Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Missouri. Georgia. Saturday.

Up from Georgia come the Bulldogs, barking and singing “Glory, glory, to old Georgia,” carrying the pride of the Southeastern Conference and their fan base’s hunger for a conference title and more.

Awaiting the Bulldogs in Columbia are the Tigers of old Mizzou, chanting “M-I-Z, Z-O-U!,” craving respect from the SEC nobility, aching for a win that would shake the Show-Me State, and reverberate at the SEC offices in Birmingham, Ala.

Georgia is a proud program. They put over 90,000 fans in their Sanford Stadium, where they beat Buffalo 45-23 last week to open the season.

But pride can be wounded. The SEC being what it is, the Bulldogs have to jockey for position endlessly with other titans such as Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and LSU, all below kingpin Alabama. Georgia has been limited to two SEC championships in the last 20 years.

Missouri wants to prove its momentum is still trending upward. The Tigers, who easily routed Southeastern Louisiana 62-10 in the rain last Saturday to start its first SEC season, want to prove they belong. Maybe want isn’t the right word.

Some SEC types questioned Missouri’s addition to the conference. Tiger fans have talked about “stepping up their game” to fit into SEC football culture. But ultimately, it will take wins to prove Missouri belongs.

Maybe most important of all, Georgia is expected to battle South Carolina for the SEC East title. For the Bulldogs, this is the kind of tricky road game they have to secure to stay in the East race. On the flip side, a Missouri win could launch the Tigers into that divisional race.

Most coaches would rather have the NCAA comb through their cellphones and computers rather than say any one game is more important than the rest. But Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has broken form and talked openly about how huge this game is for his program. On Sunday, Georgia coach Mark Richt called this matchup his team’s biggest game of the season. When a game is deemed bigger than Georgia’s creatively named grudge matches (“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” vs. Florida and “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” vs. Georgia Tech), not to mention its South Carolina game, you know it is huge.

Saturday’s game (6:45 p.m. on ESPN2) is one of the more anticipated Missouri home games I can recall. Columbia, in its full bloom of football season, will be buzzing.

Leading Georgia into that maw will be Aaron Murray, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. He has plenty of talented receivers to target, so Missouri’s secondary will be tested. If the Georgia offense has a weakness, it may be the offensive line, so it will be interesting to see if the Tigers can exploit this. Likewise, Georgia will probably put Missouri's somewhat banged-up offensive line to the test early and often.

Georgia has a strong defense, even by the SEC’s high standards. But some key players may or may not be suspended; Richt is keeping that close to the vest. If safety Bacarri Rambo plays, it will be a big boost to the Bulldogs’ pass defense.

Whatever happens under the lights of Faurot Saturday, Missouri’s SEC era has arrived. What a way to start.

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