Missouri has dominated Florida the past two seasons.
The Tigers have outscored the Gators by a combined score of 78-30 over the last two years. But it might be hard for Missouri to score that many points in this season’s matchup with a unit that is ranked 119th nationally in total offense.
We brought in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dave Matter, who covers Missouri, to answer some questions on the Tigers. Make sure to follow Dave (@Dave_Matter) for info on Missouri leading up to Saturday’s game against the No. 11 Gators (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
1. How does this Missouri team compare to the teams that won SEC East titles the past two seasons? Where is it better and where is it worse?
Dave: The offense really struggled through the first four games, much like it did during a three-game midseason stretch last year against South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The passing game was a mess under Maty Mauk. Young receivers struggled to catch the ball. The offensive line seemed to forget how to block for the run. The tailbacks were either injured or ineffective. But Mizzou seemed to hit the reset button on the season against South Carolina when Drew Lock took over at quarterback. They gave the freshman a fairly conservative game plan, but with his accuracy and quick delivery, the offense finally functioned. The running game picked up, too, behind a more physical approach from the offensive line. A year ago the Tigers relied on their defense and special teams to keep them in most games; that was the case through the first four weeks this season against suspect competition, but the offense was far more competent last week. It’s difficult to know what to expect the rest of the season.
2. Missouri is obviously powered by its defense, as it ranks eighth nationally in total defense. What makes the unit so good?
Dave: It all starts with a deep and talented defensive line. Missouri has become a factory for developing unheralded linemen into stars. This year appears to be no exception. Defensive ends Charles Harris and Walter Brady weren’t on anyone’s radar as recruits but have quickly developed into productive edge rushers. Josh Augusta, a 330-pound D-tackle, is having the best year of his career and can finally stay on the field long enough to be an impact player. Behind the line, the linebackers are experienced and productive. The secondary hasn’t been tested much, but there’s a good mix of young talent and experience back there. There’s not a weakness on this defense, and first-year coordinator Barry Odom seems to find new ways to get creative each week.
3. Given Maty Mauk’s struggles this season, is Missouri better with freshman Drew Lock at quarterback?
Dave: It appears so. Lock is far more accurate as a passer and makes quicker decisions. He’s not a great running threat like Mauk, but his patience and footwork allows him to keep plays alive longer because he can avoid pressure without abandoning the pocket. He can become an elite passer if Missouri surrounds him with enough talent. With Mauk, the offense struggled to function consistently when he was completing around 50 percent of his throws and leaving the pocket too early. Mauk had some great moments and helped deliver some big wins, but in the long run, Lock is going to provide more of a traditional passer in a spread offense that likes to distribute the ball and stretch the field vertically.
4. What has been the issue holding Missouri’s offense back? The Tigers are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and still don’t have a receiver with more than 200 receiving yards.
Dave: The most experienced wideout coming into the season had only five career receptions. The receiver corps has been learning on the go all season, and the results reflect their inexperience. They dropped a handful of touchdowns in the first four games. The staff has seen progress the last few weeks, especially with Nate Brown in the slot. Russell Hansbrough was the team’s most indispensable player coming into the season — and he promptly sprained his ankle on his first carry. The running game isn’t the same without him. They rushed him back too soon at Arkansas State and that only seemed to delay his progress. He looked more like himself against South Carolina, but he’s still trying to recapture his burst from last season. Otherwise, it’s just not an offense with much seasoned depth at the skill positions. A slow start by the offensive line didn’t help matters. Center Evan Boehm is just now playing like the 2014 version. He, too, sprained an ankle on MU’s first series of the season.
5. What is the outside view of the Gators? Internally, Gators fans are excited and optimistic about the 5-0 start. But does Florida have to do more to earn the complete attention of the rest of the SEC?
Dave: Missouri fans are probably too consumed with what they believe is a lack of respect for their program after winning consecutive East titles to worry too much about the perception of the Gators. I’m sure reasonable fans realize Missouri was fortunate to play Florida the last two years when the Gators were in disarray under Muschamp — at least offensively. But even in 2012, when Missouri was spiraling toward a 5-7 season, the Tigers could have won in Gainesville if not for a few untimely turnovers. Having sustained success in the East is much harder for Missouri if Florida can get back to being the program it was under Urban Meyer. Personally, I thought Florida would need a couple years under McElwain to get the offense in order and become competitive on a national scale—but you don’t have to be a superpower to win the East. The Ole Miss win was eye-opening. If the offense continues to push the ball downfield like that, Florida will be the most complete team in the division.