GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Finally, the Florida Gators have a game to play.
It feels even longer than two weeks since the No. 18-ranked Gators wrapped up a 13-6 win at Vanderbilt. Everybody knows what happened since with the postponement of the LSU game, followed by the reaction to the postponement, then the reaction to the criticism of the postponement and finally the resolution Thursday.
That storyline has received more attention than the game Florida has actually been preparing for all week as Missouri visits The Swamp on Saturday.
Now, though, that’s where all of the focus can finally turn, and to that end here is a breakdown of how the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and Tigers (2-3, 0-2) match up:
Florida: The Gators will hope another exhausted storyline gets put to rest this week as redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio returns to the starting role after missing two games with a knee injury. There is hope Del Rio’s return can lift an offense that has produced just 20 points and 2 touchdowns over the last six quarters with graduate transfer Austin Appleby at the reins. One offensive teammate spoke candidly about why he thinks Del Rio can make a significant difference due to his stronger command of the offense and ability to make more pre-snap reads at the line of scrimmage. Del Rio still has plenty to prove, though. He was great against Kentucky while passing for 320 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception in Week 2, but struggled against North Texas the following week (14 of 25 for 186 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT) before getting hurt. Obviously, there is a lot riding on his performance Saturday — not just for the sake of beating Missouri, but for the long-term prospects of this offense.
Missouri: Tigers sophomore Drew Lock is the SEC’s leading passer with 1,675 yards, 14 touchdowns and 4 interceptions through five games, but those numbers are significantly skewed by two blowout wins against Eastern Michigan (61-21) and FCS foe Delaware State (79-0). Lock passed for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns over those two games. He did pass for 376 yards and 3 touchdowns against Georgia, but he also threw 3 picks in that game and was mostly stifled his last time out against LSU while completing just 17 of 37 for 167 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT. He still presents a different kind of challenge for a Gators secondary that hasn’t faced many true downfield passing attacks this fall.
Florida: There is plenty of curiosity about how the Gators will adjust their running-back-by-committee rotation with sophomore Jordan Scarlett outperforming the team’s other rushers to this point. Scarlett has 274 yards and 4 touchdowns on 55 carries, followed by junior Mark Thompson (47-197-2), freshman Lamical Perine (37-194-1) and sophomore Jordan Cronkrite (23-106-1). Florida needs to find more production from its rushing attack after averaging a paltry 3.0 yards per carry (66-198) over the last two games. The Gators have shown promise on the ground against weaker defenses with 244 rushing yards against Kentucky and 255 against North Texas.
Missouri: Junior Ish Witter leads the Tigers in carries, but he’s averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt. Freshman Damarea Crockett has outpaced him with 245 yards and 3 TDs on 40 carries (6.1 per attempt). Meanwhile, Alex Ross (20-72-0), a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, missed a significant chunk of time with an ankle injury and did not receive any carries in Missouri’s last game, but he’s listed second on the team’s depth chart this week.
Florida: Sophomore Antonio Callaway ranks eighth in the SEC with 371 receiving yards despite having played in only four games. He is Florida’s best big-play threat and a key if the Gators are going to break out offensively. Junior Brandon Powell (19 catches for 168 yards and 2 TDs) has been quiet the last three games, but he seemed to be clicking with Del Rio at the start of the season and could get more involved again. Junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby has emerged as a steady part of the passing game and now leads the team with 22 catches while totaling 175 yards and 1 TD.
Missouri: Junior J’Mon Moore is Lock’s favorite target and ranks third in the SEC with 450 receiving yards on 27 catches. He’s scored 4 touchdowns. The Tigers have five players with at least 185 yards receiving as freshman Dimetrios Mason (15-188-0), sophomore Emanuel Hall (14-241-2), fifth-year senior Chris Black (14-199-1) and redshirt-freshman Johnathon Johnson (11-201-1) have all been involved. But those five struggled to get open against LSU the last time out, combining for just 8 catches and 82 yards between them. The challenge doesn’t get any easier this week against the Gators’ vaunted secondary.
Florida: Redshirt-junior center Cameron Dillard and freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor have been Florida’s highest-graded players this season, according to Pro Football Focus. And yet, the offensive line has had its struggles as a whole and was challenged after the last game by McElwain. On a positive note, the unit should be fully healthy this week. Sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan returns to the starting lineup after missing two games with an eye injury and playing in a limited role at Vanderbilt. And junior left tackle David Sharpe is said to be OK after dealing with a shoulder injury last week. It will be interesting to see what Del Rio’s return and his ability to set protections and read the defense does for the blocking up front.
Missouri: The Tigers have impressively only allowed 3 sacks and 9 tackles for loss all season — both SEC-best marks — but that also has to do with Lock’s penchant for getting rid of the football quickly. Missouri’s starting offensive line is a young group overall with three redshirt-sophomores in left guard Kevin Pendleton (6-foot-4, 335 pounds), center Samson Bailey (6-4, 295) and right tackle Paul Adams (6-6, 315) along with junior left tackle Tyler Howell (6-8, 320) and redshirt-junior right guard Alec Abeln (6-3, 305). Those five had just three career starts between them when the season started, but they’ve been pretty solid thus far.
Florida: The Gators will be without two starters up front for a second straight game as senior nose tackle Joey Ivie (thumb) and redshirt junior defensive end Jordan Sherit (knee) recover from injuries. There is also some uncertainty as to what role redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley will be able to play this week because of a hand injury. McElwain has indicated that Brantley has been limited in practice and is trying to play through it. It’s definitely a less-imposing unit without Ivie and Sherit and a potentially limited Brantley. But redshirt senior end Bryan Cox Jr. is said to be recovered from the ankle injury that slowed him the last time out, and redshirt freshman end Jabari Zuniga (team-high 5 sacks) and sophomore CeCe Jefferson are capable playmakers.
Missouri: Over their last three games, the Tigers have tallied 15 tackles for loss and 8 sacks, with half of those sacks coming against Georgia. Junior defensive end Charles Harris, a second-team All-SEC pick last year, leads the team with 3.5 sacks along with 4 quarterback hurries and 19 total tackles. But it’s impossible to mention this unit and not bring up the fact LSU gashed Missouri for 418 rushing yards two weeks ago, averaging 8.0 yards per carry. So obviously the Tigers defensive front has some vulnerabilities.
Florida: Senior Jarrad Davis has been spectacular for Florida this fall, racking up 40 total tackles, 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries and 4 pass break-ups. Motivated to do a better job in coverage, he notched 3 pass break-ups in the Gators’ win over Vanderbilt, including tipping what would be a game-sealing interception for the defense. Redshirt junior Alex Anzalone is having a breakout season with 32 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 4 QB hurries.
Missouri: The Tigers have good experience at this spot. Redshirt senior Michael Scherer, a three-year starter, leads the team with 42 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 QB hurries and an interception. And senior Donavin Newsom, in his second season as a full-time starter, has 32 tackles.
Florida: Junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor (3 INTs in four games) and Quincy Wilson (2 INTs) are especially looking forward to facing this pass-happy Missouri offense. Florida’s secondary has been as good as expected this fall between those two, steady redshirt senior safety Marcus Maye (29 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT, 3 PBUs) and juniors Marcell Harris, Nick Washington and Duke Dawson.
Missouri: The Tigers have been disruptive in the secondary as well and have 7 interceptions. Senior cornerbacks Aarion Penton (2 INTs, 6 PBUs) and John Gibson (1 INT, 4 PBUs) key that effort. Missouri is yielding 232 passing yards per game but has given up only 4 passing touchdowns.
Florida: The Gators have an advantage most weeks with their pair of specialists as redshirt junior Johnny Townsend ranks second in the country with 50.2 yards per punt and redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro is 7 of 9 on field goals. Florida is still hoping to get more out of its return game, though. That unit has not had a significant impact on changing field position.
Missouri: Freshman kicker Tucker McCann is 4 of 6 on field goals with a long of 46 and sophomore punter Corey Fatony is averaging 43.8 yards per attempt. Black (12.3 yards per punt return) and Johnson (13.8) have been productive returning punts, but the Tigers kickoff-return game, like Florida’s, has been mediocre.
This is a game in which Florida needs to come out and make a statement, assuaging concerns on offense with Del Rio back and playing to its usual high standard on defense. The Gators are hoping to contend for an SEC championship this year. Missouri is on the other end of the conference spectrum, rebuilding under a new head coach. This is a chance for Florida to build some momentum heading into another week off before getting into the meat of its conference schedule. The Gators should win this game by double digits.