Ready or not, this is finally happening.
This isn’t Southeastern Louisiana. This is the Southeastern Conference.
Of course, Missouri officially joined the SEC on July 1. Several Tiger athletes have nabbed various conference player of the week awards in the first few weeks of fall athletic competition. The circular logo containing the three most famous letters in college sports has been plastered on just about everything in sight since well before then.
None of that really means anything until Saturday night.
That’s when Missouri will welcome its first conference foe in any sport as an SEC member, the seventh-ranked Georgia Bulldogs football team.
They bring with them a style of play dismissed by Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson as “old-man football.” Regardless of those words — we can’t guess their precise meaning, though I doubt it’s a compliment — the Tigers understand the difficulty of the task at hand this weekend.
Whether you call it “old-man football” or not, the Bulldog’s style brought them 10 wins and an SEC East crown last season. It’s led the Bulldogs to 106 wins over coach Mark Richt’s first 11 years in charge, 60 of them in the conference that’s produced the last six national champions.
Sure, Georgia’s current offense wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1980s. Missouri lists no fullbacks or tight ends on its depth chart, but Georgia rarely runs a play without one or the other. Missouri quarterback James Franklin runs all over the field and takes all his snaps from the shotgun, while his counterpart Aaron Murray usually starts from directly under center and rarely runs with the ball.
But if “old-man football” refers to a less flashy style, Missouri’s really the “old-man” team. Even while employing four wide receivers on almost every play, Missouri aired it out on just 40 percent of last season’s plays, while Georgia passed the ball 43 percent of the time. And though Missouri rarely huddles and Georgia always does, the Bulldogs had 44 more offensive plays — but for 463 fewer yards — than the Tigers.
Although there’s one famous vocal doubter of Georgia, it seems like most of the nation has dismissed Missouri.
Commentators deride the Tigers’ spread offense as too finesse-driven to deal with SEC defenses’ ferocious front sevens. (You wonder if they’ve accounted for Missouri’s increased emphasis on the ground game with the dual-threat Franklin taking over for traditional pocket passers like Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel.)
SEC partisans think Missouri might melt under the pressure of the conferences’ rowdier stadium environments. (You wonder if they really believe SEC squads would thrive in road trips to Big 12 heavyweights like Texas or Oklahoma.)
They say that little old Faurot Field, capacity a measly 71,000, wouldn’t scare a soul from the south, and that half the spectators in the stands will be rival fans anyway. (You wonder if they know that Missouri has sold 45,000 season tickets for the upcoming season, nearly 4,000 more than the previous high.)
All that talk has to frustrate the Tigers. But talk — from fans, from ESPN, from a defensive lineman honestly answering a reporter’s question — doesn’t win games. Not in a league where they play man's football.
On Saturday, Georgia might just run riot over Missouri, solidifying its ranking and reinforcing the skepticism about the SEC’s newest addition.
On Saturday, Missouri fans might just create the craziest game day environment Columbia’s ever seen. On Saturday, Richardson and his fellow defenders can bottle up Georgia’s “old-man” offense, while Franklin and company give the Bulldog defense a taste of the very same medicine.
“If we execute, nobody in this league can touch us. Period.”
You said it, Sheldon Richardson. On Saturday, it’s up to you and your team to prove it.