At an apex of the season, Missouri is looking for a spark to get back on track.
The road ahead is tough, as the Tigers travel to play at Georgia on Saturday night, with about 90,000 fans expected to fill Sanford Stadium.
As MU seeks to regain the form it showed in five straight wins at Faurot Field, it looks no further than its team captains.
That quintet represents the heartbeat of the Tigers, but only three are available to play against the Bulldogs. Cale Garrett was officially ruled out for the season this week by Missouri head coach Barry Odom with a pectoral injury that has sidelined him since a victory over Troy on Oct. 5.
That leaves running back Larry Rountree, defensive back DeMarkus Acy and defensive lineman Jordan Elliott as the captains still in the lineup.
Elliott, in particular, has gotten attention in Missouri’s past two games for high peaks but low valleys.
He was arguably the Tigers' best player against Vanderbilt, disrupting any backfield set the Commodores presented.
But on the game’s final drive, he committed two offside penalties, helping Vanderbilt secure the upset in Nashville.
“That’s just a lack of focus, things like that, those are costly mistakes in the game,” Elliott said of his late-game missteps against the Commodores. “That’s something I just have to work on, try to do better at that.”
While blame for Missouri’s problems over the past few weeks doesn’t fall only on Elliott, the checks and balances are in place to make sure the Tigers all feel the sting of defeat.
“It puts a lot of pressure on you, but it's good pressure, just always making sure you're held responsible for your actions,” Elliott said.
Missouri enters the game in Athens as a multiple-touchdown underdog, the first time this season MU won’t be at least a 9-point favorite at kickoff.
Uncertainty lingers at quarterback, as Tigers starter Kelly Bryant will be a “game-time decision,” Odom said Thursday. Bryant was removed during the second half against Kentucky two weeks ago after a hamstring strain.
An upset Saturday would give Missouri the inside track, pending NCAA sanctions, to the Southeastern Conference title game the first week of December, with challenges against Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas still to come.
“It’s big. If you can do something like that, that's a big statement, especially coming off of these losses like that,” Elliott said about a potential win over Georgia. “It's going to be our biggest challenge this season. It should be fun, it should be exciting. I’m ready for it.”
Elliott was a four-star prep prospect. He originally played for Texas but transferred to Missouri before the 2017 season.
Tigers defensive line coach Brick Haley made his way from Austin to Columbia just before Elliott. Haley recruited Elliott out of high school, and their previous relationship helped both settle into life in the Midwest.
The two have reunited and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses together.
Entering the showdown with Georgia, Haley has no hesitation that Elliott can make a profound impact on the game.
“I just think he's got to continue to grow and do the things that he needs to do to make this football team a better team, not just himself,” Haley said of Elliott. “He's an unselfish young man, I think he’ll do that. I expect him to come out and be who he is and give us an opportunity to go play with these guys and have a good game.”
Both Elliott and Haley understand how massive of a statement that is, knowing Georgia’s offensive line is bigger than most in the country.
“They're big bodies, they're real physical, they're strong,” Haley said of the Bulldogs’ front five. “They’re the biggest O-line we’ve faced all year and they're probably as good as any O-line we’ve faced all year.”
Missouri spent its bye week starting an early game plan for Georgia but also devoted plenty of time to working on its flaws.
Elliott believes the Tigers didn’t diagnose any big problems internally. Instead, it was lots of small problems that add up.
“It's nothing major that needs fixing,” Elliott said. “It's not like we need to take a piece, a player out and put another one in. It’s just small things. Those small things, you saw it, they add up to big things. We've got to make sure we take control of it.”
The Tigers added crowd noise to practice this week to help prepare for the atmosphere at the 10th-largest college football stadium in the country.
Elliott said he will do whatever he can to make sure the Bulldogs feel his impact.
“I feel like when we’re on one accord, the defense is real good. So we've just got to get back to what we know who we were,” Elliott said.
“... Everyone’s excited, everyone’s in good spirits, even after the losses we’ve had.”