Missouri announced its presence in the SEC East race Saturday with a convincing 41-26 victory at Georgia.
In the process, though, the Tigers suffered a pair of losses from an injury perspective that could dramatically impair their ability to navigate the coming decisive two-game stretch.
Missouri QB1 James Franklin separated his shoulder early in the fourth quarter. Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said after the game that Franklin could be out for “a while” and indicated Franklin would likely miss next week’s showdown with Florida.
QB2 Maty Mauk replaced Franklin. He led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to put away the Bulldogs.
Missouri CB E.J. Gaines – arguably the team’s most valuable player – also strained a quad. Pinkel didn’t seem to know as much about Gaines’ status going forward.
While Franklin’s injury is understandably the headline coming from Missouri’s landscape-shifting victory over the Bulldogs, Missouri should also enjoy the now.
Saturday’s win marked the biggest for the Tigers since at least the 2007 Kansas game that clinched a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Remember, this Missouri program seemed to be a bad season away from replacing Pinkel. That would have meant firing the coach who brought the Tigers back to national relevance for the first time in half a decade.
Missouri won this game on defense. That’s not a shot at an offense that posted 34 points, either.
Georgia QB Aaron Murray entered as perhaps the Heisman Trophy front-runner. The Tigers pressured, hit and harassed Murray into three turnovers.
The Bulldogs were without several key skill position players. It showed, though Missouri’s ability to beat Georgia’s largely healthy offensive line played just as big of a role in the outcome.
Missouri took all the momentum in the middle of the second quarter with consecutive plays.
RB Marcus Murphy extended the Tigers’ lead to 21-10 when he took a handoff around the right edge and juked and stumbled his way 36 yards to the end-zone.
On Georgia’s next play, Missouri’s Shane Ray hit Murray from the blindside, forcing him to fumble. DE Michael Sam picked up the loose ball and returned it 21 yards for another touchdown.
Georgia blew a golden opportunity on the following drive, fumbling inside the Missouri 10-yard line when Lucas Vincent punched the ball away from Georgia RB Brendan Douglas.
After halftime, Murray led the Bulldogs to 16 consecutive points. The defense did its job as well during that stretch, holding the Tigers to just two first downs in the third quarter.
Georgia seemed to have all the momentum when Franklin suffered the shoulder injury and headed for the locker room.
However, Mauk and the Tigers – with a little help from creative play-calling – curbed the charge.
Mauk came off the bench and immediately picked up a critical third-and-6 at midfield. Two plays later, Mizzou dialed up a double-pass. The trick play didn’t fool Georgia, but WR Bud Sasser lofted a perfectly placed 40-yard strike to WR L’Damian Washington, who came down with the ball despite blanketing coverage.
Missouri’s defense did the rest, forcing a three-and-out on the next Georgia drive and intercepting Murray passes on the last two.
With that, the Bulldogs’ national championship aspirations – which barely survived last week in an overtime win at Tennessee – expired.
The Tigers’ victory turns the SEC East race into a jumbled mess.
Missouri showed it is a contender for the division title, but the injuries it suffered might just as quickly knock it out of the race. The Tigers’ next two games – which could easily be with Mauk as the starter instead of Franklin – are at home against Florida and South Carolina.
Any of the top four contenders – Missouri, Florida, Georgia or South Carolina – can win the division. Missouri might be the lone team with a perfect conference mark if Florida can’t come back from a 14-3 second-quarter deficit at LSU.
Missouri’s win reopens a division race presumed closed since the Bulldogs beat South Carolina. Thanks to the Tigers, there will be critical football games in the SEC East for the remainder of the season.