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Florida vs. Mississippi State, Preview: Gators, Bulldogs to face fires of Mullen Bowl

Davis Wade Stadium should be a cauldron of emotion on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Florida Gators and Mississippi State Bulldogs entered the 2018 season, it looked like their late-September matchup could be one between two unbeatens.

All the Gators would have to do is win two non-conference home games and get by Kentucky and Tennessee. All the Bulldogs would have to do is win two non-conference home games, survive a trip to Kansas State, and get past Kentucky.

That didn’t happen — thanks Kentucky — and now the Gators and Bulldogs arguably enter this weekend’s tilt as teams on tilt, with the Gators leaning in a positive direction after a rout of Tennessee and the Bulldogs listing a bit after being run over by those Wildcats.

Both teams are sure to play hard, given the specter of Dan Mullen hanging over this game, but what seemed like a likely Mississippi State blowout as recently as seven days ago now seems much more like a fair fight.

When Florida has the ball

The Gators are coming off a weird offensive performance against Tennessee. Yes, the Gators scored 47 points without the aid of a defensive or special teams touchdown (though they did get a safety), but Florida’s offense was mostly impressive for its efficiency against the Vols, not its sustained effectiveness. Feleipe Franks completed just half of his passes; no runner topped 80 yards on the ground; no receiver made it to 90 through the air.

Yet Florida had multiple one-play touchdown drives, and a 40-yard touchdown strike from Franks to Tyrie Cleveland that was maybe the night’s most impressive play. And though Florida’s defense set the Gators offense up in fantastic situations all night, the offense made good use of its advantageous positioning, scoring more than half of its points off turnovers.

Will that good fortune and good execution continue against Mississippi State? It probably depends on how well Florida can run the ball.

The Bulldogs were very good against Kentucky’s passing game last week, allowing just eight completions for 71 yards — but Kentucky didn’t need to pass, not when it ran for 229 yards and got nearly five yards a pop and all four of its touchdowns on the ground.

There’s a very good chance that Kentucky’s running game — and, specifically, the part of it that consists of letting Benny Snell do what he wants — is exceptional, and that it’s no great shame to have been bested by it. But Mississippi State showing that weakness ought to incline Florida to try to exploit it, especially because Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat loom as threats to puncture the Gators’ rickety pass protection whenever Franks drops back to pass.

Edge: Even

When Mississippi State has the ball

And the flip side of Florida coming off an impressive offensive performance is that Mississippi State’s vaunted offense is coming off something very much different from that.

The Bulldogs scored just seven points at Kentucky, and persisted in throwing on a stormy night despite Nick Fitzgerald (16-for-32 for 145 yards and a pick) never quite finding a rhythm. Trailing and dealing with an ineffective running game (28 carries, 56 yards) has led many a team to throw ineffectively, to be fair — but Fitzgerald was an erstwhile Heisman candidate under Mullen, and while he’s been typically good on the hoof this year, he has seemingly not improved as a passer under Joe Moorhead, and there’s an argument that he’s actually regressed.

That might not actually be fatal against Florida. The Gators failed to stop Snell and struggled to keep the mobile Terry Wilson in check, and their secondary is still dangerously green; even this in-flux version of Fitzgerald is probably the best QB Florida has faced thus far this year, and Kylin Hill is certainly the most explosive running back the Gators will have seen. And that one-dimensional Kentucky offense did enough to beat Florida in The Swamp, which was a significantly more hospitable environment than Davis Wade Stadium is likely to be on this Saturday evening.

Florida has improved on defense since that Kentucky game, with getting David Reese back to serve as a mobile cinder block inside the tackle box significantly stiffening the Gators’ front seven against Tennessee. But Mississippi State is Florida’s greatest challenge to date.

Slight edge: Mississippi State

When both teams are kicking

Florida’s special teams continued to be special against Tennessee, with a forced fumble on a kick return, a punt that set up a safety, and a pair of recovered onside kicks — one a surprise version — on the night. Freddie Swain and Kadarius Toney didn’t make significant plays in their respective return games, but the Gators would seem to have found the right players to use at those spots.

Mississippi State — which had Florida’s excellent freshman kicker, Evan McPherson, committed under Mullen — has been ... less good than that this year.

The Bulldogs are No. 117 in special teams S&P+, with kicker Jace Christmann making one of three field goals and punter Tucker Day averaging under 40 yards per punt. Mississippi State is second in opponent punt returns, having allowed just one return for a loss of two yards this year, but the Bulldogs have allowed 16 kick returns and an average of more than 20 yards per return, and that seems like a recipe for Toney to make a play.

Edge: Florida

Let’s talk about the Dan Mullen factor

I haven’t put an intangibles section in these Previews this year because discussing the intangibles mostly means rambling about the unknown.

But this is a different game, with Mississippi State fans making it out to be one of program-defining importance and Florida fans ... uh, not doing that?

There is so much angst wrapped up in this for the Bulldogs fan base — which has seen both alumnus Scott Stricklin and once-beloved coach Mullen leave Starkville for Gainesville in the last three years — that it would be silly to expect anything other than their full-throated best in Davis Wade this Saturday. The Gators have faced hostile environments, sure, but there’s a difference between the hate for Florida that Florida State or Georgia or LSU fans have and this more existential and more visceral hate running through Mississippi State fans who want desperately for their team to prove it can be superior to Florida.

Misssissippi State’s players will want this very, very badly. But Florida’s players — who are no doubt conscious of all of these same elements of this game, and who have their own pride at stake — will want it, too, and they are the players coming off a faith-restoring win, while State is coming off a faith-shaking loss. If you believe in momentum — even as a mere translation of belief and confidence — you probably believe it’s with Florida this evening.

I don’t, really. But I do think this is likely to be a game played with a whole lot of passion.