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Georgia at Missouri preview: First downs and flipped scripts will give us an East favorite

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The winner of Saturday's Missouri-Georgia game will determine the clear SEC East favorite moving forward. In the absence of Todd Gurley, the game will be decided by first-down success and Mike Bobo's new offensive gameplan.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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Georgia at Missouri

Record AP
Rank
F/+ Rk S&P+ Rk
Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
Georgia 4-1 13 21 20 7 52
Missouri 4-1 23 33 39 62 23

F/+ projection: Georgia 28, Missouri 28 (Georgia 55% chance of winning)

So ... things have changed a bit, huh?

On average, depending on the quality of the starter, the quality of the backups, the quality of the game plan/coordinators, etc., the absence of a given starter will typically make between a zero- and seven-point difference in a given game. Losing running back Todd Gurley is a particularly heavy blow for Georgia because he's really good, but new starter Nick Chubb has shown some impressive flashes and might be better than a run-of-the-mill No. 2 guy.

It's hard to analyze for sure, obviously, but for the purposes of the below preview, assume that a no-Gurley Georgia offense would rank between about 15th and 25th in the Off. S&P+ instead of seventh as above. And assume that a Missouri offense with a healthy Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt would be more likely to rank in the 50s than 62nd. (The Tigers' offensive ratings fell drastically after the South Carolina game, thanks in part to the sudden and complete ineptitude of the passing game.)

Assume, in other words, that Georgia's offense and Missouri's defense grade out almost equally, and that Missouri's offense and Georgia's defense grade out almost equally. Apply home field advantage, and you're basically looking at Missouri as a slight favorite now.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Vanderbilt (93%, up 1%)
Kentucky (80%, down 6%)
Arkansas (63%, down 6%)
at Florida (58%, down 5%)
at Tennessee (56%, down 14%)
Georgia (44%, down 13%)
at Texas A&M (27%, up 4%)

Mostly because of Mizzou's offensive issues, not only against South Carolina but also for the first 2-3 quarters against Indiana, Missouri's ratings have slipped recently. Compare that to a rise for teams like Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and you see that Mizzou's win probabilities have slipped a bit. Still, a win on Saturday would give the Tigers an excellent chance of finishing 6-2 in conference, losing to A&M, beating Vandy and Kentucky, and going 2-1 against UT, UF, and Arkansas. So uh, try to win, guys.

When Georgia Has The Ball…

NOTE: The stats below are not the "+" stats that are adjusted for opponent because four weeks into the season, opponent adjustments only have so much value. But keep that in mind, especially as you look at the rankings below. They require quite a bit of context -- for instance, South Carolina's tougher-than-most schedule to date.

ACTUALLY, ONE MORE NOTE: Below, I'm also using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

OKAY, FINE, ONE MORE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UGA Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 63.3% (35th)

Success Rate 52.8% (23rd) 48.8% (88th) UGA big
IsoPPP 0.97 (7th) 0.69 (42nd) UGA
Rushing Success Rate 53.5% (21st) 46.3% (63rd) UGA
Rushing IsoPPP 0.99 (2nd) 0.71 (93rd) UGA big
Passing Success Rate 51.5% (41st) 53.3% (109th) UGA big
Passing IsoPPP 0.93 (54th) 0.65 (16th) MU

With Gurley as Georgia's primary standard downs weapon, the Dawgs had top-25 efficiency and top-10 explosiveness. Nick Chubb probably isn't as consistently explosive as Gurley, but he's got some jets in the open field. If anything, Gurley's absence will cost Georgia more from an efficiency standpoint. Chubb's Opportunity Rate (percentage of carries going at least five yards) is actually higher than Gurley's -- 52% vs. 48% -- but knowing that he's a freshman and knowing that his most low-efficiency game was also the one in which he had the most carries (11 carries for 32 yards against Tennessee), I would say that if they finished with the same number of totes, Chubb's Opp Rate would suffer in comparison to Gurley's. It's harder to find opportunities when you're the primary guy instead of the change-of-pace guy.

There is something else to think about here, and I mentioned it in my Mizzou-UGA preview for the mothership this morning.

Instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia could attempt to pass to set up the run.

[Hutson] Mason is nowhere near a 3,000-yard pace at the moment, partially because the Dawgs have been running the ball like crazy, and partially because the foursome listed above hasn't reached full health yet. Since each suffered injuries last season, Mitchell finally caught his first pass of the season last week, and Scott-Wesley has yet to get back to 100 percent.

Both are expected to play more reps on Saturday than they have all season. It would be unfair to expect too much of either Mitchell (who averaged 11.0 yards per target in 2012) or Scott-Wesley (who averaged 12.4 over the first half of 2013) right away, but between those two, Bennett, Conley, emerging tight end Jeb Blazevich, and the running backs, Georgia has more than enough weapons to go with more of a pass-first approach on standard downs. That might keep the Dawgs in run-friendly situations, and it might keep pressure off of Mason, who hasn't done very well on passing downs.

Against Missouri, staying away from passing downs is key; Golden and Shane Ray form one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the country -- Ray is second in the country with 7.0 sacks, and Golden is 26th with 4.0 despite missing the Indiana game with injury -- and the Tigers have been very good at getting off the field after forcing second- or third-and-long.

But without Gurley, perhaps this would be the game where the receiving corps begins living up to the potential it's already proved it has.

We don't know how healthy Malcolm Mitchall or Justin Scott-Wesley might be at this point, but Georgia has a multitude of weapons in the passing game, and it's been keeping that club in the bag, mostly because Todd Gurley is awesome. Without Gurley, Mike Bobo might break out more of the intermediate passing of 2012 and early-2013. We might find out on Saturday that Hutson Mason isn't good enough to do an effective Aaron Murray impersonation and can't coax enough out of the passing game; regardless, there's a chance that the element of surprise helps Georgia out, at least for a bit. Mizzou's been pretty good at preventing big pass plays on either standard or passing downs, but standard downs pass efficiency has been an issue, and Georgia could exploit that.

Targets & Catches
Michael Bennett: 15 targets, 10 catches (67%), 103 yards (6.9), 1 TD
Jeb Blazevich (TE): 9 targets, 7 catches (78%), 139 yards (15.4)
Isaiah McKenzie: 8 targets, 5 catches (63%), 55 yards (6.9)
Chris Conley: 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 69 yards (9.9), 2 TD
Todd Gurley (RB): 7 targets, 7 catches (100%), 40 yards (5.7)
Sony Michel (RB): 5 targets, 5 catches (100%), 58 yards (11.6), 1 TD

Jay Rome (TE): 4 targets, 4 catches (100%), 23 yards (5.8), 1 TD
Kenneth Towns: 4 targets, 2 catches (50%), 12 yards (6.0)

With my College Football hat on instead of my Missouri hat, Georgia's passing game has frustrated me this year, partially because of its conservatism and partially because of the teasing thought of Bennett, Conley, Mitchell, and Scott-Wesley all going off at the same time. Hopefully they get to run free and dominate at some point ... after Saturday.

Passing Downs
UGA Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 43.8% (17th)

Success Rate 34.3% (40th) 22.3% (13th) MU
IsoPPP 1.10 (76th) 1.02 (40th) MU
Rushing Success Rate 37.5% (18th) 16.7% (19th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 1.15 (49th) 1.05 (68th) push
Passing Success Rate 31.7% (76th) 24.4% (19th) MU
Passing IsoPPP 1.06 (79th) 1.01 (44th) MU

Targets & Catches
Chris Conley: 12 targets, 8 catches (67%), 131 yards (10.9)
Michael Bennett: 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 44 yards (7.3), 1 TD
Todd Gurley (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 13 yards (2.6)
Keith Marshall (RB): 3 targets, 1 catch (33%), -5 yards (-1.7)
Nick Chubb (RB): 3 targets, 3 catches (100%), 31 yards (10.3), 1 TD

Conley hasn't been used much in early-down passing; in those situations, Georgia has mostly gone toward Michael Bennett (a strong possession receiver), tight end Jeb Blazevich, and darty freshman Isaiah McKenzie. But on passing downs, Mason looks first to Conley, a big guy with high-end speed. Conley's never had the best hands in the world, but his athleticism is top-notch. As Mitchell and/or Scott-Wesley begin to play a larger role here, I'm curious what that does to ball distribution.

That said, Mizzou holds most of the overall advantages here, both because of decent secondary play and a spectacular pass rush. The Tigers currently rank third in Adjusted Sack Rate and are capable of harassing a passer on both standard and passing downs. Mason has shown he has no problem dumping to a running back in the face of a pass rush, and both Chubb and new/old backup Brendan Douglas have pretty good hands. Knowing Mizzou's own occasional weakness with passes to running backs, I assume Georgia will have no reservations in going that route.

Still, Mizzou has been very successful on passing downs this year -- I know you probably want to bring up UCF's three big third-and-long conversions in the first half; realize by looking at hte success rates above that those were the exceptions, not the rule -- and Georgia has been quite unsuccessful. Without draws to Gurley, the advantage should definitely shift to the Tigers here; if it doesn't, Mizzou's in trouble.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UGA Defense Advantage
SD % Run 58.9% (65th)

Success Rate 49.6% (52nd) 44.3% (45th) push
IsoPPP 0.84 (42nd) 0.65 (26th) push
Rushing Success Rate 49.2% (53rd) 46.6% (66th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.63 (80th) 0.56 (36th) UGA
Passing Success Rate 50.0% (52nd) 40.8% (30th) UGA
Passing IsoPPP 1.13 (19th) 0.82 (43rd) MU

Mizzou's efficiency numbers have been strangely consistent on standard downs this year: 49% rushing success rate, 50% passing success rate, 50% overall. The big plays have all come from the passing game -- my goodness, look at Bud Sasser's standard downs stats below and tell me you wouldn't mind him getting an extra four to six such targets per game -- but with only a solid (when healthy) overall receiving corps, Mizzou needs to establish a solid ground game to keep opponents from shading toward the pass.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 26 targets, 23 catches (89%), 303 yards (11.7), 3 TD
Darius White: 15 targets, 8 catches (53%), 127 yards (8.5), 2 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 10 catches (77%), 118 yards (9.1), 4 TD
Marcus Murphy: 11 targets, 7 catches (64%), 68 yards (6.2)
Sean Culkin (TE): 10 targets, 5 catches (50%), 36 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 4 targets, 3 catches (75%), 21 yards (5.3)

Seriously, Bud Sasser has an 89 percent catch rate on standard downs. Free, easy yards. I don't know what Sasser's celiing is -- I don't know what would happen if he was suddenly targeted far more frequently; the production would level off at some point. But I really don't mind Mauk testing that out on Saturday, especially with White and Hunt back. From what I could tell, South Carolina doubled Sasser a decent amount two weeks ago because there was no fear of the other options. But Georgia doesn't have enough proven DBs to pull that off with White and Hunt in the picture. (South Carolina didn't either, but White and Hunt didn't get to prove that.) Lean on Sasser, and if Georgia leans that way, too, pierce them with White.

Oh, and also: don't forget about the run. Coaching is so easy.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UGA Defense Advantage
PD % Run 25.8% (93rd)

Success Rate 31.2% (66th) 29.3% (63rd) push
IsoPPP 1.08 (83rd) 1.32 (113th) MU
Rushing Success Rate 29.2% (59th) 23.1% (46th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.84 (97th) 0.84 (31st) UGA
Passing Success Rate 31.9% (73rd) 31.5% (59th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.16 (62nd) 1.45 (112th) MU big

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 14 targets, 7 catches (50%), 145 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 80 yards (6.7), 1 TD
Darius White: 8 targets, 7 catches (88%), 103 yards (12.9), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 53 yards (7.6)
Marcus Murphy: 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 25 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Lawrence Lee: 5 targets, 1 catch (20%), 8 yards (1.6)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 4 targets, 2 catches (50%), -10 yards (-2.5)

Through three games, Missouri had one of the best passing downs offenses in the country. Josh Henson had no problem with basically instituting "Hey Maty, go make a play" play-calling on such downs, and it worked out just fine. Mizzou almost exclusively passed on such downs -- a big change over last year, when, among other things, third-and-5 was almost a run-first down -- and it worked.

But Mizzou's offensive line sprang some leaks against Indiana, and Mizzou only had one receiver against South Carolina. Funny how that slows you down. Combine that with an awesome, spy-heavy defensive gameplan from South Carolina, and you had a complete passing downs meltdown.

So basically, when you see that Mizzou is 66th in PD success rate, it's basically three games in the top 20 and two games in the bottom 20. Hopefully with a more stable line and all three receivers, things pick up again.

If there are still some leaks up front, Georgia will find them. As mentioned in Thursday's piece on the Georgia defense, the Dawgs have a great set of attacking linebackers and a smart defensive coordinator. Fortunately for Missouri, they also still have a secondary that is all sorts of glitchy. Avoid sacks, take advantage of breakdowns when they happen (and they will happen occasionally), mix in some more runs to keep Georgia honest (this is key -- Jeremy Foley really is a great coordinator, and Mizzou will die a slow death if it becomes too predictable), and try to avoid having to convert too many passing downs to begin with. Not easy, but doable.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. "First-and-10 for Georgia..."

This is important for two reasons: first, Georgia hasn't been great on passing downs and needs quality first-down yardage. Second, for the reasons noted above (mainly, a high-caliber receiving corps that has been kept on ice because of Todd Gurley's dominance), Georgia could go completely off-script and waste whatever defensive gameplan Mizzou had crafted when preparing for Gurley. If Mizzou wins first down -- if the Tigers keep the Dawgs' first-down success rate to about 40% or lower -- Mizzou probably wins the game.

2. "First-and-10 for Missouri..."

I'd like to be more creative here, but while Georgia's passing downs defense can suffer some glitches, and while Georgia's pass rush isn't as good as Missouri's, Missouri's offense also isn't as good as Georgia's. The Tigers will need the same quality movement on first down to avoid falling into predictability and passing downs traps. If Mizzou's first-down success rate is 40% or lower, that will put all sorts of pressure on the Mizzou defense to hold up for 60 minutes. The Tigers pulled that off against South Carolina but couldn't the week before.

3. Count the big plays

To date, Mizzou has been better than Georgia at preventing big plays and worse at creating them. With Gurley out of the equation, the edge here might shift to Mizzou, but that's not a given. Again, Chubb is still solid, and the Dawgs do still have up to four receivers capable of breaking off a big play at one point or another. However you want to define big plays -- 20-yard passes, 12-yard rushes, whatever -- count 'em up, and you'll probably figure out who won.

4. Special teams

Special teams can make a difference in any game, but it could tip the balance one way or another in such a closely-matched encounter. Both teams have good return games (though Georgia's suffers without Gurley), both teams have strong-legged kickers, and both teams are decent to good in the punting department. A particularly great or terrible play here could make the difference.

*****

At this point, I've said all I can think to say about this game. I do think the edge has shifted slightly toward Mizzou in Gurley's absence, but that only makes the Tigers maybe a three- or four-point favorite, not a 14-point favorite. This is still mostly a tossup, and Mizzou's offense will have to play better than it did for most of the Indiana or South Carolina games if the Tigers are going to win. The stakes are incredibly high -- win this, and you become the East favorite despite what happened during that last Mizzou home game; let's see if the Tigers can pull it off.