No. 11 Florida carried its new top-15 national ranking — and sole possession of first place in the SEC East — with it to Columbia on Friday. On Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network, the Gators will put both of those things on the line against Missouri.
Florida comes into this week's game off a 38-10 blowout of Mississippi last Saturday that doubled as an announcement of the Gators' swift resurgence under Jim McElwain. The Gators also won that game by four touchdowns after three weeks of one-possession games against less-esteemed squads, so there's a fair bit of trepidation about whether the Gators can sustain success.
Missouri, meanwhile, will be looking to continue a recent run of success against the Gators. No team hammered Florida harder in 2013 and 2014 than the two-time defending division champions, and while freshman Drew Lock, not Gators nemesis Maty Mauk, will start at quarterback for the Tigers today, Florida presents no fear factor to the SEC East's most recent top dog.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday night's showdown:
No defense in college football has done more to disrupt opposing offenses than Florida's, which enters this weekend No. 1 nationally in havoc rate. And the Gators were especially good mayhem-makers against Mississippi, hitting quarterback Chad Kelly on more than half of the Rebels' snaps:
On 73 plays. That's hitting the QB on 57% of offensive snaps (Kelly ran 15 times) https://t.co/LvIyOYmggr— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) October 8, 2015
Of Mississippi's 73 offensive snaps, 14 went for a loss — including three of the six offensive snaps that the Rebels took from within 10 yards of scoring a touchdown on the Gators. All three of those losses came on a seemingly endless third-quarter drive that culminated in a field goal and all but ended the competitive portion of that night's game.
Missouri's only allowed nine sacks on the season, but Mauk has a significant edge on Lock in terms of mobility, and the Tigers allowed two sacks to South Carolina last week in a 24-10 victory. Moreover, while Missouri gained an impressive 192 yards on the Gamecocks' run defense, ranked a middling No. 76 nationally, that came on a less impressive 3.9 yards per carry — and Florida's run defense, ranked No. 14 nationally, has allowed just one team, Tennessee, to gain more than three yards per carry.
If Florida can disrupt Missouri up front, it's quite possible that nothing else will matter.
Can Grier continue to play fast?
Florida's got an issue of its own on its hands in the form of Missouri's formidable pass rush. End Walter Brady is tied for 10th nationally with five sacks, and backup Charles Harris has three of his own; the Gators are sixth nationally, with 18 sacks, but the Tigers have 12, good for a tie for 30th.
What's more, Missouri absolutely eviscerated Florida's offensive line up front in 2013 and 2014, recording 11 sacks over those two contests.
So it may behoove Florida to keep its passing game quick and simple, as it was last week against Mississippi. That decision led to the best game of redshirt freshman Will Grier's young career (271 passing yards, four touchdowns), as he threw swiftly and decisively to neutralize the Rebels' pass rush, and fearsome lineman Robert Nkemdiche.
Avoiding the hole
Florida's last two games against Missouri went poorly immediately: On the first play of Florida's 2013 trip to Faurot Field, Mauk hit L'Damian Washington for a 41-yard pass, and safety Cody Riggs was flagged for a questionable targeting penalty, leading to his ejection — and a shorthanded Florida playing with fewer than half of its defensive starters on that day. The Gators never led in that game, and never got closer than six points after the first quarter.
In 2014, Marcus Murphy began the Tigers' 42-13 evisceration of Florida with a kick return touchdown, and Missouri took advantage of another punt return touchdown and two defensive scores to build a 42-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
Florida's better-equipped to come back in 2015 than it was in either of those previous years, and has two second-half comebacks already this year. But the Gators would still certainly prefer not to have to clamber out of a hole.