that, so we’ve got to play well.”
Lock said the young offense has had to adjust to the disappointment of failing to score a touchdown against Florida.
“We came off of a high against South Carolina, as far as (my) first start, winning, we played well, scored some points,” Lock said. “… We’re going to adjust to this down, obviously, of only scoring three points, but I think we’re maturing quickly, and we have to, playing at a young age.”
Lock would do well to mirror Mauk’s first game against Georgia; he completed all three passes while closing out Missouri’s win at Georgia in 2013. Since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012, the home team has never won between Missouri and Georgia.
“Revenge will be sweet,” Brothers said. “Last time we went there, we won, and it’d be nice to do it again.”
Notes: Today is Georgia’s Homecoming game. Missouri is coming off a 21-3 Homecoming loss to Florida. … Georgia defeated Missouri 41-20 in 2012 at Faurot Field in the Tigers’ first conference game as a member of the SEC. The Bulldogs are 3-1 all-time against Missouri, having defeated the Tigers 14-0 in the 1960 Orange Bowl. … Missouri hasn’t lost consecutive games since 2012. … Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) currently sits in first place in the East, though the Gators’ quarterback Will Grier will miss the rest of the season to suspension. Next are Kentucky and Georgia, each 2-2 in SEC play, followed by Missouri and Tennessee, which are 1-2 in conference.