The optics of Missouri-Georgia couldn’t have changed much more drastically in a two-week span — from potential SEC East-deciding, top-15 clash to an apparent mismatch — but even after Missouri (5-3, 2-2 SEC) suffered demoralizing upsets to Vanderbilt and Kentucky, it still technically controls its own destiny. If the Tigers pull an upset of their own this weekend, they could still win the division.
Easier said than done.
The prospect of a Missouri upset in Athens, Georgia, (6 p.m. CST Saturday on ESPN) seems farfetched, and not just because of MU’s recent downward trajectory. Kirby Smart’s No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs are one of the best teams in the country on paper, an impressively well-rounded, well-oiled force with a bulldozing rushing attack, a bull-hearted veteran quarterback and a bullying defense.
And Georgia (7-1, 4-1 SEC) has already lost once at home this season, a double-overtime shocker to South Carolina. A second loss between the hedges is twice as unlikely for this College Football Playoff contender.
“In every area,” MU coach Barry Odom said, “they’re solid, they’re strong, they’re big.”
Georgia has two wins against then-top-10 teams in 2019 — Notre Dame in Week 4 (23-17) and No. 6 Florida last week (24-17) in a game that landed the Bulldogs atop the division. Aside from South Carolina’s 20, Georgia has not allowed more than 17 points to an opponent.
That defense is the most imposing factor that makes Georgia hard to beat. The Bulldogs have allowed 77.6 rushing yards per game (No. 4 in the country) and 2.85 yards per carry (No. 11). They are the only team in college football that has not allowed a rushing touchdown all season.
That doesn’t bode well for Missouri, which has run the ball 339 times this year (57.5 percent of its plays) and passed 251 times. The offensive line has faltered in the two most recent losses, and the run game with it.
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley usually likes to run on first down, but he might not have that luxury given the recent blocking woes and Georgia’s ferocious defense. Already, Missouri could be pushed outside its play-calling comfort zone. And if the Tigers get behind on early downs, they don’t have much hope. Georgia has the No. 11 third-down defense in the nation. Its opponents are converting under 30% of their third-down attempts.
“It’s not just running it well on first (down), it’s throwing it well on first,” Dooley said. “We’ve been behind the chains so much. We’re really good on third-and-7 or less, but we’ve had a ridiculous number of 8-plusses the last two games. You just can’t win football games that way, I don’t care who you play. That has a function to do with how you do on first and second down.”
But throwing against Georgia is a challenge, too. The Dawgs are ninth-best in the country with 5.73 pass yards allowed per attempt with a lethal secondary led by senior safety JR Reed and redshirt sophomore cornerback Eric Stokes. Stokes has had a breakout season with eight passes defended, 16 solo tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
The good news for Missouri is that Georgia’s four-man pass rush hasn’t been quite as elite as other elements of its defense; UGA averages 2.25 sacks per game (No. 57 in the country), though linebacker Azeez Ojulari has five of his own this season.
Missouri, more than anything, needs to take advantage of the one clear weakness in Georgia’s defense: It doesn’t force many turnovers. The Bulldogs’ nine takeaways this season are tied for No. 104 in FBS (out of 130 teams). Odom loves to stress the importance of the turnover margin. Whether Kelly Bryant (hamstring) or Taylor Powell is playing quarterback, Missouri needs a zero in that category.
OK, so what about Georgia’s offense?
Well, it’s just about as flawless as the defense. The Dawgs have eight turnovers all year, they are .474 on third downs (No. 18), and they are No. 3 in the country in red zone efficiency with points on 34 of 35 trips.
At its core is perhaps the best offensive line in college football. Georgia has given up four sacks all season, tied for the fewest allowed in the country. Neither Notre Dame (No. 16 in TFLs) nor Florida (No. 27) recorded a sack, combining for just 11 TFLs against UGA. Missouri has just one sack between its last two losses.
“(Georgia’s) so good on point of attack with a double team,” Odom said. “You’ve got to do some things that get them off the double teams quicker than normal ... And then you can’t sit back and wait. You sit back and wait and they’ll be up on you 7 or 8 yards deep, after the point of attack.”
Georgia’s 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle, Andrew Thomas, might be the best player Missouri competes against this season. He’s a consensus top-10 NFL draft pick and has been projected to go top three in some mocks.
“We’ve got to try to find a way to be disruptive and get a tackle for loss here or there,” Odom said. “That’s one of the more pressing keys for us defensively. Try to find a way to get them into third-and-medium-to-long. Not many teams have done that. You pull up third down cut ups and there’s a few third-and-1 and 2s. There’s very few third-and-5-plusses.”
The dominant blocking up front amounts to one of the best run games in the country. Georgia junior tailback D’Andre Swift is the second-leading rusher in the SEC with 838 yards this season and seven touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry, leading the nation’s No. 8 running offense based on yards per carry (5.73 as a team).
Then there’s Jake Fromm, the junior quarterback in whom Georgia has placed its faith multiple times, even costing the Bulldogs young talent at the position. Fromm is inconsistent, but he rarely lets his team down in big games. Against Florida, he was 20-for-30 with 279 yards and two touchdowns; against Notre Dame, 20-for-26 with 187 yards.
“Their intermediate passing game, in the way that Fromm is able to decipher and then deliver the ball,” Odom said. “If you feel like your guy is covered, he’s not. Because (Fromm’s) going to make the shot. He’s going to make the throw.”
Fromm has not thrown an interception in seven of Georgia’s eight games, but when he did, it cost the Dawgs dearly. His three interceptions against South Carolina included a pick-six that made the upset possible. It was his worst game by far; when he plays poorly, Georgia plays poorly. Again, take note, Missouri: turnover margin matters.
Georgia had only one pass of 20-plus yards against South Carolina, and no carries of 15-plus. Limiting explosive plays is key for the Tigers.
“Every area will be tested,” Odom said. “Corners, safeties, linebackers matched up on the running back. How many times have we got the back out and they dump it to him and it turns into a 30-yard gain?”
Fromm operates best with quick routes and short-yardage plays. Georgia’s 11.85 yards per completion are just No. 80 in the country. And Missouri’s pass defense is still No. 4 in the country with 5.48 yards allowed per attempt. Fromm is tough, but his short-yardage, less-mobile style could be a good matchup for Missouri.
The Tigers just don’t have much else going for them. For the first time this year, they are not the favorites in the spread.
But having been victims to three upsets, maybe Odom’s Tigers know a thing or two about how to pull them off.
Supervising Editor is Eli Lederman