ATHENS - This week, our regular "ask another beat writer" segment takes on a very different role.
Georgia is visiting Missouri for the first time in either football program's history. The teams have met only once, back in 1960, when they played old man football. And yet this game is very high-profile, and very important to both teams: Missouri wants to make a good first impression in the SEC, and Georgia wants to show it can live up to its top 10 ranking, and status as SEC East favorite.
So for some insight on the Missouri Tigers, we go to beat writer Dave Matter, who covers the program for the Columbia Tribune.
You can follow Matter on Twitter at @Dave_Matter. You can also visit his blog at The Tribune at this link here. In addition, Dave co-wrote a book this year entitled: "The Mizzou Fan's Survival Guide to the SEC."
I also answered Matter's questions about Georgia for his blog. You can read that here at this link.
Thanks to Dave for some very in-depth answers - and if you scroll to the end, a treat: Some restaurant recommendations!
Faurot Field: How much of an advantage is it usually, and how much more could it be Saturday night?
Matter: For not being one of the giant stadiums in the SEC, the place can really get loud, especially with a night crowd of well oiled fans. I've covered games at Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Clemson — all big and really loud places — but the loudest game I've experienced was Missouri's home game against Oklahoma in 2010. It was deafening at kickoff and Oklahoma, ranked No. 1 at the time, seemed rattled at times. I suspect Saturday's crowd will be much the same. The SEC pass-out rule is a new experience for Missouri fans, so the stadium should be full throughout the game, unlike past years where fans would trickle in and out after halftime.
Missouri has had some injuries, including on the offensive line. What's the prognosis on the key guys, and how important would those injuries be?
Matter: Jack Meiners, the top option at right guard, is questionable with a strained knee and didn't practice Tuesday. I'd be surprised if he plays. If he can't practice midweek, that doesn't seem like he'd be functional enough to play well against Georgia. He's Missouri's biggest guard and strongest player overall. If he can't go again, Max Copeland, a former walk-on, starts again at right guard and Evan Boehm, a true freshman, starts again at left guard. Copeland graded out higher than any other lineman in the Southeastern Louisiana game, but the caliber of play obviously changes against Georgia.
Middle linebacker Will Ebner is also questionable with a neck stinger, but he's confident he'll be able to play. If he can't play, Donovan Bonner would be the first linebacker off the bench. He had a productive camp, and there might not be much drop-off if he has to play.
James Franklin is still kind of an unknown in the SEC. Who would you compare him to, skills-wise? How strong is his arm, and how often does he take off to run?
Matter: His arm is strong enough for Missouri's offense. They don't throw a lot of deep balls, but that could change this year with some of the young receivers they have. When he gets into rhythm, his accuracy can be very good. He can sometimes fall prey to bad habits and tends to side-arm the ball, but that's something he worked on in preseason camp. He's not exceptionally fast, but he has a good feel for when to run and is comfortable running through traffic — sometimes more than the coaches would like. He wants to run less and hang in the pocket more this season, but if Missouri struggles on the offensive line, that might not be as much of an option.
Some teammates called him Baby Tebow last year, and that might be sacrilegious in the SEC, but his style of play and his strengths (and weaknesses) actually match up well with Tebow. A good runner who's tougher than fast. His accuracy and arm strength are good enough to thrive in a college spread offense. Plus, he's a yes-sir, no-sir, deeply religious, likeable, ultra-polite kid.
Most of the press on Missouri's offense is about Franklin and receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the stud recruit. But who else on offense should Georgia be worried about, and how effective does Missouri's run game - led by Kendial Lawrence - look so far?
Matter: Missouri's offense is all about matchups and reads. Franklin has multiple options on most plays, either handing the ball off, keeping it or throwing a bubble screen in the flat. The idea is to get as many playmakers involved and stretch the field horizontally.
Lawrence has been the best tailback, and MU generally runs its backs outside, not so much between the tackles, and often runs them on motion sweeps from one side of the field to the other.
T.J. Moe is a tough, reliable slot receiver. He'll get a lot of touches most weeks, either on quick throws over the middle, bubble screens along the perimeter or the same motion sweeps they give to the tailbacks. The outside receivers don't catch a lot of balls — the slot receivers are usually the QB's primary reads — but this team has good size and speed outside with Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Bud Sasser. They're all capable of beating coverage downfield for big catches and should be dangerous in the red zone.
Tell me a bit about the Missouri defense: How physical is it? What are its strengths, and its weak points?
Matter: The last couple years, the defense has played its best games against pro-style downhill offenses. That's their comfort zone. Even though they practice against their own spread formations in the spring and preseason, they've matched up better during the season against teams that line up a couple backs in the backfield, run between the tackles and use drop-back and play-action passing.
Their linebackers, especially Will Ebner and Andrew Wilson, are better suited to play against that style and should have a smooth transition in the SEC. There's not much depth at defensive tackle and that could be a concern all season. Defensive end might be the deepest position. At least five guys could start there, and they'll rotate regularly.
There's a perception that Missouri is undersized on the D-line, but that's more of a myth. They average 280 across the front four, and that's right around the league average for 4-3 defenses.
In the secondary, cornerback E.J. Gaines might be the team's best overall player. Very good in coverage, physical tackler against the run and great ball skills in the air. The other corner, Kip Edwards, missed most of camp with a knee injury and was shaky at times in the opener. There's not a really proven dynamic player at safety. Kenronte Walker is the most physical player back there, but a few different players have shuffled around at the other safety spot.
Final question on the game: What are the two or three main keys, in your mind, for Missouri if it is to win this game?
Matter: The offensive line has to give Franklin time to make his reads and set up downfield passes. He can't take a beating or the Tigers have no shot. Missouri's defensive line has to hold up physically against a big offensive line and keep blockers off the linebackers. The Tigers' secondary has to stay on top of the receivers when Murray wants to stretch the field.
Now, the requisite "we are new to Missouri" question. Gary Pinkel was asked by a media member (I use the term loosely) at SEC media days for suggestions on where to eat in Columbia. Pinkel wisely deferred to the Chamber of Commerce. Are you willing to go out on a limb and recommend a few famous joints - whether it's for eating or merriment? And is there any landmark that visitors should put on their to-do list this weekend?
Matter: For food, fans have to try Shakespeare's Pizza. Great pizza, great atmosphere and location. The downtown restaurant is just across the street from campus and the Journalism school.
For pregame burgers, hit up Booch's Billiards on Ninth Street. No frills, just greasy burgers on wax paper. Expect a long line and bring cash. No credit cards taken.
For wings, head to CJ's on Broadway. Best wings in town.
Other bars/restaurants: Shiloh Bar & Grill. Good bar food, great patio. Great place to drink pre- and postgame.
Also, Harpo's. An institution in Columbia. Good food, rooftop bar. Jam-packed after games, especially after a big win.
Thanks to Dave for some very insightful answers.