When you’ve emerged from an extensive blah-blah–blah period of mediocrity and irrelevancy to become a semi-famous college football team, benefits come with the unforeseen 7-1 record.
You have a brand new identity. Impressed voters notice the change and rank you accordingly. One day cynics are wondering why you’re so damn boring in a mundane victory over Middle Tennessee, and in a relatively short time you’re 14th in the land as decreed by both the coaches and the AP voters.
That’s not all. The Very Important Committee that chooses the four teams to compete in the national College Football Playoff has a little crush on you. Among the first-look contenders, you appear in the esteemed panel’s first ranking at No. 12. Truman the Tiger couldn’t pay you a greater compliment than that. National media are writing stories about your surprising, feel-good ascent. Your next game is booked into the prestigious 2:30 p.m. Saturday-afternoon window on CBS. Paul Finebaum knows your name. The recruiting pitch – already on the upswing – has extra juice.
Welcome back to the main stage.
We knew you’ve been around, putting the work in, trying to build something, playing the smaller venues. But we really haven’t noticed you at a level like this since late in the 2014 season. That was back in the Gary Pinkel regime, when you had the audacity to win the SEC East division for the second year in a row. In consecutive seasons you confronted Auburn and then Alabama in the SEC Championship but lost the two games by an average of 23 points. All things must pass.
That’s history now. The Missouri Tigers are onto something fresh and new and fun. They know it and feel it. Coach Eli Drinkwitz and his players are facing forward, with all of their attention focused on Georgia. They’ll take their revival show to Athens for Saturday’s matchup against the second-ranked Georgia Bulldogs – the two-time defending national champions who want to go for three.
The only downside – if there is one – to Missouri’s newfound celebrity? It’s great to be noticed … but that’s also the hard part. Missouri can’t go stealth and sneak across Georgia’s borders to ambush the Dawgs.
Georgia and coach Kirby Smart – winners of 25 straight games and an astonishing 41 of their last 42 – are on full alert. Georgia won’t be looking past MU and ahead to bigger challenges. There is no chance of Georgia lumping Mizzou in with the lightweights. For Missouri to win this game, the enormous task requires a great, mistake-free performance.
And it would have helped to catch Georgia napping, but the surprise factor is null and void. Coach Smart even put the Bulldogs through an extra day of prep for the upcoming Mizzou game before Georgia trucked to Jacksonville to maul Florida 43-20 this past Saturday.
Georgia hasn’t always been locked in mentally this season. But Smart and his players are in tune with what’s being said and written by outsiders, and they’ve put the external motivation to good use.
Coach Smart is excellent at convincing his squad that they’re being disrespected from coast to coast. The so-called bulletin board to motivate players is pinned with fictional accounts of things allegedly said by opponents and hostile, Dawg-hating media. It’s 100 percent bogus, of course. But by kickoff, Smart will have his fellers believing that Brady Cook himself predicted a 30-7 blowout win for Mizzou. (Just so we understand each other: Cook did not do that.)
We’ve seen it happen a couple of times already this season …
Oh, so y’all say Kentucky poses a threat? Boom. Oh, my. The Dawgs are off the leash. Grrr … bark … … woof … grrr. Georgia won by 38 points.
What’s this now? Y’all fools really think Florida has a chance to beat us? Grrrr …sharp teeth … Cujo mad-dog slobber … grrr … Georgia wins by 23.
For Georgia there are plenty motivational points of emphasis this week.
– Smart has referenced to last season’s game in CoMo, when a howlin’ Mizzou went up by 10, had Georgia on the run, but couldn’t finish the job. Georgia came back for a 26-22 victory. The night at Faurot Field was Georgia’s biggest scare of the season, and Smart and his players haven’t forgotten. It’s almost like a little stain on your shirt that you’re determined – perhaps crazily so – to remove.
– There’s also the “Georgia’s Offense Will Suffer And Possibly Die Without All-Universe Tight End Brock Bowers” warnings. Yeah, well … in the first game without Bowers, Georgia quarterback Carson Beck put up 315 yards passing and two touchdowns on Florida’s defense. And the UGA offense had five touchdowns from scrimmage overall. Bowers is truly great, but the Dawgs showcased several effective playmakers on Saturday. Georgia wants to bust your narrative into pieces, and a one-sided, high-scoring win over the Tigers would be another clapback to those who question Georgia’s offense.
– This is the biggie: In the first College Football Playoff ranking, the committee slotted Georgia at No. 2 behind Ohio State. Why? Because the Buckeyes had quality wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, and Georgia beat up chumps during a peach-cobbler soft early schedule. Based on this year only, Georgia didn’t deserve to be No. 1. Not yet, anyway. Basically the national media agreed with the decision to downgrade Georgia. What do you think Kirby Smart is doing with this insult? After probably dancing with joy in appreciation of the committee’s generous motivational gift, Coach has probably gone into Disrespect overdrive.
— Missouri comes in with that No. 12 ranking that’s a very large target. The Dawgs need a couple of quality wins to to upgrade their resume so The Committee will put them ahead of Ohio State and into the top spot. A home game against 12th-ranked Missouri is perfect timing. Georgia can send a loud message to The Committee by razing Mizzou.
– Smart’s motivational support team undoubtedly saw this blasphemy written at the excellent On3.com college-football site: “Who would’ve thought huh? Eli Drinkwitz and the Missouri Tigers are 7-1 and have a chance to stun the college football world this weekend. Up next is Georgia and a win here not only puts the Tigers in the driver’s seat for the SEC East, it might be time to start talking College Football Playoffs. What a fall for this Mizzou squad.”
– And there was this from the superb Matt Hinton of Saturday Down South: “Believe it: Among 1-loss teams, the (Missouri) Tigers have the most straightforward path if they win out, which would require a monumental upset over Georgia this weekend, a follow-up win over Tennessee on Nov. 11, and a win over the eventual SEC West champ in the SEC Championship Game.”
There goes the dang media again: suggesting that Mizzou is a threat to Georgia’s SEC East dominion. Disrespect!
– Streaking Georgia is stacking wins at a pace that few teams have ever pulled off. The Dawgs presumably are fired up to continue that. They’ve won their last 35 regular-season games including the last 23 at home. Against SEC East adversaries, UGA has won 18 straight games – and 23 of the its last 24.
– With 25 consecutive wins (all games) to their name, the Bulldogs need just one more to tie Alabama’s run of 26 straight victories reeled off in 2015-2016. The SEC record is 28 wins in a row. That was constructed by Alabama teams in 1978-1980 and again in 1991-1993.
At the time I wrote this, Georgia was a betting line favorite of +15.5 points over Missouri. One projection model that I check each week has Georgia winning 45-18. I’ve seen other projections that put Mizzou’s chances of winning this game at a range of 17 to 20 percent.
I wanted to pass that along for fun but I don’t care about it. Missouri is an underdog. Missouri isn’t expected to win. But Missouri wasn’t expected to be 7-1 and ranked 12th in the nation at this point, either. So why agonize over 150 potential scenarios based on the outcome of this game? Stay in the moment. The Tigers have an opportunity to do something special. Something memorable. And that’s all a challenger can ask for.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app. Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz