Missouri’s got a little something to prove.
After years of being bullied around by the rest of the country as a member of the Big 12 — a sort of little brother of a conference in the eyes of many ’round these parts — the Tigers are finally getting a chance to prove they can run with college football’s champions in the Southeastern Conference.
Sure, they like barbecue and country music up there as much as anyone in the South, but the Tigers’ addition to the SEC still just doesn’t feel natural to many.
Yet ready or not, Missouri’s here, and Georgia is the first team being fed to a program with a monstrous point to make. With so much attention on Saturday’s game, Georgia is unlikely to face an opponent this motivated outside of a division-clinching game or the SEC Championship.
So even if no one else quite believes Missouri is ready for the rough-and-tumble SEC, Georgia players are saying all the right things to show they respect what the Tigers bring to the table.
“I know they’re all hearing this stuff about how they’re inferior to the SEC,” Georgia receiver Tavarres King said. “But they come from a great conference, I think. I think they play some great teams and have done well against some great teams and great players, as well.”
The critiques have been rehashed plenty of times — largely centered around the underwhelming national rankings of Big 12 defenses — but there is at least something to be said for the conference in the BCS era. It has had eight different schools reach BCS bowls (tying it for first with the Big East) and its four BCS Championship appearances trails only the SEC’s eight.
Now it’s time for Missouri and fellow Big 12 expat Texas A&M to make a first impression on college football’s most critical audience and against a top-10 team. Georgia coach Mark Richt said he wasn’t worried about the Tigers’ potential motivations — you’ll have to play them sooner or later anyway, he said — but there’s no denying it’s a special moment for Missouri and one the program hopes to capitalize on.
“They have a lot to prove,” Georgia receiver Michael Bennett said. “They’re going to want to beat us really bad. I know all their fans are going to hate us going in there. We just have to keep our composure and play the best we can.”
Make no mistake: Georgia is motivated, too. Having lost its SEC opener the previous two seasons and last began a season 2-0 in 2008, the Bulldogs are eager as ever to avoid playing catchup.
“It not only means a lot to them, it means a lot to us,” sophomore defensive back Damian Swann said. “We have some goals we’ve set and we have places we’re trying to get. Missouri is the next test, so we have to handle business.”
There’s also a danger in putting too much emphasis on one game. No one quite knows what level of intensity Missouri will bring to Saturday’s game, but maintaining some control over the ebb and flow of energy will be paramount.
“A lot of times, when you have all that emotion on one game, it can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “They’re going to have to balance it. If they come out all jacked up and trying to prove that they can play in the SEC, which we all know they can, that can be a positive or a negative. You’ve just got keep a balanced mindset and know that it’s going to calm down and it’s going to be a game. It’s not just going to be all emotion. You’re going to have to execute and make plays when the opportunity arises.”
And that’s all Missouri wants the chance to do.