The Florida Gators faced the toughest test of their 2018 season last Saturday in Jacksonville — and they failed it, falling to the Georgia Bulldogs and relegating any dreams of SEC or national title contention to the back of the mind.
Now, for Homecoming, the Gators get what is likely to be the best team remaining on their regular-season schedule in the form of the Missouri Tigers.
Can they recover from a stinging loss to a rival? And can Missouri rebound from a far more painful collapse against Kentucky?
Let’s break it down.
When Florida has the ball
Florida’s formula for offensive success this season has been running the ball as often as possible and working the passing game into its approach only as needed, so as to minimize the situations that force Feleipe Franks to force throws. That formula didn’t quite work against Georgia, even though Florida ran the ball well: Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, and Franks combined for 158 yards on 30 carries, sacks included, and the Gators got another 22 yards from the spot duties of Emory Jones and Dameon Pierce.
Those are healthy numbers that translate to healthy averages, and they reflect a game that wasn’t so lopsided as to force Franks to throw until late. And yet his 13 completions on 21 passes went for just 105 yards, and his touchdown was countered by a horrific interception.
Clearly, Georgia was not about to be beaten by Franks.
Missouri is much more susceptible to that potentiality, with a lesser secondary and an unusually poor pass rush (the Tigers are 126th in Sack Rate, which drops to 129th — last nationally — on Passing Downs) combining to leave the Tigers at No. 86 in Defensive Passing S&P+. That’s a fatal flaw for a defense that’s very good against the run — No. 3 in Rushing S&P+, No. 1 in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness, and one of just four run defenses nationally yet to give up a rush of 30 or more yards — and it was exploited last Saturday, as Kentucky’s “call him mercurial because erratic is mean” Terry Wilson made up for an afternoon spent stopping Benny Snell by driving the Wildcats down the field for a game-winning touchdown.
Franks, for his many faults, is better than Wilson, and Florida’s running game isn’t far off from Kentucky’s. And Florida is playing at home, where it has only failed to score 27 points against Kentucky’s stout defense.
When Missouri has the ball
Fortunately, Missouri’s better on offense than on defense, even if its last two SEC games — brownouts against Alabama and Kentucky in which the Tigers scored 10 and 14 points and failed to gain 250 yards — do not suggest that much.
Drew Lock is, as has been the case for the last three years, the Tigers’ focal point; as was the case at points in 2016 and for all of 2017, he’s also their best offensive player, finishing off a collegiate career that is likely a prelude to an NFL career in mostly fine form.
But, boy, has Lock been better against bad defenses than in SEC play: In four games against non-SEC foes, he’s thrown for 1,412 yards, completed better than 70 percent of his passes, and tallied 15 touchdowns to one interception; in his four SEC games, Lock has thrown for 732 yards, completed just under 50 percent of his passes, and recorded one touchdown and five interceptions.
It is little wonder that Missouri is 4-0 in non-conference play and 0-4 against SEC foes.
The Tigers get decent production on the ground from a stable of backs — Larry Rountree III, Damarea Crockett, and Tyler Badie all have more than 300 rushing yards on the year, and are gaining around five yards a tote — and Florida is no great shakes at run defense, legendary goal-line stands aside, but Lock is clearly the straw that stirs the drink.
And so long as CJ Henderson is healthy enough to be at least 80 percent of what he usually is, Lock may have a hard time throwing on Florida. Henderson, when he’s been healthy, has all but erased one receiver from the Gators’ defensive game-planning, and Florida has to have seen enough substandard play from C.J. McWilliams by now to give freshman Trey Dean more of the reps at CB2. Furthermore, Florida failing to pressure Georgia’s Jake Fromm — because Henderson’s injury made defensive coordinator Todd Grantham unusually reluctant to bring blitzes — was maybe the reason it failed to stop the Bulldogs, and is a mistake I imagine Grantham wants to avoid, with or without Henderson available.
If Florida can get pressure against a Missouri front that has been pretty good at keeping Lock clean, I like its chances to make his day — and the Tigers’ — a long one.
Slight edge: Florida
When both teams are kicking
I’m a broken record when it comes to Florida’s special teams: Kicker Evan McPherson and punter Tommy Townsend are both great, the coverage teams are pretty good despite tending toward the flammable, and the return teams are potentially explosive. S&P+ agrees: The Gators rank ninth nationally in Special Teams S&P+.
Missouri is 65th in the same category, and mostly mediocre when kicking is involved. Tucker McCann is 15-for-22 on field goals; Missouri is allowing better than 11 yards per punt return; barely over half of Missouri’s kickoffs result in touchbacks; none of Missouri’s returners have made notable big plays as of yet.
Better than revenge
Missouri, Florida’s newest divisional opponent, is far from the Gators’ biggest rival. But a few of the biggest and most dispiriting losses in recent Florida history have come at the Tigers’ hands: The 36-17 drubbing that should’ve been worse in 2013, the 42-13 stomping that essentially ended Will Muschamp’s tenure in 2014, and last year’s 45-16 blowout in Columbia were all truly miserable games for the Gators.
But Florida’s subjected Missouri to its own misery in 2016 — Lock, you may recall, completed more passes for more yards and touchdowns to Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson than to players in Mizzou jerseys — and this feels to me far more like a game that Florida could start hot and then run away with than a potential nail-biter, especially given that Florida fans will be seeing their team at home for the first time in four weeks.
A blowout would follow the recent history of the series; a Florida blowout, more specifically, would follow from Missouri’s collapse against Kentucky, which struck me at the moment as the sort of loss that might stick with a team.