GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Missouri has a new coach, a pair of new coordinators and a breakout second-year quarterback for Florida to prepare for this week.
The Tigers-Gators series is still relatively new as this will mark only the fifth meeting between the teams since Missouri joined the SEC. They have split the first four, including a 21-3 Florida win last year in Columbia, Mo.
The No. 18-ranked Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and the Tigers (2-3, 0-2) both had last weekend off — for different reasons — as they went to work prepping for this clash in The Swamp on Saturday.
While Gators fans might not be too familiar with the Tigers after their eventful offseason, The Kansas City Star’s Tod Palmer is here to provide insight. The Missouri beat reporter participated in a quick Q&A this week to offer perspective from the other side.
Young: How is that defensive debacle against LSU — the 418 rushing yards and 634 total yards allowed — being viewed at Missouri? Was it an anomaly for a defense that did a pretty good job defending the run against Georgia, or did it expose some significant vulnerabilities?
Palmer: “Missouri’s defensive staff had a team meeting during the bye week to discuss the fallout from the LSU loss. First-year defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross brought a new scheme from TCU, though it’s not a carbon copy of Gary Patterson’s defense. It’s considerably more read-heavy, especially for the defensive line, than the Tigers have played in the past. Some players have struggled to adjust and others have pushed back a bit against the changes, preferring the aggressive and disruptive style Mizzou used to use over the new gap-control approach. There are changes coming as a result of the meeting and input from players that will simplify some of the pre-snap responsibilities and, MU hopes, free up players to make more plays.
“The Tigers haven’t been quite the trainwreck they were at LSU as a rule, and there’s no doubt the scheme and the fact first-year coach Barry Odom’s staff hasn’t had a real chance to recruit yet has proven problematic. The learning curve has proven steeper and longer than anticipated, but missed tackles have been an even bigger issue. Mizzou misses 2015 All-American linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who led the nation in tackles last season and is now with the NFL’s Vikings, and 2015 Freshman All-American Walter Brady, who was dismissed (along with senior defensive tackle Harold Brantley) on the eve of training camp. Still, there’s enough talent on the roster to believe the Tigers should be a better defense than they showed at LSU and probably will be moving forward.”
Young: How much has quarterback Drew Lock exceeded expectations this fall and what difference has new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel made overall?
Palmer: “Well, that depends entirely on your expectations for Lock entering the season. He struggled as a true freshman. As a highly talented high school star, Lock relied on instincts and his innate playmaking ability against inferior athletes, but he’s had to learn the game more, ramp up his football IQ with respect to reading defenses and refine his technique, especially against the elite defenses and defensive players he regularly sees in the Southeastern Conference. Against Power Five competition this season, Lock’s completion percentage isn’t where you’d like to see it, but he doesn’t always get a lot of help from his receivers and he’s still been productive at times. Lock showed a glimpse of his full potential in shredding Georgia during the first half in a mid-September meeting, but consistency remains the missing piece.
“It’s not possible to overestimate the impact Heupel, a former Heisman Trophy (runner-up) and national championship-winning quarterback at Oklahoma, has made for Lock. The Lee’s Summit, Mo., native is more studious, more confident and still possesses all the raw talent — big arm, good pocket presence and deft touch — that made him one of the top QB prospects in the 2015 recruiting class.”
Young: Do you expect the Tigers to be aggressive down the field challenging standout cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson?
Palmer: “I don’t think Lock will shy away from taking shots despite the fact Tabor and Wilson might be the best individual corners he’s seen and certainly are the best pair Missouri has faced this season. Big plays are the bread and butter of the Tigers offense. That doesn’t mean it will work against Florida. It certainly didn’t against LSU, which forced Lock to throw underneath thanks to an above-average pass rush that limited his time in the pocket and good downfield coverage. The Gators can do a lot of the same things and perhaps do them even better than LSU, but MU also had two weeks to digest and learn from the drubbing it took in Death Valley. Those lessons might bear some fruit Saturday in The Swamp.”
Young: What has changed within the Missouri program in the transition from longtime coach Gary Pinkel to Barry Odom?
Palmer: On the field, everything changed. Odom retained two assistant coaches — Andy Hill, the program’s ace recruiter in Kansas City, and Cornell Ford, the program’s ace recruiter in St. Louis. Both have been with the program for at least 16 seasons now, but both also switched positions. Hill moved back to wide receivers after a three-year stint as quarterbacks coach and Ford switched to running backs after spending most of Pinkel’s tenure coaching cornerbacks. The rest of the staff is new except for safeties coach Ryan Walters, who came with Odom from Memphis before the 2015 season. But even Walters added co-defensive coordinator to his duties. The offensive and defensive schemes are new, plus the recruiting footprint and wish list has expanded.
“Odom stepped into some mighty big shoes, considering the success Pinkel (had) in rejuvenating a program that actually had quite a bit of success in the 1960s and 1970s before falling on hard times. Many believe Odom, who played at Mizzou and coached for parts of 10 seasons in various capacities under Pinkel, is the perfect guy to enhance and build off the legacy left behind. Returning to a bowl game in 2016 would be a good start.”
Young: What is your expectation and prediction for the game?
Palmer: “I expect Missouri to be more competitive at Florida than it was at LSU, but I’m not sure this Tigers team is ready to win these types of games. Mizzou (is) a proud program and eager to get back on the field and get rid of the foul taste from the 42-7 loss in Baton Rouge, La. The fact that the Gators didn’t have to absorb the physical toll playing LSU takes last week doesn’t help MU’s cause, nor does Florida’s vivid memory of the last time Mizzou came to town. Before the band was seated, Marcus Murphy returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and things went downhill from there. Will Muschamp wasn’t immediately fired after that 42-13 beating by the Tigers, but he might as well have been. Jim McElwain will have no such worries after a 27-17 win.”