Missouri is coming to town as a ranked opponent and unbeaten. Raise your hand if you saw that coming back in August.
We turn to Tod Palmer for five questions on Mizzou. Palmer is in his first year as The Kansas City Star’s beat writer for the Missouri Tigers. You can follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer .
1.What would be bigger news in the state there: Missouri beating No. 7 Georgia Saturday or the Cardinals playing the Dodgers in the National League Championship series?
Statewide, it would be a Missouri win, and it’s not particularly close. Here in Kansas City, Cardinals playoff baseball doesn’t matter anymore than the Red Sox in the ALCS. On the other hand, the whole state embraces the Tigers. In St. Louis, I suspect the baseball playoffs generate more interest than Missouri’s regular season, but not but a whole lot. There’s a feeling up here that beating the Bulldogs would catapult the Tigers into Southeastern Conference relevance. It would also be a massive step (and the first real step) toward the possibility of an SEC East division title. That thought excites Missouri fans.
2. Do you sense Missouri is for real given its hot start after going 5-7 last year in its first season in the SEC? How do you see them faring against this stretch of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina?
Last year was the aberration under coach Gary Pinkel. It’s easy to blame the move to the SEC for the Tigers’ struggles last season, but it’s not an accurate assessment. The truth is that with James Franklin as banged up as he was, Missouri would have struggled in the Big 12 last year — maybe not 5-7, but it’s not like that was a 10-win Big 12 team with the injuries that piled up. Remember too, Franklin got hurt against Vanderbilt and current Jets rookie Sheldon Richardson was suspended against Syracuse, but Missouri almost won those games.
Had the Tigers prevailed, we’re talking about a 7-5 team (plus a bowl appearance) and the narrative is 180 degrees different. Missouri is balanced on offense and defense. It plays good (and improving defense). Absolutely, Missouri is for real.
Before the season, I think most fans would have been happy with one win among the trio of upcoming games. Georgia was supposed to be a national title contender, Florida was supposed to be much improved and Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be an unstoppable, unbeatable force. Now, I think most fans would love to see at least two wins. The Bulldogs are banged up and struggle defensively, the Gators lost their quarterback and can be outscored and Clowney is human after all. Obviously, 3-0 would vault Missouri into the national title picture. They’ve been there before as recently as 2007, but that’s a dream right now. Most Tigers fans believe the Georgia game — because it’s on the road and against the best of those three teams — will be the toughest. Win that, and anything’s possible.
3. There was some talk about Gary Pinkel being on the hot seat heading into the season. What did you make of that? Does the 5-0 start mean that’s pretty much behind him?
To my mind, that talk was unfair and I’m not sure any of the big-money boosters, whose opinion on the issue is all that really matters at the end of the day, were as dissatisfied as some fans seemed to be. People tend to forget how bad Missouri football was most year from 1984-2000 when Pinkel arrived, but the program had averaged 3.7 wins and made two bowl games in 17 seasons. Since Pinkel took over, even including a couple lean years to start his tenure, Missouri has averaged 7.5 wins and been to a bowl game in eight of the last 10 seasons. Pinkel has earned the benefit of the doubt, in my opinion, and could be forgiven last season’s disappointment, especially considering how banged up Missouri was. At the moment, it’s a moot point anyway, but the 5-0 start has most Tigers fans on the bandwagon and hoping for a ride as fun as 2007.
4. Missouri leads the SEC in rushing, but also has a dangerous passing game with James Franklin and a bunch of tall receivers. What should Georgia be more concerned about?
Really, it is a pick-your-poison scenario. The passing game tends to produce more big plays, but that’s fairly typical for any team. Quarterback James Franklin is a playing at an incredibly high level. He tried to pick on a safety at Indiana and lost twice, accounting for two of his interceptions. Other than that, he’s played almost mistake-free. Besides that, he’s a dual-threat guy again. As a sophomore, he nearly rushed for 1,000 yards, but that threat was nonexistent last season as he dealt with shoulder, knee and head injuries. Now, he’s arguably the second-best dual-threat quarterback in the conference behind only reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. Coupled with three fast and elusive running backs, Missouri’s run game has been quietly efficient and effective.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that passing game. Most teams have elected to try and take away sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. That was Vanderbilt’s plan, and it worked. He had two catches for 30 yards against the Commodores, but it didn’t slow the offense, which still put up 51 points and 523 yards of total offense. Seniors Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington may not be well-known guys around the SEC, but both are supremely talented pass-catchers and playmakers. Georgia’s secondary is going to have its hands full, because you can’t ignore the run or Missouri will happily keep it on the ground and carve a team up. Heck, that would almost be preferable as it keeps Aaron Murray on the sideline. Of course, committing to stop the run often means eight in the box or, at the very least, a lot of one-on-one coverage or zone, which often spells trouble too.
5. The Bulldogs’ injuries on offense have been a big story in Athens this week. Do you think Missouri sees Georgia as particularly vulnerable Saturday?
Absolutely, but as well as Missouri is playing right now, I think they’d be confident even if Georgia was at full strength. It would be a tougher test, but the Tigers relish this opportunity to pick off one of the SEC’s big boys and prove that they belong in the nation’s toughest football conference. Missouri knows perhaps better than any team how thoroughly and completely a rash of injuries can ruin a season. Last year, for the Tigers it was the quarterback and more than half of its offensive line. I’d argue that was tougher to overcome than losing the top two guys at running back and wide receiver. Of course, if I was Georgia, I’d be much more concerned about my leaky defense, because Missouri can put up points.
Thanks Tod for that thorough breakdown of the Tigers.
Please follow me at Twitter.com/marcweiszer