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Florida vs. Missouri, Preview: What can the Gators show?

The latest weird month of Florida football begins in the Show-Me State.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When the Florida Gators play the Missouri Tigers, I’m prone to riffing on Missouri’s Show-Me State nickname and trying to make that the fulcrum of my narrative.

Really, though, I just want the Gators to show me a pulse — and I suspect that desire is not nearly limited to me alone.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Missouri rush defense

You will sense a theme in this post: Florida’s offense should have all sorts of opportunities against Missouri’s defense, and Missouri’s offense should have all sorts of opportunities against Florida’s defense.

Florida’s running game provides and generates its best opportunities on offense, and that should remain true even without freshman sensation Malik Davis, now out for the season. The Gators will give a greater share of their carries to Lamical Perine, who was stellar against Georgia, and reintegrate Mark Thompson in their running game, but don’t be shocked to see a lot more of Adarius Lemons, too.

Of those three, Thompson is the only one under four yards per carry on the year — and only barely. Florida’s running game has been good and diverse all season, and even though Kadarius Toney may not be in the mix in Columbia, the straightforward approach should be able to move the ball on a defense that ranks No. 99 against the run and has conceded 18 runs of 20 or more yards this fall.

Of course, there’s also the Malik Zaire factor.

Edge: Florida

Florida passing game vs. Georgia pass defense

Florida is breaking in Zaire as a starter against the Tigers — and the graduate transfer from Notre Dame will have a soft Missouri defense to work against.

Prior to last Saturday’s shutdown of a good UConn passing game, the Tigers had allowed every team they had seen in 2017 to complete 59.5 percent of their passes for at least 187 yards and a passer rating in excess of 130. Against the Huskies, Missouri limited two different QBs to under 50 percent completions, and also picked off a pass, putting together its best outing all fall.

Zaire would seem more likely to play into Missouri’s hands than throw dimes into his receivers’ hands. He is 12 for 23 on the year, and his last full game with a passer rating of 130 or better was his season opener — of 2015, against Texas, while at Notre Dame. Zaire has just one other 130-plus passer rating when throwing more than five passes in his career, and while he may get the chance to set a new career high for attempts against Missouri, history suggests he’s not particularly likely to light up the Tigers.

Florida’s receiving corps still lacking a healthy No. 1 receiver — Tyrie Cleveland may be playing, but what he gave against Georgia was not what a fully healthy Cleveland can or should give — leaves Zaire without the aid necessary to fully exploit the Missouri secondary. And Missouri’s forever-fierce pass rush should be able to explode past the Gators’ pedestrian pass blocking to pressure Zaire, too.

Slight edge: Florida

When Missouri has the ball

Missouri running game vs. Florida rush defense

Missouri’s running game is one of the better ones in college football that gets absolutely no publicity. Some of that has to do with the Tigers’ 3-5 record, but Damarea Crockett, Ish Witter, and Larry Rountree III are all at or above 5.6 yards per carry this year, and each has a game of 97 or more rushing yards this season.

Crockett is hurt, and that injury has forced Missouri to air it out far more, but Witter and Rountree did combine for 133 yards on 16 carries against UConn, so it’s not like Crockett’s injury has fully submarined the Tigers’ ground attack. Missouri clocked five yards per carry in back-to-back games for the first time over its last two contests — against Idaho and UConn, but still — and has been generally successful on the ground when it does not have to battle back from a significant deficit.

And Florida’s defense is looking supremely susceptible to running games at the moment, having just been run over by Georgia to the tune of 292 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries. Missouri doesn’t have an offensive line anywhere near Georgia’s talent level, nor are Witter and Rountree quite in the weight class of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel — but Florida’s failure to stop the run against the Bulldogs was essentially total, and the Tigers surely saw many places to attack on video.

Edge: Missouri

Missouri passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Florida’s pass defense was actually pretty good against Georgia, a couple of big plays aside: Javon Wims Mossed Marco Wilson in a way that 6’4” receivers sometimes do, and running back D’Andre Swift took a screen pass for 39 yards and caught two other passes for an additional 45 yards, but those were Georgia’s only four completions on the day. Jake Fromm wasn’t asked to do much, but still managed to throw a pick, and Terry Godwin — great all year — was a non-factor against Florida.

That pass defense is about to get a different sort of test.

Missouri’s Drew Lock is among the nation’s leaders in basically every passing category: He’s tied (with Will Grier) in passing touchdowns with 28, sixth in yards per attempt at 9.5, eighth in passer rating at 167.78, and eighth in yards per game. Over his white-hot last three weeks — which includes a game against Georgia — Lock has tossed 15 touchdowns and just one pick; in October, which also included a 22-for-42 performance against Kentucky that still featured three TDs and no picks, Lock’s passer rating was a magnificent 195.9.

Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s passing game is really, really clicking right now, in other words, and Lock has been key to that effort, with J’Mon Moore, Johnathon Johnson, and Emanuel Hall all reaping the rewards of their junior quarterback’s improvement.

But Lock, it should also be noted, has struggled mightily against Florida. He was 4-for-18 with two picks in 2016, and 16-for-39 with two picks in 2015. This Florida defense isn’t quite as well-rounded as those ones were, and the Gators lack the experience in the secondary that they boasted over the last two years, sure — but Lock’s yet to play well against the Gators, and that history may matter as much as his recent success has on this Saturday morning/afternoon.

Edge: Missouri

Special teams

Missouri is very good on special teams. So is Florida, despite the continued employment of Greg Nord, thanks to a couple of excellent booters of the ball.

Edge: Even

Other factors

The 11 a.m. start time for Florida feels like it might matter: Florida’s only other nooner in Missouri featured a sleepwalking offense and a 36-17 loss in 2013, one that helped dissuade then-Gators commit Dalvin Cook from ending up in Gainesville and truly began the downswing of the Gators’ 2013 season.

Beyond that, though, it’s hard to say Florida-Missouri is a rivalry or a heated matchup, and harder to think that Zaire being Florida’s QB and Randy Shannon being Florida’s coach is going to make an enormous difference without seeing it first.

Slight edge: Missouri