Game time: Saturday, September 17, 6:30 CT
TV: SEC Network
Odds: Georgia (-6), O/U 56
I remember tailgating before the 2012 Mizzou-Georgia game in Columbia, Mizzou’s first game as a member of the SEC. It was like going to your cousin’s wedding — you didn’t really know the bride/groom’s family and friends, but you made an effort to introduce yourself and be cordial because you’re kind of connected now, right?
Flash forward just two years later and there were grown men indiscriminately labeling passerby as "Chubby Boy" in between barks outside of Faurot Field. There’s growing animosity here, a product of players trash talking in the media, upsets and blowouts on each other’s turf, and a division title Georgia probably deserved, but Missouri won anyways.
It started in 2012 — the infamous (or famous, depending on your rooting interest) — "Old Man Football" game, a 41-20 Bulldog win in Mizzou’s first SEC game. The Dawgs shoved Sheldon Richardson’s words down the Tigers throat with a dominant second half. UGA prefers the term "Grown Man Football," and they’d ride the momentum from that win to within about 20 seconds of a national title game appearance.
In Athens in 2013, Missouri won 41-26, thanks in large part to a double pass, and without its quarterback for much of the game. That was the game that put Mizzou on the map as the SEC East favorite, and (temporarily) put to rest notions that they couldn’t hang in this conference.
2014 was another battle of ranked teams, and Nick Chubb’s first collegiate start with Todd Gurley suspended. Georgia absolutely dismantled the Tigers, winning 34-0, with Chubb racking up 143 yards on 38 carries. Of course, it was Mizzou, not Georgia, who would find themselves back in the SEC title game at the end of the season.
Last year was, objectively, one of the worst games you’ll ever see, but at least it was close, with Georgia "winning" 9-6 in Athens. Neither team could do anything offensively: Missouri started its first drive from the 1 yard line and still couldn’t muster a touchdown.
2016 offers another intriguing matchup, albeit a bit more unheralded than recent games. The Dawgs come in ranked 16th in the country at 2-0, but they’re coming off of one of the worst wins in program history, a 26-24 against Nicholls in which UGA was a 55 point favorite. The Tigers are unranked at 1-1, but a week removed from a 61-21 beatdown of Eastern Michigan in which they looked not just competent on offense, but explosive.
Let’s get into the three things I’m most interested in for this game:
1. Which team regresses further to the mean?
As we just covered, the performances these two teams put together in Week 2 has them pulling in almost completely opposite directions. Georgia looked sluggish and unprepared against a significantly lesser opponent, while Drew Lock and Missouri came close to breaking school passing records against inferior competition also.
What I’m curious about is: Which Week 2 performance is more indicative of who each of these teams is going to be going forward?
UGA is not going to look that bad in the remainder of 2016, but was that a sign they’re not as talented as their ranking would indicate, or was it more just a case of a bunch of 18-22 years assuming they could half-ass their way to a win, which they did?
Likewise, Missouri is not going to hang 60 on Georgia and give Tiger fans flashbacks to Chase Daniel. The Georgia secondary is much, much more talented than Eastern Michigan’s. But does a big game give the Tigers confidence that they can score on the Dawgs? If yes, how much of a difference does that make in this game?
I expect Georgia to play better than it did last week. I expect Missouri to play worse than it did last week. If both teams play to their true talent level, this is a game Georgia should win. But after last week, it’s unclear which team is closer to playing at their normal capabilities.
2. Does the Missouri defensive line finally show up?
When we talk about a team’s given strengths or weaknesses, we tend to speak generally and say things like, "They’re passing game is pretty good" or "You can take advantage of their defensive ends in the run game."
For Georgia? You can just write down "Nick Chubb" in the strengths column. UGA’s rushing game as a whole is quite good, but Chubb is a monster, and how he performs is the single most important factor in determining who wins this game.
For Missouri, coming into the season you would have singled out the defensive line as this team’s primary strength, even after losing freshman All-American DE Walter Brady and DT Harold Brantley. Through two games, they’ve not just failed to stand out — they’ve been a borderline liability.
West Virginia was consistently able to run the ball against this defensive line, especially up the middle. Eastern Michigan had less success, but they’re Eastern Michigan, and it’s not like they had negative rushing yards. They still put up over 150 yards on the ground. You’re not going to shut down Nick Chubb, but this can’t be the 2013 SEC title game, version 2.0, where Auburn ran it down the Tigers’ throats however and whenever they wanted. Most important will be wrapping up when they get the chance, as 234 of Chubb’s 302 yards on the season have come after contact according to Pro Football Focus.
Likewise, the defensive line only has one sack through two games, and that came on a dropped lateral on an attempted Eastern Michigan double pass, so it barely counts. Preseason All-SEC defensive end Charles Harris has gotten close a few times, but with Georgia likely starting a true freshman in his first road SEC game, Missouri needs to get consistent pressure and force a couple turnovers to win.
3. Can Georgia get pressure on Drew Lock?
Last year’s Missouri offensive line was an abject disaster. Whether it was the running game or the passing game, opponents were able to get in the Tiger backfield very easily. This season has been a much different story so far.
In that same Pro Football Focus piece linked above, writer Ryan Jenson noted that Mizzou’s tackles -- LT Tyler Howell and RT Paul Adams -- have not allowed a single pressure so far this season. Now, that’s a streak that’s likely to end soon anyways just because it’s such an anomalous run of success, but it’s obvious that this is a much improved Missouri offensive line, specifically in pass protection.
Georgia’s pass rush hasn’t been spectacular year, either, with just a pair of sacks. But there’s a ton of talent here, as there always is on a UGA defense. Guys like Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy have the ability to get to the quarterback from the outside. If they can regularly beat either Howell or Adams, this might be a long night for Drew Lock.
Trenton Thompson is the guy I look at here as a potential difference maker. He was the best defensive tackle in the league last week, and if he can disrupt the weaker — though still better than 2015 — interior of Missouri’s line and pressure Lock into making some quick decisions, UGA will have some opportunities to get a couple big turnovers.
So, What Happens?
As I mentioned before, I think we see both teams come back to Earth this week after extreme performances on either end of the spectrum. Mizzou has the home field advantage, and while it’s difficult to trust any true freshman QB on the road in his first SEC start, Georgia is still the more talented team, and I think they’ll pull it out behind a big game from Nick Chubb. Missouri’s streak of 122 minutes without a touchdown against Georgia will come to an end, but the Tiger run defense remains a concern until proven otherwise.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Missouri 28