Missouri set for Top-15 matchup in Athens

In this Oct. 1, 2022, file photo, Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden carries the ball during last year’s game against Georgia at Faurot Field in Columbia. (Associated Press)
In this Oct. 1, 2022, file photo, Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden carries the ball during last year’s game against Georgia at Faurot Field in Columbia. (Associated Press)

All season, the Missouri Tigers have said they have “Something to Prove.”

This is the week to prove it.

The No. 14 Tigers (7-1) hit the road to take on the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs (8-0) today in Athens, Ga., with kickoff at 2:30 p.m. (KRCG).

“It’s going to be a very difficult challenge,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “You know, I don’t think coach (Kirby) Smart gets enough credit for the job he’s done at the University of Georgia. I mean, two national titles, played in five of the last six SEC championships, he’s got the best record in the first 100 games in the SEC. I think he’s chasing, they’re chasing something that only’s been done by USC and Miami, which is a three-time National Champion and has 20 consecutive weeks at No. 1.”

The Tigers came within five minutes of beating the No. 1 and eventual undefeated champion Bulldogs last season, holding a 10-point lead with 14:09 left to play and a three-point lead with 4:04 left.

Missouri will have a tough road once again this year as the Bulldogs rank at or near the top of almost every statistical category.

Georgia is fifth in the country in passing yards (2,674), eighth in points scored (324) and seventh in points per game (40.5) on the offensive end. On the defensive side, the Bulldogs are eighth in yards per game (272.1), 12th in rushing yards per game (93.6) and seventh in points allowed per game (14.8).

The Bulldog offense is led by first-year starting junior Carson Beck (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), who took over for two-time champion quarterback Stetson Bennett this season.

Beck has completed 192-of-263 passes (73 percent) with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, including surpassing 300 yards passing in four of the Bulldogs’ past five games, even after losing projected top-five pick, tight end Brock Bowers (6-4, 240) to an ankle injury.

“Even with the loss of the outstanding tight end, they were extremely balanced and distributed the ball all over the football field against Florida,” Drinkwitz said. “I think (offensive coordinator Mike Bobo) has his quarterback playing at a very high level, I mean if you didn’t know any better, you would think he was playing with Matthew Stafford or Aaron Murray. … Carson Beck, since the Auburn game, has taken his game to a new level. I think it’s a level of confidence that was created in being able to win in this league on the road. He’s very accurate with the football, knows exactly where it’s going, gets the ball out right around 2.1 seconds so he doesn’t hold on to the ball which tells you that he knows how to read coverages, knows the concepts and is confident in the concept.”

Bowers is still the team’s leading receiver, having played in seven of the team’s eight games, but the leading active receiver coming in will ring a bell for Missouri fans as transfer junior Dominic Lovett (5-10, 179) has 35 catches for 365 yards and one score. Lovett led the Tigers last season with 56 catches for 846 yards and three scores.

Senior receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (6-2, 195) is Beck’s next target with 20 catches for 341 yards and two touchdowns.

Senior running back Daijun Edwards (5-10, 201) leads the rushing attack with 96 attempts for 555 yards (92.5 per game) and eight scores, while senior Kendall Milton (6-1, 220) has 49 tries for 251 yards and four rushing scores.

“O-line is extremely physical, starts with the run game, they do a great job of protecting the quarterback, but also establishing the run,” Drinkwitz said. “There’s just not a lot of weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball.”

Missouri’s defense will need to continue its turnover trend of the past few games. The Tigers have forced at least one in five of the past six games, led by Kris Abrams-Draine with four interceptions to tie him for seventh nationally, two behind NCAA leader Xavier Watts of Notre Dame with six.

The Missouri defense enters after allowing 12 points, all on field goals, against South Carolina two weeks ago, and only one touchdown in the last seven quarters played.

But the Tiger offense might have an even tougher test.

Missouri, which has scored at least 30 points in its past six games, faces a defense continuing its multi-season run of dominance after losing five starters to the 2023 NFL Draft and eight in 2022.

“They replaced a lot of talent, I think they’re playing at a really high level,” Drinkwitz said. “I think coach Smart and his staff have done probably the best job they’ve done since they’ve been there to be in the situation that they’re in currently.

“Defensively, certainly, you know, seventh in the country in scoring defense, sixth in the country in total defense, top 10 in the country in run defense, top 10 in the country in pass defense, No. 1 in the country in third-down defense,” Drinkwitz added. “The one area they struggle with is red zone defense, but you know why? Because nobody gets down in the red zone so there’s only been like five trips.”

If Missouri is able to add to the red zone total against the Bulldog defense, it has a good chance to keep the defense’s success rate low as the Tigers enter converting 34-of-35 red zone tries (97.1 percent) to lead the FBS in efficiency.

Notes: Today’s game marks the 13th all-time between the Tigers and Bulldogs, with Georgia leading the all-time series 11-1. Missouri’s lone win came in 2013, the last season the Tigers were 7-1. … Today’s game will determine the top of the SEC East standings as the Bulldogs and Tigers enter as the No. 1 and 2 teams in the standings. … Missouri’s No. 14 ranking in the AP poll is the highest it has been since reaching No. 11 in 2014. Missouri’s current streak of six straight weeks in either the AP or coaches poll is the team’s longest since 11 consecutive in 2013. … Missouri is 0-17 all-time against AP No. 1-ranked teams.