By: Nate Smith
The Missouri Tigers have had two full weeks to prepare for their biggest game of the season. After two disappointing road losses and a bye week, the Tigers travel to Athens to take on the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia is no stranger to big SEC showdowns, having defeated Florida last week to reclaim the top spot in the SEC East. Despite the recent disappointment for Missouri, they join Georgia as the only two teams who control their own destiny in the race to get to the SEC Championship game. If either team wins all of their remaining conference games, they will find themselves in Atlanta facing the winner of the SEC West Division.
Injury Updates, News, & Notes From Practice
Missouri fans were anxious to know the status of quarterback Kelly Bryant after he was forced to leave the Kentucky game due to a strained hamstring. Speaking earlier this week, Bryant himself estimated he was at “about 75 percent”. Head Coach Barry Odom didn’t seem very worried, calling his star quarterback a very quick healer. Bryant will start as usual on Saturday.
Kelly Bryant fields questions following practice on Tuesday morning
Wide receiver Johnathon Johnson missed Tuesday’s practice with an illness but he was back in the fold the next day. His availability does not seem to be in doubt heading into the matchup with the Bulldogs. This is great news for the Tigers’ dynamic slot receiver, who sits alone in 6th place on Missouri’s all-time receiving yards list, with 2,190.
Another key cog to Missouri’s passing attack, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, was recently named an AP midseason All-American. ‘Albert O’ is now second on Missouri’s all-time touchdowns list with 23. He has six multi-touchdown games in his career, passing former Mizzou tight end Chase Coffman, who had five. It doesn’t stop there, as Okwuegbunam is on pace to shatter another school record. In his career, the star tight end is averaging one touchdown per every 3.91 receptions. The next closest mark is owned by former Tiger wideout J’Mon Moore, who had one touchdown for every 7.5 catches.
Cornerback Adam Sparks appeared to have jammed a finger during a practice drill, but quickly shook it off and didn’t miss the next drill. Fellow cornerbacks DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes confirmed this was nothing to worry about, downplaying any potential injury.
Since the devastating season-ending injury to All-American linebacker Cale Garrett, Nick Bolton has elevated his play even more. The Tigers’ new star linebacker was already having an all-conference type season prior to Garrett’s injury and now continues to impress even more.
In order to prepare for the hostile environment at Sanford Stadium, Coach Odom had loud crowd noise pumped over the loudspeakers at practice this week. I got a chance to ask Odom how the players responded to that. “They handled it well..this will be the loudest environment that we’ve played in. (It was great practice) for our offense to be able (practice making) checks and do the things we need to. In all the years I’ve (played and coached against Georgia), (the crowd noise) is one thing that stands out. It’s a great environment, competitors love to be able to (go to) that arena and go play.”
Barry Odom’s Success In The Month Of November
During his tenure at Missouri, Head Coach Barry Odom has consistently gotten the most out of his teams in the month of November. Odom boasts a 10-2 overall record that includes 9 straight victories. Mizzou has scored 33 or more points in 8 straight November games, topping 40 points in 5 of those. The defense has held up their end of the bargain as well, as the Tigers have outscored their opponents by 21 or more points during the 9 game November winning streak.
Missouri has never faced Georgia in November in the Odom era. Since joining the SEC, however, the Tigers have defeated Georgia in Athens on one occasion. Missouri’s 2013 victory was highlighted by a two-touchdown performance from wideout L’Damian Washington as the Tigers rolled to a 41-26 victory over the 7th ranked Bulldogs. The rosters are obviously completely different now, but nonetheless, there is at least some sort of precedent for the Tigers having success in this daunting matchup. Georgia, however, does own an overall record of 7-1 against Missouri.
Keys To Victory
Missouri knows what they’re up against in Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. One of the SEC’s most experienced quarterbacks, Fromm leads an offense that converted 12 of 18 third downs against Florida. South Carolina showed at least somewhat of a recipe for defeating the Bulldogs, relying on outstanding play from their secondary as they upset the Bulldogs on October 12th in Athens.
The Tigers have an extremely talented secondary of their own. Missouri’s national rank in pass defense has risen 108 places since last season. Asked about this, Mizzou’s top cornerback DeMarkus Acy said “we don’t use it as motivation, but it is good to know.” Acy went on to say “at this point, we’re just worried about winning.”
When Georgia isn’t throwing the ball, they will perhaps be even more comfortable. Fromm can turn and handoff to one of the nation’s best running backs in DeAndre Swift. Swift has the luxury of running behind what is arguably the country’s best offensive line, as Coach Odom suggested. Odom reiterated the amount of respect he has for not only Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart, but also for Georgia Offensive Line Coach Sam Pittman.
The Tigers have been at their best this season when they excel on special teams and win the turnover battle. Special teams drills continue to be heavily emphasized at practice, with intense, physical drills being commonplace. 13 straight interceptions forced by Missouri have either been returned for a pick-six or resulted in an offensive touchdown on the Tigers’ following drive. If Missouri wants to pull an upset in Athens, they will once again need to not only force turnovers, but also capitalize on the opportunity to turn them into points.
The Tigers and Bulldogs will kick-off at 6:00 on Saturday night in a nationally televised game on ESPN.