COLUMBIA - The last two football games played between Missouri and Georgia have been defining moments for the Tigers.
In 2012, Missouri hosted the No. 7 Bulldogs in its first conference game as a member of the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers received a rude welcome to their new conference, as Georgia outscored Missouri 32-10 in the second half and pulled away for a 41-20 win. The loss was a sign of things to come for Missouri, which finished 5-7 on the year.
In 2013, Missouri traveled to Athens to play the Bulldogs, once again ranked No. 7. The Tigers had yet to prove they could compete in the SEC. Though they were 5-0 on the season, Missouri had only won three conference games since leaving the Big 12, and those came against teams that entered the games a combined 0-12 in SEC play. No. 25 Missouri won that day, 41-26, and it was as if the Tigers had finally joined the SEC.
Today, the No. 13 Bulldogs return to Columbia for what could once again be a telling game for the Tigers.
Though the No. 23 Tigers' 4-1 record is smeared with a surprising home defeat to Indiana, Missouri enters today's game as the only SEC East team without a conference loss. Georgia, also 4-1 overall, received its lone loss from division foe South Carolina, whom Missouri upset in its last game.
In short, today's result, between the last two winners of the SEC East, could go a long way toward establishing the front-runner of the division.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he isn't thinking that far ahead - "This is our second conference game. My goodness." - but Missouri players know what's at stake.
"Everybody knows," receiver Jimmie Hunt said. "Coach might not watch the media, but he most definitely knows what's going on."
Chances are, Pinkel paid attention to what was going on Thursday, when Georgia declared star running back and Heisman Trophy contender Todd Gurley "indefinitely suspended from competition by the UGA Athletic Association during an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules."
Today's game will be the second straight time Missouri has faced Georgia sans Gurley. He sat out the 2013 contest with an ankle injury.
In five games this season, Gurley has 773 yards on 94 carries, good for an average of 8.2 yards, second-best in the country. Gurley is averaging 154.6 yards per game and has rushed for eight touchdowns.
Missouri has allowed a 100-yard rusher against every team except Central Florida this year and is currently ranked 57th in the nation with 144.6 yards per game allowed on the ground.
"He's a great player, and I have a great amount of respect for him," Pinkel said of Gurley. "He's strong and breaks tackles really well. That's the thing to me that makes him really difficult to contain. You're not going to stop him, so what you got to do is contain him. You do that through gap integrity and playing well up front with the defensive line."
You don't have to contain him if he isn't playing, however.
Gurley did not board the team's Friday flight out of Atlanta. Multiple reports have alleged the suspension, given by Georgia, relates to Gurley allegedly taking money for autographs, and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution source said Gurley could miss the remainder of the season. Heisman winner Johnny Manziel sat half of Texas A&M's 2013 season opener for similar allegations.
Losing Gurley is quite the blow for Georgia. Backup running back Nick Chubb was named the SEC co-freshman of the week after rushing for 78 yards and a touchdown on eight carries last week against Vanderbilt. However, Chubb has never had more than 11 carries in a game and is still recovering from a thumb injury, and fellow backs Sony Michel, Keith Marshall and A.J. Turman are injured.
Michel is dealing with a shoulder injury suffered two weeks ago. Early estimations said he would be out a month. Marshall will not play against Missouri with a knee injury, and Turman has yet to return from offseason foot surgery.
The running game has been key for Georgia this year with quarterback Hutson Mason replacing four-year starter and current Kansas City Chiefs backup Aaron Murray.
"They're just leaning on the run more a little bit," Pinkel said prior to news of Gurley's suspension. "They're running the ball well. That's what they do."
The Tigers are dealing with depth problems of their own on offense. Senior wide receivers Darius White (groin) and Jimmie Hunt (knee) missed Missouri's most recent game. However, the Tigers had a bye week to recover, and Pinkel gave both players a "greater than 50 percent" chance of playing today.
Missouri could use the experience. Excluding White, Hunt and fellow senior Bud Sasser, Missouri's receivers have a combined five catches for 41 yards - though 26 of those came on a key catch and run by Wesley Leftwich during a fourth-quarter scoring drive in Missouri's win at South Carolina.
That was one of just 12 catches made by the Tigers in Missouri's most recent game, as quarterback Maty Mauk completed just 35 percent of his passes, including a 1-for-11 stretch.
However, Mauk made the necessary throws when the game came down to the wire. He was 3-of-5 for 70 yards on Missouri's two scoring drives late in the first quarter.
"He stood in there and made some great throws there at the end to help us win the game," offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. "I think, if you take anything away from that game with Maty, the struggles, sure, you've got to go fix those things, and you've got to get it right, but you take away really a great showing of resiliency in how the guy finished the game after struggling."
Today's game will be broadcast on CBS at 11 a.m. Pinkel said the early start time is preferable, because players don't have time to deliberate over the game like they would for a later kickoff.
"I think every player and coach in the country would rather get up and play at 11," he said. "We want to get it over with instead of agonizing all day long."
Notes: Missouri and Georgia are the only ranked teams in the SEC East. ... The Tigers are coming off their first bye of the season. The next comes between Missouri's games against Kentucky and Texas A&M. Georgia is coming off a 44-17 win against Vanderbilt. ... Missouri is 1-2 against Georgia all-time. The only game Missouri and Georgia played before the Tigers joined the SEC was in 1960, when the No. 5 Bulldogs topped the No. 18 Tigers 14-0 in the Orange Bowl. ... The winner of each of the last two contests has scored 41 points. ... Today's game is Missouri's second straight against the No. 13 team in the AP Poll. ... Though White and Hunt were both listed as starters on Missouri's depth chart, backup tailback Morgan Steward (hip) is still listed as out. Steward has not played a down this season.