Five things to know about the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs vs. Missouri

ATHENS – The No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs head to Columbia, Mo., looking to wash a bad taste from their collective mouth. The Bulldogs were not hitting on all cylinders Saturday in what ended as a 39-22 win over Kent State, a team over which they were favored by 45½ points.

But that did little to dampen optimism for Georgia in Las Vegas. The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) were posted as four-touchdown favorites for Saturday’s game against Missouri (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Tigers (2-2, 0-1) are coming off a gut-wrenching 17-14 overtime loss to Auburn. In that game, they missed a 26-yard field-goal attempt that would have won the game in regulation and fumbled away victory in overtime when running back Nathaniel Peat lost control of the ball trying reach for the goal-line pylon.

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Here are five considerations as Georgia begins a stretch of seven consecutive SEC games:

1. Offensive transformation

Count Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz among those impressed with what the Bulldogs are doing on offense this season. Georgia is second in the SEC in total offense (531.5 ypg), yards per play (7.6) and third in points per game (42.2).

Traditionally known as RBU, the Bulldogs are going about their business differently in Year 3 under offensive coordinator Todd Monken. They’re throwing it (146 attempts) more than they’re running it (133), and they’re doing it in very creative ways.

“He’s a guy that I think really knows how to use all of his resources,” Drinkwitz said of Monken. “I think what makes him so difficult as a coordinator is that he’s got experience in blended offenses. He knows how to use his quarterbacks in the run game. He knows how to use the tight ends in the pass game. He knows how to use wide or spread formations. He’s got all the passes; he’s got all the runs; he’s got all the tight end stuff. So, he’s got a really big toolbox.”

In addition to having the best tight end in the country in sophomore Brock Bowers (358 all-purpose yards, 5 TDs), Monken has a 24-year-old, sixth-year senior at quarterback in Stetson Bennett. Completing 74% of his passes for 1,224 yards and five touchdowns, Bennett is the first quarterback since Florida’s Tim Tebow in 2004 to throw for at least 250 yards and score at least one rushing touchdown in four consecutive games.

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2. Quick to 70

Georgia coach Kirby Smart is quietly off to one of the best starts in the history of college football coaching. The Bulldogs’ last win was Smart’s 70th in seven seasons at UGA with at least seven games – and likely more -- left to go in this season.

That’s a winning percentage of .824. To put that into some perspective, his peers on the all-time wins list for coaches include Tennessee’s Robert Neyland (.829) and Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson (.826), who are ninth and 10th, respectively, among coaches with at least 10 seasons of experience.

As for active coaches, Smart ranks fourth among those not in their first seasons. Ohio State’s Ryan Day (38-4, .904), Washington’s Kalen DeBoer (83-9, .902) and USC’s Lincoln Riley (59-10, .855) are the only current coaches out-pacing Smart.

Unofficially, Smart reached 70 wins in among the fewest games ever, though that career stat generally is not acknowledged until a coach gets to 100 wins. For more perspective, consider that the coach with the most all-time wins among those who coached at least 10 seasons in their career is Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne, who won 88.1% of his games from 1918-30, with a 105-12-5 record.

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3. What about Burden?

There remains some question whether the Bulldogs are going to see one of their top targets in the 2022 recruiting cycle. Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden was classified as “questionable” by Drinkwitz for Saturday’s game.

Burden, a 5-foot-11, 208-pound freshman from East St. Louis, Ill., was the No. 1 receiver prospect in America and thought to be a heavy lean toward Georgia before surprising a lot of folks by signing with Missouri. He was sidelined in the second quarter Saturday against Auburn with an undisclosed lower-body injury. For the game, he was limited on the stat sheet to one punt return for three yards in the fourth quarter.

For the season, Burden has been dynamic but not prolific for the Tigers. He has scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and on a 78-yard punt return. Otherwise has only 118 yards on 17 touches, seven of them runs.

“Really proud of the toughness he’s showed,” Drinkwitz said Tuesday. “… Our priority is getting him healthy and doing the very best we can for him. So, I look forward to working with him all week to try to get him back.”

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4. Carter to return?

Georgia is hoping to get some key players back as well after struggling in the second half Saturday. Chief among them is junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

The preseason All-American candidate was limited to one play of action against Kent State and that was as a lead blocker in a goal-line situation. Carter also sat out most of the South Carolina game the previous week with an ankle injury suffered against Samford.

“Jalen Carter’s been practicing, taking more volume,” Smart said. “He looks much better this week.”

To date, Carter has only four tackles, but he’s second on the team with six quarterback pressures and a pass break-up. Junior Zion Logue slid over from nose guard to start the past two games at tackle in Carter’s absence, while Nazir Stackhouse has gotten the nod at nose.

The outlook for starting split end A.D. Mitchell is less rosy. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound sophomore stands to miss his third consecutive game with an ankle injury. Meanwhile, speedy sophomore Arian Smith returned to practice this week but is not expected to play for a fifth consecutive week after undergoing preseason ankle surgery.

Running back Kenny McIntosh, sidelined late against Kent State with a thigh bruise, is expected to be available.

5. Other absences

Georgia also is expected to be without its starter at the “star” position. Sophomore Javon Bullard was jailed on DUI and six other misdemeanor charges after being pulled over at 3 a.m. Sunday for driving without headlights leaving downtown Athens.

Bullard has been first on the field at the Bulldogs’ all-important fifth defensive back position in the first four games of the season. He is eighth on the team and second among DBs with 7 tackles and also has a pass break-up.

According to Georgia’s depth chart, next up would be junior Tykee Smith. However, the junior from Philadelphia, who was sidelined by an ACL tear last season, did not play in the last game. He had five tackles in the first three contests.

That leaves freshmen Marcus Washington and Darris Smith to fill in. However, several of Georgia’s other safeties have been getting reps at star this week. This week’s starter was going to be determined by performance in practice.

Meanwhile, the availability of tight end Arik Gilbert remains a mystery. The former 5-star prospect hasn’t played in the Bulldogs’ ;ast two games and did not travel on the previous SEC road trip, which limits rosters to 70 players. Gilbert dressed out, but did not play against Kent State, and Smart said he practiced with the team this week.