Battle-tested Bulldogs expect more drama

When Georgia exited the top-10 gauntlet that was September, some thought the thrills-and-spills portion of the season was over. But as evidenced by the high-wire act that the No. 7 Bulldogs had to pull off to escape Tennessee last week, nothing could be further from the truth.

Dare we say it’s about to get even more harrowing?

Thanks to the resulting carnage from four heavyweight slugfests in five games, Georgia (4-1, 3-0 SEC) can expect every game from here on to be a made-for-TV drama. Tailbacks Todd Gurley (ankle) and Keith Marshall (knee) and wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell (knee), Michael Bennett (knee) and Justin Scott-Wesley (knee) will be on the sidelines in some sort of cast or another. That group accounted for 4,081 all-purpose yards and 36 touchdowns last season.

So the outscore-the-opponent strategy that at first seemed so plausible is now draped in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ defense remains a work in progress. And here comes a red-hot, high-scoring Missouri team, undefeated with a newly acquired No. 25 ranking. And the Tigers (5-0, 1-0) left their sympathy card back in Columbia, where the Bulldogs welcomed them to the SEC last year with 41-20 whipping.

Hold onto your hats, Georgia fans, because another heart-stopping shootout would appear to be in the offing.

“It’s fun,” said senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who has engineered two final-drive comebacks this season. “It can get stressful at times, but these are fun games to play in, and it’s fun for the fans. I think it really has made some guys on this team grow up a lot and understand that this is the SEC and every week there’s going to be tough games. Every week it’s going to take all 60 minutes, plus more.”

A Murray touchdown pass tied unranked Tennessee with five seconds left in regulation Saturday, and the Bulldogs won 34-31 on a field goal in overtime. Another Murray-orchestrated touchdown drive resulted in the winning score against No. 6 LSU, and Georgia’s record-setting signal-caller nearly brought his team back from the brink in a 38-35 loss at Clemson as well.

Including an 11-point win over South Carolina that required a goal-line stand and an eight-minute drive to secure the victory, the average margin in Georgia’s four games of consequence is five points.

“I can’t say I’m sitting here being entertained by it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “But you can see why college football is one of the most exciting sports there is. It’s very, very dramatic stuff.”

Such drama is foreign to Missouri. The Tigers had victory in the bag early against Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State and Vanderbilt. They’ve won those contests by an average of 24.2 points. The 51-28 win over the Commodores in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday was particularly impressive.

“It was kind of scary to watch the tape of it,” Richt said. “They were so proficient.”

Mizzou is doing it with a high-flying offense led by dual-threat quarterback James Franklin and a long, tall receiving corps that starts at 6-foot-4 and goes up. The Tigers have averaged 46.6 points and 544 yards per game. They’re incredibly balanced, averaging an SEC-best 258.8 yards rushing.

Conversely, the Bulldogs’ 32.2 points allowed per game ranks last in the league. They rank 10th in total defense (403.8 ypg) and 12th in pass defense (264.6 ypg).

The saving grace for Georgia might be that Missouri’s defense has been equally suspect. Against a slate of below-grade teams, the Tigers have given up an SEC-worst 293.8 yards passing and 412.4 yards per game. Murray and his band of stand-ins are confident they can still move the ball.

“Mark has done a great job building that program,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “They’ve got good depth, and they’ve got good players. And with Aaron Murray back there and his ability to perform and make the plays that he makes behind that great offensive line, I think that helps that whole adjustment. I expect them to be full power.”

The Bulldogs’ backups came through at Tennessee. Freshman J.J. Green — who will get his first career start Saturday — rushed for 129 yards after Marshall went down, and flanker Rantavious Wooten stepped up with two touchdown catches. Backups wideouts like walk-on Rhett McGowan and freshman Reggie Davis will now move into more prominent roles.

“Our offense, we trust them to step up just like they did (against Tennessee),” said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, the leading tackler in the SEC. “We’ve got dudes waiting for their turns. So we’re not even worried about our offense. We’re worried about the defense and how we’re going to stop Missouri.”