Written by Jacob Freedman
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NCAA Week 2: Georgia at Missouri
This battle is a lot closer than one might think. Georgia’s Aaron Murray is the most experienced quarterback in the SEC with 28 starts. Murray led the conference with 35 touchdown passes last season and, while a little bit small at 6’1”, has the arm and vision to be an excellent signal-caller. Despite his success, there are still reasons to be concerned with Murray. Most notable was his regression in many categories last season. His accuracy dipped two percent from 2011 with six more interceptions, and he tended to have less success throwing the ball deep down the field.
James Franklin is a dual-threat quarterback for Missouri who threw for 21 touchdowns and almost 3,000 yards while rushing for 15 touchdowns and 985 yards in 2011. However, Franklin is not in Kansas (or Iowa or Oklahoma) anymore as he now has to run Mizzou’s spread offense against SEC defenses. He will need to carry the offensive burden, and will take his lumps against a ferocious Bulldogs defensive line. Expect a few long broken plays, but ultimately not enough of them to create a consistent offensive rhythm.
Advantage: Georgia (barely)
The injury bug bit the Tigers hard here. Speedy back Henry Josey rushed for 1138 yards with a stunning 8.1 yards per carry before tearing his ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon in the Tigers’ tenth game last year against Texas. In August it was announced Josey will miss the entire 2012 season as well. Kendial Lawrence was actually named the starter in 2011 before Josey, but suffered a broken bone before the Tigers’ second game and lost his job even though he returned midway through the season. Lawrence made it look easy in the Tigers’ 62-10 romp over Southeastern Louisiana in the opener breaking a 76-yard touchdown run and finishing with 10 carries for 121 yards and two scores. Back-up Marcus Murphy has breakaway speed which he displayed on two punts returns for touchdowns last Saturday, but this week will likely require more of him at the running back spot.
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The Bulldogs also lost a back they were hoping to rely on this past offseason. Isaiah Crowell was named SEC Freshman of the Year after rushing for 850 yards, and his future in Athens looked bright before a late June arrest. Crowell was kicked off the team, and has since transferred to Alabama State. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are listed as co-starters and both looked fine against Buffalo, but they are both freshmen and could struggle against a strong Tigers defensive front led by Sheldon Richardson.
Georgia’s Tavarres King should be Murray’s favorite target this season. It sure seemed that way in the opener as King had six receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown. Things become a little sketchy beyond King. Last year’s second-leading receiver was Malcolm Mitchell who moved to cornerback in the offseason. Michael Bennett needs to produce like he did last Saturday when he had five catches for 76 yards. Murray did not complete a pass to a tight end in the opener so Georgia fans should hope Jay Rome or Arthur Lynch see some passes thrown their way on Saturday.
On the Missouri side, a contrasting duo should lead the way. T.J. Moe is the veteran of the unit who saw his numbers decrease last season without Blaine Gabbert. Moe is speedy, but should not be relied on as the primary pass catcher. That role goes to freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, this season’s uber-recruit whose 6’6’’ size and pro-level athleticism will be invaluable. Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington provide depth, but Moe and Green-Beckham will shine if Franklin shows the ability to find them consistently.
This is a glaring issue for the Tigers. Missouri’s interior line trio of Max Morse, Mitch Copeland, and Evan Boehm had no combined starts before the season, and let a few too many Buffalo defenders slip by. Left tackle Elvis Fisher is in his sixth year at Missouri after redshirting and receiving a medical hardship year missing all of 2011. Fisher will anchor the line and protect Franklin’s blind side, but needs more help in order to fend off the Georgia pass rush.
Kenarious Gates moves back to left tackle from guard, and will be relied upon by Georgia to protect Murray. John Theus missed practice earlier this week with an ankle injury, but he or Watts Danzler can perform well if healthy at right tackle. Guard Dallas Lee and center David Andrews are green so guard Chris Burnette will need to make sure the interior line unit works well to establish the running game. Neither team has seen enough to be confident in its line, but expect the Mizzou line to struggle more especially when having to protect Franklin outside of the pocket.
Each side has an unquestioned star and future NFL starter leading the way. For Missouri, that is Sheldon Richardson. He is a force against the run, and will be the biggest challenge to Georgia establishing the run game. The Tigers held their Week 1 opponent to just 58 yards on the ground. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam are also respectable pass rushers. They will get into the backfield against Georgia’s inexperienced line and test Murray’s ability to move his feet and escape pressure out of the pocket.
John Jenkins is a 6’3”, 351-pound behemoth for Georgia who could eat a Mizzou running back or two for lunch if he wanted. His back-up is Kwame Geathers who is the same weight as Jenkins, but three inches taller making the pair an impressive wall when playing alongside each other. This group however allowed Buffalo to rush for 199 yards in Week 1, and could struggle against the Tigers’ potent rushing attack unless there’s a drastic improvement.
Zaviar Gooden leads Missouri’s unit. The senior leader had 80 tackles last season and a 20-yard interception return for a score in the opener. Andrew Wilson should also lead a strong Missouri tackling unit after leading the team with 98 tackles a year ago. Starting middle linebacker Will Ebner is questionable with a neck stinger.
Jarvis Jones leads the way for Georgia. Jones has NFL talent but fell off towards the end of last season struggling with consistency. Jones had a strong game against Buffalo with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks though, and will be crucial in limiting Franklin’s running ability. The big question mark is the availability of Kyle Ogletree. He was suspended for the opener, and head coach Mark Richt has been mum on the junior’s availability. Ogletree is listed as the starter, and an already-impressive linebacker unit would be even scarier with his presence.
Georgia is still undecided who still start on Saturday. Cornerback Malcolm Mitchell is still recovering from a sprained ankle, and while he expects to play he could still be limited. Meanwhile, All-SEC free safety Baccari Rambo is coming off a suspension Week 1 as well. Rambo is a dynamic playmaker that can change the pace of a game, and will be sorely missed if he does not play. A player whose status is more certain is cornerback Sanders Commings who will be out serving the second game of his suspension after an offseason arrest. Cornerback Branden Smith and strong safety Shawn Williams are both superb athletes and will provide support across the field.
A.J. Gaines was an All-Big-12 performer at cornerback for Missouri last year, and had 16 pass break-ups to go with 69 tackles. Gaines will likely be tasked with limiting King. Sophomore Braylon Webb is a rising star at safety and the rest of the secondary has depth and experience, but allowing big plays was an issue in 2011 and could be once again. The Tigers are definitely more set in their depth chart for Saturday compared to Georgia, but are more concerned witht the quality of play.
Arguably the biggest takeaway from Week 1 for both teams was that they have playmakers in the return game. In addition to rushing for 100 yards and two scores, Georgia true freshman Todd Gurley returned a kick-off 100 yards for a score. Gurley established himself as Georgia’s quick but powerful kick returner for the immediate future. Marshall Morgan missed a 45-yard field goal against Buffalo, but nailed every extra point and has a powerful leg for kick-offs.
Marcus Murphy was named the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week, and made history by being the first Missouri player to return two punts for touchdowns in a game. He is a speedster, and Georgia will probably aim their punts out of bounds or away from him.
Missouri receives the privilege of hosting a Georgia team ranked seventh in the nation in its debut SEC conference game. Georgia will be more focused for this game than it was for their opener against Buffalo. The 2.5-point spread means Missouri will probably need to win the game in order to cover.
I can’t trust the Tigers’ back seven to effectively limit Murray’s ability to slice and dice and make mid-range throws. Georgia has enough tailback depth to create a balanced offense, while things get ugly quickly if their front seven can take away Franklin’s ability to make plays on the run. I don’t expect an offensive rampage from either side, but believe Georgia’s defense will make enough stops to give Mark Richt an uncomfortable, but well-earned road victory.
Georgia 27, Missouri 20