Monday, September 10, 2012

Painful loss, but Mizzou shows it can compete in SEC

So close, and yet so far away.

Last Saturday, Missouri traded punches and momentum swings with No. 7 Georgia for three quarters. The Bulldogs didn’t take a lead until only 51 seconds remained in the third quarter, and as Faurot Field swayed for the Missouri Waltz heading into the fourth quarter, the outcome was very much in doubt.

But that fourth quarter was a wave of Georgia rain on Missouri’s first SEC game parade; the Bulldogs’ emphatic welcome-to-the-SEC message.

A failed Missouri fake punt. Georgia field goal. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones intercepted Missouri’s James Franklin and returned it to the one-yard line. Georgia touchdown. Jones forced a Franklin fumble, recovered by Georgia at the Missouri five. Georgia touchdown. Ballgame, 41-20 Dawgs.

Altogether, Georgia closed the game on a 32-3 run, turning the joyful, festive march of Tiger fans to a sold-out Faurot into a dejected, disheveled trudge back to their vehicles afterward.

Despite the loss, the Tigers showed they can hang with the SEC East’s best, at least at Faurot. Missouri actually outgained Georgia, 371 yards to 355.

Georgia, along with South Carolina, are the measuring sticks in the East, until further notice, and Missouri was not crushed. They were simply defeated by a good team and a dominating linebacker making huge plays when it mattered most.

Missouri fans thought their Tigers could compete in the SEC, but now they’ve seen it. Yes, Georgia’s players are big and fast and talented, but they still can make mistakes and get burned for touchdowns. Their fans are passionate and devoted, but they have no superpowers; they’re just good college football fans. Missouri fans have been dealing with that for decades in the form of Nebraska’s visiting hordes.

But Missouri fans have also seen now just how difficult it is to compete in the SEC. Missouri’s next SEC game, Sept. 22 at South Carolina, will be even tougher, making a buzzkill 0-2 conference start quite possible.

But first Missouri has another home nonconference game next Saturday, at 6 p.m. against Arizona State on ESPN2.

Arizona State is something of a blank-slate team. After starting 6-2 last year, including an overtime win over Missouri in Tempe, the Sun Devils lost five straight to finish the season with a losing record. They have a new coach, Todd Graham, and must replace quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

The general consensus is that Arizona State is a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 Conference team, or maybe slightly below that, and that they can contend for a bowl but not much more. But they do have some talent, such as running back Cameron Marshall, and they did throttle Illinois 45-14 to move to 2-0. But as a disclaimer, Missouri fans know beating Illinois is mostly just an indicator that the season has started, not necessarily that your team is great.

Missouri opened as about a touchdown favorite, and I think they should have a relatively comfortable win. The danger is that this is a classic trap game, in between two games against the SEC East favorites. But this is still a game Missouri should win.

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