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Missouri faces toughest challenge of season in Georgia post-bye week

Coming off the bye week following their worst two games of the season, the Tigers have a good amount of prep work still to come before Saturday.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when it was a realistic idea that Missouri could be 8-0 at this point in the season?

Even after a Week 1 loss to Wyoming, it was still reasonable to to think that the Tigers could be 7-1 and undefeated in Southeastern Conference play heading into a showdown with the Bulldogs in Athens, Georgia. But now we’ve gotten to Week 11, Missouri currently sits at 5-3 and is coming off its worst stretch of the season after back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Not to mention — outside of a win over Troy earlier this season — the Tigers have not been able to get the job done coming off a bye week during head coach Barry Odom’s tenure. This mix of variables seems like it could spell disaster for Missouri on Saturday.

So where is the team at just days before Missouri takes on Georgia?

“Everyone’s excited, everyone’s in good spirits,” defensive tackle Jordan Elliott said. “Even after this loss that we had, we looked at the corrections that we needed to make, and it’s small things. So it’s not anything that’s just a fundamental, core thing on our team that we can’t fix.”

Over the current rough patch, the defense has, for the most part, been steady. Though the unit has failed to get the necessary stops in most key situations, it has played well enough to keep the Tigers around. Linebacker Nick Bolton has lived up to the hype and then some — especially after Cale Garrett was lost after having pectoral surgery — and the secondary has done its job to limit opponents’ passing attacks.

The line hasn’t done its job to create pressure, though, and the defense overall still hasn’t figured out how to contain mobile quarterbacks (see Lynn Bowden’s 204 yard, two touchdown rushing performance), but neither of the losses have gotten out of hand to the point that the fingers should be pointed at that unit.

But still, the defense has yet to face a team at this level.

Georgia, the No. 6 team in the nation, deploys a very strong and efficient offensive attack, led by quarterback Jake Fromm. Fromm has completed over 70% of his passes on the season (143 of 204) for 1,685 yards and 11 touchdowns against three interceptions.

Fromm was at his best last week, throwing 20 for 30 for 279 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 win over Florida that gave the Bulldogs sole possession of first place in the SEC East. So when defensive coordinator Ryan Walters discussed Georgia’s offense Tuesday, a bulk of his answers had to do with the challenge Fromm will present to Missouri.

“Obviously Georgia’s got some talent outside (at receiver), they’ve got a couple of transfers that are good players, long and tall,” Walters said. “And they’ve got a quarterback that can get them the rock in some tight windows. We’ll be tested for sure.”

Of the things Odom’s teams have done well during his tenure, the one that is very well-documented is their success in November.

The Tigers are 10-2 in the month under Odom, included 8-0 from 2017-18.

However, the only way for that streak to continue is if the offense performs like it did through the first six games. Missouri scored no less than 31 points through the first half of the season, ending its five-game homestand 5-1 with a 38 points per game average.

But in the two games since, the Tigers scored just 14 points against the Commodores (seventh place in the East) and 7 against the Wildcats (sixth place in the East). They were the two worst offensive performances of the season by a long shot, and there was plenty of blame to go around.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant had his two worst passing displays and exited the loss to Kentucky early. The receivers and tight ends have seemed allergic to the ball. The offensive line has allowed way too much pressure and have not opened nearly enough holes, and that in turn has not helped the running backs, whose production continues to be inconsistent.

Then there’s the inconsistent, and a lot of times downright confusing, play calling and lack of discipline in terms of avoiding penalties. That falls on the coaching staff.

If there is any hope for a Missouri win Saturday, it’ll start with everyone involved on offense returning to form.

“We know what we haven’t been doing this past week, playing pitch and catch, executing at a high level. Hurting ourselves, whether it’s alignment, false start penalties and things like that,” Bryant said. “Just things, you know, self-inflicted wounds for us.”

But even Bryant’s status remains up in the air. He told reporters Tuesday that his right hamstring, which he injured during the second drive against Kentucky, is at about 75% health, and he is still taking his recovery day by day.

Odom said that had Tuesday been a game day, Bryant “wouldn’t be out there,” so the Tigers have been preparing backup quarterback Taylor Powell the past two weeks for what could be his first collegiate start against Georgia.

While Powell did get some valuable first team reps when he came in for Bryant after his injury, Powell’s relative inexperience in non-garbage time situations can be concerning. For what it’s worth, Odom, Bryant and the rest of the team said they have complete confidence in Powell to run the offense.

And they better, because if Bryant is unable to play against the Bulldogs, the Tigers will need complete confidence all-around to try to pull off the upset.

“I think we’re a very confident group,” Powell said. “If you look back on the years, November’s been pretty good for us, so being able to kind of have that bye week, wash everything down and be eager to go into Athens and pull it off. So let’s go do it.”