Can Mizzou football upset No. 1 Georgia? Here are the keys to big-time SEC showdown

The next game is unerringly always the most important.

In this case, that’s true on every level.

Coming off an idle week, Mizzou football travels to Athens, Georgia, to face a still-unbeaten Georgia team with divisional dreams on the line. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) handily defeated Florida 43-20 in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida. It was coach Kirby Smart’s team’s 25th straight win, quickly approaching the SEC record of 28.

If they’re going to reach that, the Bulldogs have to see off Eli Drinkwitz’s Tigers (7-1, 3-1) at Sanford Stadium next Saturday, Nov. 4, in a game that will play a pivotal role in the SEC East race.

Here are three takeaways from Georgia’s win over Florida, and how Mizzou might match up:

No Bowers, no problem

Georgia’s star tight end Brock Bowers looks like he will be touch and go for the Missouri matchup while recovering from an ankle injury.

But the Bulldogs don’t seem to have missed a beat without him.

Oscar Delp, Bowers’ direct replacement, made a leaping one-handed grab as Georgia drove down the field and tied the game in response to UF’s game-opening end-zone trip.

Ladd McConkey was constantly in open space, going for 135 yards and a touchdown. Former Missouri slot receiver Dominic Lovett had another productive outing with 83 yards on four catches. Dillon Bell caught a touchdown to give UGA a four-score lead late in the third quarter.

If there was any inkling that Bowers’ absence was going to lighten MU’s load in the passing game, think again.

Missouri’s pass rush has been better and better in recent games, but it’ll need a lights-out day to stop Carson Beck and company. Lapses in man coverage have popped up from time to time in the Mizzou defense, which will need to come off the tape for any chance at success in Athens — Bowers or no Bowers.

The Tigers will be looking to return injured cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (groin) to partner with Kris Abrams-Draine, who is on a dominant stretch of games, against Georgia.

Georgia defense remains dominant

Georgia’s defense is still a force. The Bulldogs also still wear red, white and black uniforms.

As has often been the case in Georgia’s dominant, back-to-back title-winning run, they adjusted fast to Florida’s quick start and harangued quarterback Graham Mertz for most of the rest of the game. Mertz was sacked four times through the remainder of the first half.

The secondary appears to be the strength of the Georgia defense. Kamari Lassiter made his All-American case at cornerback, and Malaki Starks was mostly dominant at safety.

But Missouri’s passing game is no dud, through eight games.

Luther Burden III, Theo Wease Jr. and the rest of the deep receiver room will be put to the test. Brady Cook likely will face more pressure than he has at any point this season.

But entering the weekend, the Tigers ranked No. 30 in the nation for total offense. Keeping that pace will be no small order next Saturday.

Any Georgia weak spots?

Florida’s limited forward progress on offense came through screen and slant plays, which led the Gators to a 7-0 lead on their first drive.

But Florida couldn’t conjure much else before the game was out of sight.

If Burden and Wease demand the Dawgs’ attention against Missouri, that could allow consistent wide receiver Mookie Cooper to find some space in the short passing game.

There was one other indicator of where Missouri might match up well against the Dawgs.

With the game already well out of sight, it should be noted, at the beginning of the fourth quarter Florida put wide receiver Ricky Pearsall in motion; Mertz went play action, turned and delivered a simple touchdown pass to open tight end Hayden Hansen, who was well out of sight of Starks in coverage.

The Tigers use as much pre-snap motion as anyone in the league, and UF’s usage seemed to throw a wrench in the Bulldogs’ defense, which completely misread the movement.

It’s a tall order to dismantle what Georgia has going for it, but there were momentary lapses.

The Star has partnered with the Columbia Daily Tribune for coverage of Missouri Tigers athletics.