This is it. The most important game your Missouri Tigers will play since they took the field against Alabama in the 2014 SEC Championship game. For nine years Mizzou has been building and fighting to get back to a stage like that and, finally they are here.
And make no mistake about it: this is certainly a championship-level game. For all intents and purposes it is the SEC East Championship game, with the winner of this matchup likely representing the East against whichever of the LSU/Ole Miss/Alabama triumvirate comes out of the West.
Here’s the preview I did this summer. Because of the extra heft of this game, I’ll do my usual key stats for each side but let’s dive a little deeper to look at the behemoth Missouri will be attempting to take down on Saturday.
First, let’s talk about those Kirby Smart Georgia Bulldogs.
They are currently on a 25-game winning streak. The last time Georgia lost a football game was to #3 Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship game in Atlanta on December 4th, 2021.
The last time Georgia lost a regular season game was in the 2020 COVID year, when they lost to #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa on October 17th and to #8 Florida in the Cocktail Party at Jacksonville on November 7th.
The last time Georgia lost a regular season game at home was the befuddling 20-17 double overtime loss to South Carolina on October 12th, 2019. That Will Muschamp Gamecock squad won only a single game after that upset, by the way, finishing with a 4-8 record that year.
It’s been 1,480 days since Georgia lost to a division (or conference) opponent at home; so long ago that Eli Drinkwitz was still at Appalachian State, Harrison Mevis had only been committed to Mizzou for a month, and Barry Odom was 5-1 with Kelly Bryant as his starting quarterback.
In fact, since he took over in 2016, Kirby Smart has only lost four games at home:
- 34-31 to Butch Jones’ #11 Tennessee on October 1st, 2016
- 17-16 to Derek Mason’s 3rd-best Vanderbilt team on October 15th, 2016
- 28-27 to plucky Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech on November 26th, 2016
- The aforementioned 20-17 (2OT) loss to South Carolina in 2019
Notice anything in those four games? I’m sure you do but I’ll spell it out: they were all one possession losses and three of the four happened in the first year of Smart’s tenure.
So if you take out the 2016 transition year and count every year after that as “fully actualized” Kirby Smart teams, he has lost only one game at home. And, even if you don’t take out that ‘16 season, he is 53-9 against the SEC, 41-5 against the SEC East, and 25-3 in games played in November.
Which is a long way of saying he’s overdue for a loss, right? Right.
Now, let’s talk about Eli Drinkwitz at Mizzou.
When the game time was announced I tweeted out this little nugget:
Eli Drinkwitz is 5-11 on the road, 4-10 against ranked teams, 6-14 against teams that finish the year with a winning record, 0-9 against SP+ Top 10 teams, 2-2 in games that kickoff at 2:30p CST…and 4-0 coming off a bye week. https://t.co/lzmSouJoln— Nate Edwards (@NateGEdwards) October 23, 2023
Most of the replies I got on that tweet were variations of the same response - “I’m just reading the last part” - which is good, it’s the reason why I wrote it in that manner.
As head coach of Missouri Eli Drinkwitz has played four games in which he has had an extra week to prepare for an opponent that does not get the same luxury: against Kentucky and South Carolina in 2020, and against Vanderbilt in 2021 and 2022. Average score of those games? Missouri 22.75 - SouthKentunderbilt (Opponent) 15.5.
And, to his credit, Eli Drinkwitz is 6-4 in the month of November, losing to Georgia and Arkansas in ‘21 and then Kentucky and Tennessee in ‘22. If you take out his lone August win this year, November is the month where Eli has his best winning percentage at Missouri.
The other thing to keep in mind is one-score games. Winners of one score games tend to benefit from smart coaching decisions, tremendous quarterback play, and clutch special teams performances. After starting on a heater, Eli Drinkwitz has cooled a bit but still boasts a 11-7 record in games decided by 8 points or less. Kirby Smart: 17-7 (with 3 of those in his first year).
Hopefully the bye week got all of Mizzou’s injured guys plenty of rest and preparation to continue the streak of “extra week = win” and attempt to repeat the 2013 finish.
Let’s Talk About the 2013 Game Real Quick
The 2013 Georgia team finished 7th in SP+ but only managed an 8-5 record. How? One word: injuries! For most of the year, and specifically against Missouri, that Georgia squad was missing its...
- Top two running backs (Todd Gurley for the game, Keith Marshall for the season)
- Top three wide receivers (Michael Bennett for the game, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season)
- Starting safety (Tray Matthews for the game)
On top of that, despite being renowned as a consistent defensive juggernaut, the 2013 edition featured the worst Bulldog defense of the millennium, ranking 33rd in SP+, 11th in the SEC in pass defense, last in the SEC in 3rd-down conversions, and one of the worst in the country at points per scoring opportunity defense. Yes, the 8th-best offense led by SEC Hall of Famer Aaron Murray was still Top 10, but for that game he was throwing to freshmen backups and dealing with a liability of a defense...and still almost won.
Obviously Missouri was dealing with injuries of its own, specifically when James Franklin was knocked out of the game with a separated shoulder. But the reason Missouri won was because it had four NFL-caliber defensive ends and four NFL-caliber offensive linemen. Games like this are won in the trenches, and on that day, Missouri showed that it could hang with the best when they had elite line play to go with elite skill position players.
The other reason Missouri won the game? They forced Georgia into four turnovers without losing the ball themselves.
None of this is a critique on the current matchup, mind you. We all - myself included - want to see a repeat of the 2013 masterpiece in 2023 but the parameters are going to be quite a bit different than last time.
Last note, I promise!
Georgia heads into this game ranked 2nd in SP+ and viewed as 26.4 points better than the average college football team. That is a massive downgrade from the 32.0 of 2021 and 37.3 of 2022, but still elite nonetheless and, in fact, right around the same caliber as the 2013 Georgia squad. Missouri, on the other hand, enters this game ranked 20th in SP+ and is viewed as 14.1 points better than the average college football team. For comparison, that is 5 points lower than the ‘13 and ‘14 Missouri squads, and slightly below the caliber of the 2006 Missouri team.
So, let’s take a look at what the 2023 matchup looks like heading in to this Saturday:
When Missouri Has the Ball
This is a Kirby Smart Georgia defense that you know and hate; great at everything, very few weaknesses, intelligent, and aggressive. In the open field its going to be anyone’s game, as Mizzou excels at the things Georgia is great at - such as explosive plays, passing success rate, and completion rate - and is mediocre at the things the Bulldogs are mediocre at - such as rushing success rate and standard downs execution. There is one surprise weakness to these Bulldogs, mind you, but the key to success for Mizzou’s offense isn’t complicated: do what you like to do and do it well because that’s most likely going to unlock an A+ effort and anything less will probably result in a loss.
Luther Burden needs to have a Luther Burden day. He’s going up against elite competition and it’s his chance to make a statement on the national stage. But Theo Wease Jr. and Mookie Cooper need to provide big plays as well. And Cody Schrader needs to log a few of his patented, “Oh, I’m just plodding along for 3-yards lol jk SURPRISE 36-YARDS” runs in there, too. Mizzou excels when it’s making big plays and while Georgia doesn’t give up a ton, they haven’t faced an explosive offense like this one all year. As a goal, Mizzou needs to shoot for at least ten (10) explosive plays.
It can’t happen. Sorry. No forced throws or bad reads. No fumbled snaps. No bobbled exchanges. No hands-on-the-ball-but-it’s-popped-up-and-a-defender-gets-it. Can’t happen, not this week. Anything more than zero turnovers is potentially sealing your fate on the road against the most elite program of the past five years.
Finish Your Dang Drives
And here lies Georgia’s surprise defensive weakness: They stink in the red zone. Specifically: 124th in Red Zone Touchdown Rate, 122nd in Goal-to-Go Touchdown rate, and an okay 53rd in points per scoring opportunity. They don’t let offenses do much but, if said offense gets inside the 40 and certainly inside the 20, points are there to be had. Mizzou needs to capitalize on every opportunity and not be Shane-Beamer-satisfied with only field goals. The goal is 8 scoring opportunities with at least 4.5 points per opportunity.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Yes, even despite missing the past few weeks due to an injury, Brock Bowers still represents 20% of all of Georgia’s targets and 21% of all of Georgia’s receiving yards among the 15 gentlemen targeted in the passing game this season. But Georgia still has Daijun Edwards who spearheads the 19th-best rushing attack in the country. And Georgia still has their top five offensive linemen who are 8th in the country in pressures allowed and have only blown 1% of all their blocks attempted this year. There’s no key guy to shut down because they’re all good enough to hurt you, and you can’t really take advantage of Carson Beck’s immobility because he never gets touched. So, again, Mizzou needs to play the game they like and the one that allows them to reach an A+ effort.
Missouri gives up tons of explosive plays but Georgia is in the middle of the pack as far as generating explosive plays and, again, they’ve only played one defense as good as Missouri’s (it was Kentucky and no, don’t go look up how many points they scored against the Wildcats) so they might just be comfortable taking the easy stuff for the most part. How do you knock off an offense that takes the easy stuff and tries to punish you over 10-play drives? Knock them off schedule! At his heart Blake Baker wants to create disruption and the havoc has slowly been creeping up over the past few weeks. Let’s shoot for at least a 25% havoc rate.
Turn Them Over!
Missouri has had terrible fumble luck as they should be at almost +3 per game but have managed only +2 on the year. Georgia, on the other hand, is incredibly turnover lucky as they should be at +0.4 on the year but are currently +3. That’s not great for Mizzou! As 2013 taught us, you probably need four turnovers to beat Georgia at home but, for goal purposes, I’d be ok with at least a +2 turnover margin.
Heading into, and at the conclusion of, the LSU game I said that a loss was fine because it still allowed every big picture goal for the year to remain: win the division, win the conference, appear in the Playoff. A loss here eliminates almost all of those as Georgia would be at a nearly unsurmountable 6-0 in conference and two-loss teams don’t often make it into the Playoff.
But that’s ok!
With a loss Mizzou can still have a tremendous season, one of the best in 9 years, and that’s something to still be proud of and enjoy. A win, however, keeps the opportunity for a magical, transcendent season on the table and the ability to chase goals that few Missouri fans could think possible. Enjoy the week, enjoy the excitement, and let’s hope the guys can snatch a win this week.