ATHENS - A little more than six months from today, Georgia will open its SEC football season against Missouri, a school and a program that Bulldog fans know little about. Hopefully we can change that a bit.
Dave Matter covers Missouri - or Mizzou, as the school likes to call itself - for the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune. He's also a co-author of an upcoming book: "The Mizzou Fan's Survival Guide to the SEC," which he wrote with Ron Higgins and Steve Richardson and will be released in June. It's a team-by-team look at the entire 14-member SEC, with a history of the league and each school ,and info on all 14 SEC towns.
But first, let's find out more about Missouri. Dave was gracious enough to answer a bunch of questions I sent him this week, providing some very comprehensive responses. You can follow Dave on Twitter at @Dave_Matter and visit his blog here on the Tribune's web site.
This can be viewed as more of an introduction to Missouri football. There will be time for more as we get closer to the start of the season, but for now this should be a good primer on the SEC's newest member - and Georgia's next SEC opponent.
Q: So it's the heat of basketball season, close to March Madness and Missouri is in the top 10. Is anybody out there talking about football right now?
Matter: Actually, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for football right now, more than usual this time of year. The SEC is a big reason why, but there's still excitement among the fans from landing Dorial Green-Beckham, and the unveiling of Missouri's new uniforms on April 14 has fans looking forward to this year more than any season I can recall. When the football or basketball team goes through a good stretch - like basketball is now - the two programs seem to feed off each other in terms of generating excitement among the fan base, and I sense that going on now with spring football about to get started.
Q: What level of excitement among Mizzou fans is there for entering the SEC? Are they just happy to be leaving the Big 12, or are there any regrets about leaving it, or what?
Matter: The initial swell of emotion last fall was mostly geared toward leaving the Big 12 and all the drama and instability that was running rampant in that league. But as the reality of the SEC become more palpable, fans are thrilled for what lies ahead. The schedule coming out in December seemed to kick the excitement into gear and some of the changes going on within the program the last few months have added to those feelings. The end of the Kansas rivalry will be the one casualty that has fans disappointed, but their emotion is aimed at KU for not wanting to extend the series rather than anything SEC-related.
Q: How much do Missouri fans know about Georgia's football team?
Matter: It's probably one of the programs fans generally know the least about, just because the teams haven't played in more than 50 years and the proximity between the two programs is so great. On a national scale, Georgia has been behind LSU and Alabama the last few years as far as attracting attention from the casual fan who otherwise doesn't follow the SEC up close, but with Georgia being MU's first SEC opponent, I'm sure fans will be interested to learn more. At least I hope.
Q: What kind of home-field advantage is Farout Field?
Matter: Missouri has generally played well there under Gary Pinkel, going 25-5 since the start of the 2007 season. If it's a big game with a significant opponent, especially at night, the place gets pretty loud for having a relatively small capacity (71,004) - at least relatively small compared to the SEC super-sized stadiums.
Q: Now for a basic football question: What kind of offensive system does Missouri run?
Matter: In 2005 they went to a shotgun spread no-huddle system, borrowing mostly from Urban Meyer's Bowling Green/Utah offense. Over time they've evolved some and you'll see the quarterback go under center on short-yardage situations or sometimes work out of a pistol formation. But the QB is almost exclusively in the shotgun with four or five receivers split wide.
Last year Missouri developed its best tailback in years, Henry Josey, and they adapted as the season went on with more runs, especially more vertical runs between the tackles. And with QB James Franklin being a capable runner, they added more option plays and QB keepers than they ever used with past quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. I suspect they'll continue to evolve in the SEC, but you'll see plenty of empty backfield formations with five receivers split wide.
Q: Dorial Green-Beckham is probably the best-known Missouri player to SEC fans - even though he's not technically a Missouri player yet. How much of an impact is he expected to make, and what makes him so special? Is there a comparison to another well-known receiver?
Matter: Physically, he's drawn comparisons to Calvin Johnson. He's 6-5, 220 and has the frame of a guy who looks like he's been playing in the NFL for a couple years. He's also a legitimate sprinter who can jump. When preseason camp begins in August he'll start at the bottom of the depth chart like every newcomer, but I expect that to last for about a day. Most believe he's an instant impact playmaker, a guy you can line up in the slot to create mismatches in the middle of the field or line up wide and use to challenge defenses vertically. Not since Jeremy Maclin (2007-08) or Danario Alexander (2009) has Missouri had a dynamic big-play receiving threat like this, so he could be the perfect complement for what's already a solid group of returning receivers.
Q: Quarterback James Franklin (not the Vanderbilt head coach) is Missouri's most prolific offensive player, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 2,865 yards last year, and rushing for 981 and 15 touchdowns. What makes him so dangerous?
Matter: He became a much more capable passer last year than Missouri's coaches expected. He was very efficient throwing the ball deep, much more than Blaine Gabbert, the top 10 pick in 2011, was as a junior. That surprised the staff. His decision-making was solid for the most part. But his running ability really became a weapon as the season continued. He's not fast, not by any means. But he's a natural runner who picks his spots well and he's physical. On the first series of last year's game at Texas A&M, he broke off a 20-yard touchdown scramble on a pass play and took out four Aggie defenders along the way, including a 260-pound defensive end. They have to be careful with how many times they call his number in the running game, but the threat alone keeps defenses guessing and seems to help the passing game, too.
Q: What will be Missouri's biggest question marks on offense?
Matter: Henry Josey is all but likely going to miss the season after wrecking his knee late last year. They have a couple experienced tailbacks in Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy, but they have to develop some depth there and stay healthy. They'll have one or two new starters on the offensive line, but Missouri's historically done a good job filling in the blanks across the line under this staff. They also need to identify which receivers are going to make up the regular rotation. There are plenty of candidates, but a few backups need to emerge as guys they can count on.
Q: Now to the basic question on defense: What kind of defensive system do the Tigers run?
Matter: It's a standard 4-3 defense. In either 2003 or 2004, the staff scrapped a 4-2-5 system it had run for years and studied the Cover 2 system run by the Colts and Bears. That became Missouri's base defense. They generally go to a nickel or dime package in passing situations, which against some teams in the Big 12 meant they were in the dime most of the game. In 2010, they changed up the defensive line personnel on third-down passing situations, sometimes going with four defensive ends across the line. Last season, they added a 3-4 package, where a defensive end lined up as an inside linebacker and rushed the quarterback from a two-point stance. I imagine they'll add more bells and whistles this season, too.
Q: Tell us more about Missouri's defense as it stacks up for 2012: How many defensive starters are coming back, how many impactful newbies are coming in, and what are the strengths and weaknesses?
Matter: Missouri loses two veteran D-tackles but returns Sheldon Richardson, one of the few five-star recruits Pinkel has signed. Richardson started a couple games last year but played starter minutes. He's an elite athlete who's going through his first full offseason in the program after transferring last summer from junior college. There's not much depth at D-tackle, which should be a concern. Next to Richardson they'll likely start Lucas Vincent, who played well in stretches as a redshirt freshman last year. There's much more depth at defensive end, including Brad Madison, a preseason All-Big 12 player last year who played the entire season with a torn labrum and half the season with a sprained knee. He had shoulder surgery in January, and if they can get him back to playing at the level of his sophomore year, the pass rush should be improved. They return three linebackers with starting experience, including Zaviar Gooden, possibly the best athlete on the team.
Will Ebner, maybe their most physical tackler, was granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing all of his senior year with an ankle injury, will also factor into the mix. Both starting corners return, including E.J. Gaines, a first-team All-Big 12 pick as a first-year starter last year.
They also bring back a handful of safeties with experience, but it's not a very dynamic group - other than possibly Tavon Bolden, who was dismissed from the team last year for academics but earned his way back during the winter. Missouri's defense has generally played better against conventional NFL offenses that run pro-style formations, so considering they'll see fewer wide-open spread systems like they did on a weekly basis in the Big 12, the defense might have an easier time adapting to the new league.
Q: What else that we haven't covered should Georgia fans know about Missouri at this point?
Matter: There's probably more talent on this team than people who haven't watched Missouri football up close realize. MU lost five games last year, and all five came to teams that were more established at quarterback. Once Missouri's offense figured out its identity and Franklin gained some confidence, the Tigers finished with a four-game winning streak. The nucleus for this team should give them a chance to compete immediately in the SEC East and possibly catch some teams overlooking them. But they absolutely have to develop some depth at certain positions, especially across the defensive line.
Q: Finally, for those making very early planning for the trip to Columbia: What are the one or two places in town a visitor absolutely must visit or else the trip is a complete waste?
Matter: Shakespeare's Pizza is a local favorite. You won't leave disappointed. CJ's is the best place for wings. And you'll find the best burger in town at Booches. All three are staples for the Mizzou fan experience.