The Gators are 4-2 in my 2014 season projections, and probably ranked somewhere in the low 20’s. Up next: a critical game against the defending SEC East Champs, the Missouri Tigers. Win, and the Gators remain in the thick of the SEC East race. But a loss and they’ll need major help to have any shot at reaching Atlanta. What’s going to happen? Let’s find out!
2013: 12-2 (7-1 SEC), Lost SEC Championship Game to Auburn, Cotton Bowl Champions
Last Meeting (2013): Missouri 36, Florida 17
All Time Series: Missouri 2, Florida 1
Coach: Gary Pinkel, 14th year (102-63)
Who Are You?
The Missouri Tigers are starting to become a mini-rival of Florida’s in their third year of playing annually. Last year, after Mizzou QB Maty Mauk raced in for the clinching touchdown, the entire Missouri student section started doing the Gator Chomp to their favorite song, “We Will Rock You“. Florida has three national championships to Missouri’s none, and has 40 more total wins than Missouri despite playing 17 fewer seasons. You want a rivalry, Mizzou? You got one!
But from a football standpoint, Missouri could be in trouble. Heavy personnel losses leave this Tigers team a shadow of the squad we saw win the SEC East a year ago, and even though they get a relatively easy draw from the SEC West (Texas A&M and Arkansas), I’d be stunned if this team finishes any higher than fourth in the East. They simply do not have the ferocity on defense to compete with the majority of their opponents.
In each of the last two years, Florida and Missouri essentially swapped places. In 2012, Florida won a lot of close games and rode that to an 11-1 record and a big bowl game, while Missouri, hampered by a slew of injuries, finished an ugly 5-7. Last year saw the Gators bumble and stumble their way to a bowl-less season while Mizzou ripped off an 11-1 regular season of their own. Now, they meet again, hopefully both at full strength. It should be fun.
Returning Starters: 8
James Franklin is dearly departed at the QB position, but that’s not going to be a problem for the Tigers. Maty Mauk will step in for him, and he might even be better than Franklin. He got plenty of reps in a year ago when Franklin went down, and performed very well against Florida. The problem for Mauk is that he has no proven help. Missouri’s top three receivers a year ago- Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham- are all gone. So is top running back Henry Josey.
Missouri could be OK in the backfield, as Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy have proven to be solid running backs in backup roles to Josey. But the pass catchers may not be so easy to replace. It’s going to be up to Jimmie Hunt, Bud Sasser and Levi Copelin to fill their shoes. That’s almost 2,500 yards worth of production they’ve got to replace, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the passing game will see a slight decrease in terms of production.
The offensive line could be this unit’s rock. Three starters return up front, including the anchor, center Evan Boehm. If they can give Mauk time to do his thing- find open receivers, and find holes to take off through- the offense may remain in the top third of the SEC.
Offensive Grade: B+
Guys like Sasser, Hunt, Murphy and Hansbrough have the talent to smoothly replace their predecessors. The offense may not be quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but they’ll be all right on this side of the ball.
Returning Starters: 4
Here’s where Missouri could be in big trouble. You name a leader or even a player of minor importance on this defense, and he’s gone. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam? Gone. Lockdown cornerback EJ Gaines? Gone. Quarterback of the defense, middle linebacker Andrew Wilson? Gone. In all, Missouri loses an incredible seven starters on defense. Yeah. Uh-oh is right. The closest to that I can remember Florida ever losing was six in 2010, so that’s the only real comparison I can make. And Urban Meyer recruited much better than Gary Pinkel did.
Senior Markus Golden figures to get first shot at replacing Sam. But that’s a tall order- Sam had a nose for the ball, sort of like Tyrann Mathieu did but at the defensive end position. So when I say “replace”, I don’t think Golden can have half the impact Sam did. The rest of the defensive line may be OK- they return their two interior lineman in Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent, two seniors who have logged a lot of game experience in their days at Missouri. At the next level, Michael Scherer and Clarence Green replace Wilson and Donovan Bonner at middle and strong side linebacker, respectively. Both have talent, but I’m not sure they’ll be as productive as Wilson and Bonner.
But the real problem of this defense is the secondary. Mizzou must replace both corners from a year ago, Gaines and Randy Ponder. Sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson take their places. While it’s not fair to write them off before they play a single snap, I have serious questions about whether they’ll be able to stop some of the league’s best receivers. Neither were ranked in the top 300 of their class coming out of high school, and both are well under six feet (Penton stands 5’9, Gibson 5’10). Missouri does return both safeties, Ian Simon and Braylon Webb, but I expect them to have major problems stopping the pass.
Defensive Grade: D+
It’s possible that I’m wrong, and these new guys turn out to be really good. But it’s very difficult to replace five or six starters at Alabama, where Nick Saban always brings in the top talent every year. It’s exponentially harder to replace even more starters at a place like Missouri, where the recruiting is good… but not great. This defense could hold Missouri back.
Florida Key: Offense
Test number two in as many weeks for Chris Leak’s receivers. Most of Florida’s receivers are bigger than Mizzou’s DB’s, so it’s time to air it out every chance you get if you’re Kurt Roper. Jeff Driskel and his pass catchers will probably need some confidence after a tough loss against LSU the week before, so why not take out some frustration on their next opponent? As long as the line blocks the way it ought to, Florida’s receivers will get their chance to shine.
Florida Key: Defense
Make the Tigers earn everything. Missouri will put up some points, and that’s fine, but they have to really work for it. That means Maty Mauk will have to make great plays on the run, his receivers will have to make big catches, and his running backs will have to make the most out of tight holes. Florida’s nasty defense needs to be more physical than Missouri everywhere you look. Dominate the trenches, get in Mauk’s face and play a good amount of bump and run coverage on receivers. Keep this up and Mizzou’s bound to make a mistake.
Key Matchup: Florida’s Jeff Driskel vs. Missouri’s pass rush
At some point, there’s going to be a time where the Gators’ offensive line gets soundly and collectively beat, and half the Mizzou d-line converges on Driskel. In these situations, Driskel has to be smart. If he sees the pocket collapsing, he’s got to get out of there, see if there’s either an open receiver or a running lane, and if there’s not, he’s got to throw it out of bounds. If he doesn’t see it coming, he needs to protect the ball and take the sack, and not do anything stupid. Turnovers are key to an upset, especially on the road. Ask Houston Nutt and Ole Miss.
What Does This Game Mean?
If Florida loses this game, Muschamp could very well be done. It’s not so much that Missouri’s a bad team- they’re not, really- but at a place like Florida, you can’t keep losing to teams that just aren’t bad. The SEC is by far the best league in football, and Florida will face plenty of really, really good teams that figure to beat them regardless. In an average year, the Gators could play up to four really good teams, and lose to all four. That puts them at 8-4… assuming they beat the teams ranked below them.
But when you start flirting with losses to teams of Missouri’s caliber, especially in the Swamp, it could get really, really dangerous for Muschamp. A loss at home to Missouri, coupled with earlier losses to Alabama and LSU, would, at best for Muschamp, make Georgia a must win game for him to keep his job. It could also be the final nail in his coffin if the Gators play particularly badly and Foley decides he’s seen enough.
Then there are the implications in the SEC East. With a loss, Florida would be down but not out… however, it’d be very hard to imagine that Florida could beat both Georgia and South Carolina if they couldn’t beat Missouri. Plus, they’d need so much help that it’s not plausible (if you’re curious, Georgia and South Carolina would each have to lose twice, and then Missouri, who suddenly becomes a factor in the SEC East race, would have to lose four times).
On the other hand, a win does wonders. However you want to look at it, beating Missouri puts UF right back in the hunt for the SEC East title. As I mentioned in last week’s preview against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina are just about guaranteed to lose one game each at some point in the season- they play each other and both play Auburn from the West- without even factoring in their result against Florida.
Beating Mizzou is a nice hold of serve for Florida at home, and keeps them on par with those other two teams even with the extra loss to the second tough SEC West team that neither Georgia nor South Carolina draw, because Florida still plays both of them. And by beating them and running the table in the SEC from this point forward, the Gators would finish with (at worst) the same record as both of them, and would thus receive the East’s ticket to Atlanta by virtue of the head to head tiebreaker.
Florida needs this one. Badly. It’d be nice for Missouri to come into the Swamp and take a win over a big time program like Florida in what’s a pretty clearly rebuilding year, but the Gators absolutely have to have it. Give the desperation factor to Florida. And, at least on paper… the Gators are just better. Everywhere. Even if the offense isn’t as great as we all think it will be with Kurt Roper calling the shots and Jeff Driskel back to full health, Missouri’s defense is in need of some major upgrades before I can realistically see them competing for the SEC East. So, worst case scenario, the Florida offense is a major flop… they’ll still put up some points on Missouri.
Don’t take Missouri lightly, though. Just because they lose a ton defensively and most of their offensive playmakers doesn’t mean they can’t put up a fight. In fact, I expect their offense to surprise a lot of people with how little of a drop off there is.
That said, I just can’t see Florida losing this game. Missouri will score some points and beat up the Gator defense early, but Dante Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves & co. will regroup and shut them down the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Florida’s offense will unleash several weeks of frustration on a Missouri defense that’s simply not equipped to handle it. Kelvin Taylor will have a big game on the ground, and Jeff Driskel and his receivers will finally have something to feel good about- a big time win.
Projection: Florida 38, Missouri 16