No. 23 Missouri (4-1, 1-0 SEC) proved itself as a worthy contender for the division title it eventually won last season when it pulled away from short-handed Georgia in Athens. Unlike that Georgia team, this season’s No. 13 Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1) have a healthy Todd Gurley available for the rematch. But can Gurley’s teammates provide enough support to leave Columbia, Missouri, with a win? Let's discuss.
Missouri’s key to victory: I’d say the Missouri secondary needs to get its act together, but seeing as this is Georgia we’re talking about, I don’t think it will be that big of an issue. Instead, for the Tigers to pull off the win at home, quarterback Maty Mauk needs to be on his "A" game. The redshirt sophomore is plenty talented, but he’s awfully streaky. And when he goes into a throwing slump, the entire offense stalls. If Mauk can throw the ball consistently against a weak Georgia group of defensive backs, Missouri should put up enough points to pull away in the second half.
Georgia’s key to victory: Mauk’s coming-out party came against Georgia last season, when he replaced injured starter James Franklin in the second half and helped the Tigers pull away for a huge victory. Like that Georgia team, these Bulldogs are hurting in the secondary. Their depth in the back end is horrible and the talent level isn’t great. This Mizzou offense isn’t as scary on the outside, but it’s still capable of picking apart Georgia’s pass defense. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins & Co. need to pressure Mauk into some mistakes and create a turnover or two in order to help the defensive backs.
Missouri’s X-factor: We all know by now -- or, more appropriately, we should all know by now -- that Missouri has the best pass rusher in the SEC in Shane Ray. Together with Markus Golden, the Tigers can really get after the quarterback. But for Missouri to stop Georgia, it will be the interior linemen that do the work. Big Lucas Vincent, all 300 pounds of him, will be a key in stopping Gurley and the dangerous Georgia running game. He won’t have to make too many tackles himself, but if he can eat up blockers and clog running lanes, it will go a long way in limiting what the Bulldogs do best.
Georgia’s X-factor: Missouri’s run defense is nothing special, which indicates Gurley could have a big afternoon. The Tigers rank 106th nationally and second-to-last in the SEC by allowing 2.51 yards per carry after contact to opposing rushers, while Gurley’s average of 3.88 yards per carry after contact ranks 16th nationally. That said, Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason probably has to do something in the passing game to take some of the heat off Gurley. Mason has been streaky, to say the least, and the Bulldogs’ chances of victory will decrease significantly if he can’t help them become more than a one-dimensional offense on Saturday.
Playoff impact: These two teams probably represent the SEC East’s only realistic shots at grabbing a playoff spot. Saturday’s loser will essentially be eliminated from consideration, seeing as how Mizzou already has an embarrassing loss (to Indiana) on its resume and Georgia’s loss to South Carolina looks worse by the week. Both teams probably have another loss or two in them – they have too many glaring weaknesses to avoid at least one more letdown – but Saturday’s winner will become the favorite to represent the division in Atlanta. An SEC East club has to win that game to have any chance of getting into the playoff.