COLUMBIA - Missouri's defensive line has developed a monopoly when it comes to Southeastern Conference awards recently.
But the mountains are about to get tougher.
Defensive end Michael Sam was named the conference's defensive lineman of the week Monday, the fourth time in six weeks a Missouri player has won the award. But the 25th-ranked Tigers (5-0, 1-0 SEC) face their toughest test to date when they play Saturday at Georgia (11 a.m., ESPN-TV).
It's a team with one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country.
"We're going against a very good offensive line," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. "I've got to believe this is one of the best offensive lines we play all year. There will be different challenges for everybody."
All five starting Bulldog linemen are back from last season, including 6-foot-2, 314-pound guard Chris Burnette, an all-SEC performer last season. Burnette was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week this week.
"It's just another SEC offensive line," nose guard Lucas Vincent said. "We don't approach it any differently. We're still going to take our preparations seriously. We're still going to work hard to prepare for Georgia."
While the pressure from Missouri's defensive line may have been there for most of the season, the sack totals weren't early on. Missouri recorded three sacks in the opener against Murray State, then did not have a sack the next two games.
Players and coaches insisted at the time the Tigers liked the pressure they were getting up front, they just weren't getting there quick enough. That all changed when the Tigers sacked Arkansas State five times and Vanderbilt seven times. Three of the sacks Saturday came from Sam.
The Tigers have 15 sacks already this season, just six shy of last season's total.
They've started to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rotating players in and out, similar to the situation at running back. Sam and Shane Ray switch out on the end, while Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley have been switching in and out at nose guard.
"It gives you a chance to stay fresh," Pinkel said. "That's the most important thing. The guys when they get tired, they want the break, they do. We try to get our top guys in there on third downs and field position and so on and so forth."
While Markus Golden, Ray and Vincent all have at least 12 tackles, Sam has been the star so far. He leads the SEC in sacks with six and ranks fifth nationally. His 10 tackles for loss rank fourth nationally.
"I think he's playing at a very high level," Pinkel said of Sam, who did not speak to the media Monday. "He had three sacks back-to-back games which is very difficult to do, I don't care who you are playing. It's kind of interesting how kids mature and how all of a sudden they can change and go to a different level."
But Missouri has an understanding the competition takes another step up this week. It's the first of three straight games for Missouri against ranked teams.
"They've got a good line," Kony Ealy said of the Bulldogs. "They are going to be ready for us, we're going to be ready for them."
Notes: Offensive lineman Anthony Gatti will not play against Georgia due to turf toe. Pinkel said he's hopeful Gatti will be back for the Oct. 19 game against Florida. ... The game against Florida will kick off at 11:20 a.m. and be broadcast on the SEC Network, which is usually picked up in mid-Missouri by KQFX or KMIZ.