Athens, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - A showdown between nationally-ranked SEC squads is on tap for Saturday afternoon, as No. 7 Georgia plays host to No. 25 Missouri.
Missouri has started the season 5-0 for the fifth time under head coach Gary Pinkel, and for the first time since beginning the 2010 campaign 7-0. After being absent from the national rankings the first few weeks of the season, the Tigers made their debut in the AP poll following an outstanding 51-28 road victory over Vanderbilt in their SEC opener last Saturday.
"We always see opportunities in the games we play and we want to go in confident, but not overconfident," Missouri quarterback James Franklin said. "This week we are playing Georgia and going to go out there and do our best to win."
Few teams in the country have had a rougher schedule to traverse than Georgia, which has escaped by winning four of its first five matchups, only losing to Clemson on opening night (38-35). After taking down nationally-ranked foes South Carolina (41-30) and LSU (44-41) at home, the Bulldogs appeared doomed for a letdown last weekend at Tennessee, but squeaked out a 34-31 overtime victory.
"In the moment of truth, we took care of business," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "I thought it would be a knock-down, drag-out fight. We still got a long way to go, that's for sure. We're not 100 percent solid in all areas. We've got to make some improvements, but I know we will keep fighting."
"We know we have a tremendous challenge against Missouri on Saturday," Richt continued. "It's important that we put together a good week of preparation."
Georgia has beaten Missouri in both previous meetings, including the inaugural SEC matchup between the two last season in Columbia, 41-20.
The Tigers' offensive attack has been clicking on all cylinders, racking up 46.6 ppg (eighth in FBS) and 543.8 ypg (seventh). The unit is one of the most balanced in the country, as it is just one of eight teams to rank in the top-32 nationally in both rushing (258.8 ypg) and passing (285.0 ypg).
Franklin in the squad's unquestioned catalyst. The senior is completing nearly 68 percent of his throws for 1,407 yards with 13 touchdowns against only three interceptions, while rushing for 278 yards and two scores. Franklin carved up Vanderbilt's defense last week to the tune of 341 total yards and four touchdowns.
"James has been around a little bit," Pinkel said. "If he had stayed healthy last year, he would have played like this. This doesn't surprise me. I'm very proud of him. He is playing with some of the best quarterbacks, I think it's fair to say that."
Franklin has a stable of running backs upon which to rely, and Russell Hansbrough leads the group with 379 yards to go with three touchdowns. Henry Josey (307 yards) gets his number called near the goal line and he has answered to the tune of six touchdowns, while Marcus Murphy (293 yards, four TDs) has the highest yards per carry average of the three (8.4).
Dorial Green-Beckham (364 yards) and L'Damian Washington (340 yards) have emerged as outstanding down field threats for Franklin, and the duo has stepped up in the red zone with nine combined scores. Marcus Lucas (27 receptions, 262 yards, TD) is the most trusted option when it comes to converting first downs.
While the offense has made all the headlines, the defense has done more than its fair share of good work. The unit has held opponents to just 22.4 ppg while picking off 11 passes.
E.J. Gaines has three interceptions to go with his 32 tackles, while Kentrell Brothers has a pair of picks. Michael Sam is one of the nation's premier pass- rushers with 10.0 TFL and 6.0 sacks.
Georgia's offense is lagging behind Missouri's, but there's certainly no shame in that, as the Bulldogs are off to an outstanding start themselves in scoring just under 40 points per game behind 530.0 ypg, but it suffered a couple of key injuries in recent weeks that could hinder those numbers going forward.
Star running back Todd Gurley (450 yards, four TDs) missed last week's game with an ankle injury and is listed as questionable for this contest, and in his absence, Keith Marshall (357 total yards, two TDs) was lost for the season with a torn ACL. To make matters worse, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley (16 receptions, 311 yards, two TDs) also went down in the Tennessee game with a torn ACL.
"It's sad for our players," Richt said. "You see how much work they've put in a how hard they play for you and work in practice for you and then on one play like that it's taken away from them. It's heartbreaking."
With the injury bug biting the Bulldogs hard, even more onus will be put on Aaron Murray to continue his Heisman-caliber season. The senior has been nothing short of outstanding, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes for 1,534 yards with 17 touchdowns (three rushing) and just three interceptions. For the second straight week, Murray came up big down the stretch, throwing the game-tying touchdown against Tennessee with just five seconds to play.
If Gurley is unable to return this weekend, J.J. Green can expect a full load. The freshman filled in once Marshall went down last week and shined with 129 yards on 17 carries.
Chris Conley is Murray's top target in the passing game with 20 receptions for 318 yards and two scores, and with Scott-Wesley out of action, Michael Bennett (14 receptions, 176 yards, two TDs) and Arthur Lynch (11 receptions, 169 yards, two TDs) will need to step up their production.
Defensively, Georgia has not played well, especially considering its reputation as one of the SEC's most stout units in recent years. It allows 32.2 ppg and has forced just five turnovers.
Ramik Wilson leads the way with 52 tackles, while Leonard Floyd has 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks and 10 QB hurries. Tray Matthews has the team's lone interception.