Game One: New Mexico State Aggies
Game Two: East Carolina Pirates
Game Three: @ Kentucky Wildcats
Game Four: Tennessee Volunteers
Game Six: @ MISSOURI TIGERS
Coach: Gary Pinkel, 15th year (113-66)
2014 record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC), SEC East Champs (lost to Alabama in SEC Championship), def. Minnesota in Citrus Bowl
Last meeting: We shall not speak of it
All time series: Missouri, 3-1
Streak: Missouri 2
The skinny: Missouri’s been impossible to figure out since they joined the SEC. At times, they’ve looked really, really good, like when they went into Athens in 2013 and clobbered 7th ranked Georgia, or when they shut down Johnny Football and Texas A&M that same year. And at other times, they’ve looked really, really bad, like when they lost to a miserable Indiana team that finished 4-8 (1-7 in the Big Ten) at home last year, or when they got clobbered by Georgia on their home field not even a month later. Yet despite experiencing the lowest of lows at times, Missouri has also enjoyed the high of winning two straight SEC East titles. They may lose a lot from last year’s team, but dismiss a Gary Pinkel coached team at your own risk.
Returning starters: 7
To this point, QB Maty Mauk has succeeded at Missouri mainly by not handing out goodies to opponents. When he does turn the ball over, the Tigers often lose (see the 2014 Georgia game). He’s gotten away with making some eye raising decisions for the most part, but that Georgia game proved that he’s going to have to eliminate those mistakes if he and Missouri want to become national championship contenders. And thanks to Florida’s subsequent obliteration of Georgia, that didn’t cost Missouri either. But without the majority of his receivers from a year ago, Mauk will be counted on to be more than a game manager.
Speaking of Mauk’s receivers, this is the second consecutive season Missouri has lost its top three wideouts. They were able to overcome it last year because Jimmie Hunt, Darius White and Bud Sasser played big roles in the explosive 2013 offense, but this year, the Tigers are left with few proven targets. Those three, plus all purpose threat Marcus Murphy, are all gone. Nate Brown “led” all returning receivers with five catches last year; that makes up exactly half of the 2014 reception total among returning WR’s. Without any real proven wideouts, Missouri figures to count on tight end Sean Culkin to make some plays in the passing game.
The good news for Missouri is that their running game should again be solid. 1,000 yard rusher Russell Hansbrough returns, and he may see an increase in carries if the passing game struggles. His job will be made easier by a stout offensive line that returns four senior starters from last year, including star center Evan Boehm and three year starter Connor McGovern. But all their jobs will be made harder by the fact that they’ll be called upon more often than usual with so many questions in the passing game.
Offensive Grade: C+. If Nate Brown and fellow wideout Wesley Leftwich can step up and become dependable receivers, Missouri could have the SEC East’s best offense. But that’s a big, big if. Until and unless that happens, the Tigers will take another step back offensively.
Returning starters: 5
Missouri suffers heavy personnel losses on its defensive line. Star defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray are both gone. That’s 24.5 sacks worth of production, leaving new defensive coordinator Barry Odom with a lot of work to do in terms of replacing them. The Tigers will also have to find a replacement for interior lineman Harold Brantley, who suffered serious injuries in a car accident last month (wear your seat belts, kids) and will miss the entire 2015 season. It’s going to be up to Josh Augusta to provide the Tigers with some production up front.
But the rest of the defense should be in pretty good shape. The Tigers return a highly underrated linebacker tandem in Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer, who combined for 113 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks last year. They were lost last year because of the ferocious defensive line the Tigers boasted, but this year, they’ll get a chance to shine. But Brothers and Scherer won’t be alone in the second level. Donovin Newsom will step into a much bigger role at strong side linebacker, and if he succeeds, Missouri’s middle level of its defense will be fearsome.
The secondary will also be in good hands, no pun intended. Mizzou returns three solid corners in John Gibson, Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton, who picked off three passes last year. The safety position will be a bit more of a struggle to figure out with the departure of strong safety Braylon Webb. Odom’s decision to tweak the safeties’ coverage schemes will probably make things a little easier back there, as he will now put two safeties in charge of covering half the field as opposed to delegating free and strong safety responsibilities. He’s got one good one in Cortland Browning. Now to find that second one…
Defensive Grade: B-. Missouri’s frighteningly young defensive line will go through its share of struggles, but a stout linebacker corps and a solid secondary will make up for their youth in the trenches. This won’t be a ferocious defense by any means, but it will be a good one.
Missouri wins if… Maty Mauk plays a smart, clean game. That means not forcing the ball into coverage, running around too long in the backfield and protecting the football. It’s no coincidence that he threw at least one interception in three of the four losses he’s suffered as a starting QB. Against a Florida secondary that may be the nation’s best, he’d better be careful. But if he does avoid making mistakes, Missouri has an excellent chance to win.
Florida wins if… they’re able to run the ball effectively throughout the game. The Gators’ offensive line isn’t exactly a strong unit, but then again, neither is Missouri’s defensive line. Florida’s offensive line is easily the team’s biggest weakness, but if that weakness wins its winnable battle in the trenches, Kelvin Taylor and Co. could have big days on the ground. And if the Gators are able to consistently run the ball and wear out the Tigers’ defense, Missouri will suddenly find itself at the mercy of Jim McElwain and his play calling.
Three things to watch for:
1) Is this the game where Jordan Scarlett emerges as the playmaker Gator fans have been dreaming about since the departures of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey? Adam Lane figures to start the year as the second string back, but it seems to be a quiet consensus among fans that Scarlett will eventually usurp Lane as Kelvin Taylor’s backup and heir apparent. Missouri’s defensive line is one of the youngest and least experienced in the country, so Florida figures to run the ball a lot to see if they can wear them down. For that reason, Scarlett figures to get some carries, and if he has success, he’ll get more. That also means that we could see some of Jordan Cronkrite, assuming he doesn’t get redshirted.
2) Special teams was a disaster area for Florida throughout the last two years of Will Muschamp’s tenure, but never in quite as much of an embarrassing fashion as it was in last year’s game against Missouri (although it admittedly came close in the South Carolina game). Marcus Murphy may be gone, but that doesn’t mean Florida won’t get burned by whoever replaces him as Missouri’s return man if they don’t stay in their lanes on special teams. The two teams are pretty evenly matched, but one mistake on special teams (let alone two like last year) will doom the Gators.
3) A pretty easy way for Missouri to lose this game is Maty Mauk going off the deep end and throwing four or five interceptions. Mauk is prone to making horrendous mistakes if pressured, and Florida is equipped with the defense necessary to do it. This Gators’ front seven features two potential first round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft in Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison, and the defensive backfield features another in Vernon Hargreaves, plus other standout DB’s including Brian Poole, Keanu Neal, Jalen Tabor, and Quincy Wilson.
Missouri overall grade: C+. The Tigers will take a step back in 2015. There are remnants of an SEC East Championship team in the Show-Me State, but too many question marks in the receiving game and on the defensive line to really count on them. Still, if 2014 taught us anything about college football, the Tigers can’t be counted out, either.
Overview: Ever since joining the SEC in 2012, Missouri has easily been the nation’s most bizarre team, but the wackiness peaked in 2014. How in the holy hell can a team lose to a paltry 4-8 Indiana team on its home turf, get destroyed 34-0 by its chief divisional competitor three weeks later- also on its home turf- and then run off six straight wins to clinch the SEC East? How can Maty Mauk look like a Heisman Trophy candidate at times, but a Division III reject at other times? How does Gary Pinkel keep reloading like this?
The strangest thing of all, though, is how Missouri plays at home compared to on the road. Three out of Mauk’s four losses as a starter have come on his home turf, including the aforementioned losses to Indiana and Georgia. So between their weird struggles at home and their various personnel question marks, Florida has as good a chance to walk into Faurot Field and steal a big one for the SEC East race as they’ll have in any SEC road game.
The Gators have the defense to make Maty Mauk’s life hell, and to shut down Missouri’s young receivers. In fact, that’s exactly what will happen. But the Gators will be counting heavily on their offensive line to get the job done, and even against a defensive line as weak as Missouri’s, I’m just not sure they’re ready. I have no doubt that Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan and David Sharpe will one day be the cornerstone of a stout offensive line for Florida. The Tigers will overload the box and overwhelm the young Florida line, stop the offense when it needs to most and preserve an ugly victory for Missouri.
Projection: Missouri 20, Florida 16