On Saturday (6:45 P.M., ESPN2), the Missouri Tigers (1-0) will play host to the #7 Georgia Bulldogs (1-0) in Missouri's first ever SEC Conference game. Missouri is coming off of a 62-10 thrashing of Southeastern Louisiana.
Earlier this week, each team turned their attention toward Saturday's showdown, and Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt provided this assessment of his team's next opponent.
"Missouri's a very impressive team with what they do, and their body types are very muscular, lean, and fast," said Coach Richt. "(Missouri) has an outstanding defense, in my opinion, from what I've seen on film. They're also a team that has an offense that was one of the best in the country last year, led by a QB that is a dual-threat guy, a very impressive guy in (James) Franklin."
"Missouri has an outstanding defense".
Against Southeastern Louisiana, Missouri's defense was barely tested, yet they were very impressive from the outset in that game. On the first play of the Lions' first possession of the game, the Tigers' Michael Sam and E.J. Gaines combined to throw the Southeastern Louisiana ball carrier for a two yard loss. On the next play, Zaviar Gooden quickly dropped into the flat and picked off Nathan Stanley's first pass of the game, and returned it 20 yards for a score.
Southeastern Louisiana managed one first down on their second possession before having to punt. And on the Lions' first play of their third possession, Kony Ealy burst through and flattened Stanley, knocking the ball loose, and Michael Sam scooped up the ball and took it in for Missouri's second defensive TD of the game. With 7:19 remaining in the first quarter, the Tigers led 28-0.
Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel would later say that things "came too easily" during those first eight minutes, and that afterwards his team "lost focus" for the remainder of the half. It was during that "lost focus" portion of the first half that Southeastern Louisiana managed 156 of their 223 yards of total offense for the game.
Missouri regained its focus at halftime, and until Southeastern Louisiana's final possession of the game, when the Lions put together a 13-play, 75-yard TD drive against Missouri's third and fourth stringers, the Tigers defense had surrendered just 11 yards on 18 plays in the second half!
During fall camp, I had observed a much-improved Missouri defense that on most days threatened to dominate the daily competition with the offense. I'm always hesitant to read too much into one unit's success over the other in practice, but what I had seen on a daily basis were defensive players like Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy, E.J. Gaines, and numerous others take turns looking dominant. So, it wasn't a surprise to see them dominate Southeastern Louisiana. As I previewed Missouri's defense, position by position, I just don't see a glaring weakness. I'm convinced that this Missouri defense is much-improved over recent editions, and that is does have a chance to be very, very good.
As Coach Pinkel has repeatedly pointed out this week, the Tigers are about to face a considerably higher level of competition. This week, the Missouri defense will be tested, and we'll begin to find out if Coach Richt's evaluation is accurate.
Against Georgia, we'll also begin to find out if Missouri's return game is as good as it looked against Southeastern Louisiana. And, there's still the question of the virtually untested kicker, Andrew Baggett.
"We have confidence in him," said Missouri Assistant Coach David Yost, speaking of Baggett. "He has the ability. He has a great leg. He has great height on the ball. He attacks the ball for get-off times. So, those things are really in his favor………………………………………… His best kicking is ahead of him."
On offense, the Tigers were both spectacular and frustrating against Southeastern Louisiana. The running game looked terrific! You know, the Tigers did lead the Big 12 in rushing a year ago.
Coach Richt has repeatedly talked about the importance for his team of slowing down Missouri's run game. And, he's expressed concerns over James Franklin's ability to run. Franklin is a true dual-threat QB who has shown proficiency passing and running the football. Against Southeastern Louisiana, Franklin was 13-21-0 for 131 yards and 1 TD passing (130.02 passer efficiency rating), and he had 39 rushing yards on 6 carries.
In talking to Franklin and Coach Yost this week, I learned that Franklin had been nearly perfect against Southeastern Louisiana in his reads in both the run game and in the passing game. Franklin admitted to having made some bad throws, citing the need to improve his footwork. But, Coach Yost pointed out that Franklin "missed" just 4 throws out of his 8 incomplete passes, and he cited dropped passes as responsible for the others.
Franklin thought that Georgia's defense most closely resembles the Texas defense that the Tigers faced last season, from among Missouri's recent opponents.
Look for Missouri to get Dorial Green-Beckham more touches. The match-up between Missouri's receivers and the somewhat depleted Georgia secondary appears to favor the Tigers, especially if Missouri is able to run the football, and hold off the Georgia pass rush.
Coach Yost talked about the challenge of facing such a quality defense.
"There's always little things that we're going to try to put wrinkles in and try to give them looks, and try to put our kids in the best position to be successful," said coach Yost. "Just like I know they will do the same thing. They will attempt to put their kids in the best position to be successful. And we'll try to do the same."
"It's fun to game plan against good defenses," continued Coach Yost. "It's fun to game plan against good defensive coordinators that you know are going to keep bringing stuff at you. And what you see in the first drive and the second drive is not what you're going to see all game. So, they're going to keep pulling stuff out, so you've got to constantly be on your toes. And that's kind of the fun part of the job."
As Coach Pinkel has pointed out, this week's game is historic as Missouri's first SEC game. But it's the outcome of the game against east division favorite Georgia that will set the tone for Missouri's inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference.