COLUMBIA — Missouri faces an incredibly tough road challenge today, no matter who is receiving the snaps.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant will be a game-time decision, head coach Barry Odom said Thursday on his weekly radio show. And there is something to be said for the fact Bryant has actually played as a starter and played against top-10 defenses, like the Georgia defense the Tigers (5-3, 2-2 SEC) will see at 6 p.m. today in Athens, Ga. The game will be televised on ESPN.
If Bryant doesn't play, or if he isn't fully healthy, the already-slim margin of error is narrowed down even further for an offense struggling to find a rhythm and coming off a bye week.
Odom laid the decision at the feet of the team doctors Thursday, while adding, "I do feel he's made really good progress this week, and we've got 48 hours before we play. So we'll have a better understanding as we get a little bit closer."
Taylor Powell has progressed as a redshirt sophomore from last season to this one and is prepared to go against the Bulldogs, who are 7-1, 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference, and are No. 6 in the first College Football Playoff rankings released this week. This would be his first career start, and quite a trial by fire.
Bryant undoubtedly wants to play if he feels up to it. He played the rest of the first half after his injury as well as the first two drives of the third quarter, and his hometown of Calhoun Falls, S.C., is just an hour east on South Carolina/Georgia State Route 72.
But the Missouri offense in recent weeks hasn't shown it can move the ball against the likes of Vanderbilt and Kentucky, let alone the class of the SEC East, even with Bryant playing while healthy. And there's go guarantee the Clemson transfer, who put himself at 75 percent after a bye week to recover from a strained hamstring, will be fully healthy between the hedges.Receiver drops, a suddenly punch-less offensive line and anemic run game have all contributed to the recent struggles, and all make the quarterback's job harder and put more pressure on the distributor of the ball to make the offense move.
"It's an interesting deal, because we've had six games where we've played really well on offense, we've had two we didn't," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Derek Dooley, son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, said Tuesday. "I think the biggest thing the last game, we had two circumstances that we didn't handle very well. Obviously we had a real good drive going, and Kelly hurt himself. His legs are a part of our offense, so it eliminated a lot of what we can do offensively, kind of had to hone in on handing the ball off or dropback, so that limited us, and then we didn't handle the rain very well in the dropback game."
In the rain in Lexington, the Tigers ran the ball a season-low 34 times, and their 125 yards on the ground just eclipsed the 114 rushing yards Missouri had at Wyoming. In wins this season, Missouri has 223 carries for 1083 yards (4.86 average) and nine touchdowns. In losses, the Tigers have 116 carries for 392 yards (3.36 yards per carry) for three scores.
Yes, Missouri has run the ball for 1.5 yards per carry less in losses than in wins. And Georgia's run defense is the stingiest the Tigers will face all season, allowing 2.85 yards per carry and 77.6 yards per game this season.
The success of Odom and Missouri in November meets this year with the toughest stretch of the schedule and with the Tigers already riding a two-game losing streak to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in which the offense struggled. Starting with 2016's 28-24 home win against Arkansas, Odom's program has won nine consecutive November games, including a dominant win at No. 7 Florida in the first game of the month a year ago.
But to break through again, Missouri will have to snap a five-game losing streak against Georgia. The Tigers' only win came in 2013 in Athens, when James Franklin left the game injured in the fourth quarter and Maty Mauk, along with some daring play-calling, helped see out the win.
If Missouri is able to engineer another upset of the Bulldogs, this one undoubtedly more stunning than last time, it will take a collective effort of a level the Tigers have not yet achieved this season. It's certainly within the realm of possibility, and includes quarterback play, no matter who is in the game, but will also mean Albert Okwuegbunam gets the ball, the receivers around him are sure-handed, and Missouri's offensive line opens up holes for Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie.