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Florida vs. Missouri: Five questions the Gators will answer on Saturday

Florida’s back in the land of the unknown for now. On Saturday, that will change.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Florida vs Michigan Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Who will Florida have available?

Yeah, I know that the question I’m listing as second here might be the one that is actually first on the minds of Florida fans, but the central question of this game against Missouri is the central question of Florida’s season: Who’s playing?

Florida should have the majority of the players who were part of the wave of positive tests and/or quarantine protocols related to the novel coronavirus that got team activities suspended in the first place, as Saturday — October 31 — will likely be long enough after positive test results from October 12 or 13 for players who are currently showing no symptoms after positive tests or not producing positive tests after quarantine to return to play.

But, of course, that’s possibly not long enough for every player who’s had a positive test result — six more were recorded in the last week, mind you — to have recovered, nor for every player put in quarantine to emerge from it. Florida is being opaque on this to preserve players’ privacy when it comes to COVID-19 status, which is admirable, but that also leads to updates like this one being taken any which way a reader would like:

While the Gators are not expected to be at full strength on Saturday as players navigate the quarantine and tracing protocols related to COVID-19 testing, Mullen said Monday he is sure they will have the minimum 53 eligible players according to Southeastern Conference guidelines.

There is a world of difference between having 53 players available and having 70 or 80 players available, and Florida would be in a world of hurt — you know, in a football sense — if players like Kyle Trask or Kyle Pitts are among those sidelined by COVID-related issues. And we’re simply not going to know who will be suiting up in Florida’s sweet throwbacks until shortly before kickoff, barring a preposterous bit of transparency from the program.

But the Gators can’t get through this game without answering the question of availability, and all we can do is hope they have enough to answer the bell.

How different will Florida’s defense look — if it does at all? And are we still going to be firing Todd Grantham on Sunday?

In a normal world, Florida’s defense would still be the focal point of this season. But it might have easily escaped major scrutiny through three games — Florida’s first three contests were supposed to come against Eastern Washington, Kentucky, and South Alabama. And while it would almost certainly have produced at least one shaky performance by now, the Gators could plausibly be coming off shootout wins over South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, and Ole Miss and a bye prior to a meeting with Georgia at this moment.

Would being 7-0 with a suspect defense prompt less criticism than being 2-1 with a defense that has cost Florida a game? I think so, though I don’t know.

But would we be past overreactions like the one to this Todd Grantham quote that foretells a largely unchanged defense?

I sure hope we would be.

Grantham’s got the right to point out that his defense has been successful, and not in any distant past: Florida was actually ninth, not 10th, in total defense in 2019, and Mississippi State really was 10th in total defense in 2017, a year in which the Bulldogs drew Georgia as their SEC East foe and a Lamar Jackson-led Louisville squad in a bowl game (which Grantham didn’t coach in, but obviously trained players for). He isn’t currently going to enjoy the privilege of the benefit of the doubt from those hearing this defense of his defense that is, uh, not currently in the nation’s top 10, but he’s not wrong to point to a valid response to criticism that amounts to “What have you done for me lately?” that comes via expanding the scope of “lately” beyond three games.

That’s not all of the criticism Grantham’s gotten, but it does comprise a significant portion of it. Most Florida fans — most football fans — are not scheme experts, and can’t diagnose exactly where or how a play went wrong; all-22 film for college football games is something hoarded by college football programs. Some are, to be clear, and some of them have been ragging on Grantham for quite some time despite the results he’s produced been rather strong on the whole; those fans aren’t going to be quelled by a Florida defense playing with a bit more heart, spirit, and technique and garnering a better result against Missouri.

Fans who just want to be able to cheer third-down stops? I dunno, I’d have to think that Florida getting a couple of those because Connor Bazelak misses some of the throws that Kellen Mond made nearly three weeks ago would tamp down on their criticisms. And if Florida gets better results from a largely unchanged process, I have to imagine the true believers will keep their ire for Grantham, but get less purchase for those arguments from the fan base at large.

But, again, we won’t know the answer to this two-parter until Saturday night — though the answer to the next question might be illuminating.

How much can Kyree Campbell help?

It’s a cautious optimism for now, but it seems like Florida defensive tackle Kyree Campbell is set to play this weekend after missing the first three games of the year.

Why, precisely, Campbell didn’t play in those three games is a public mystery, with some cryptic social media postings providing only fodder for equally confusing rumors, but if he’s truly back and playing on Saturday, he has the potential to make a significant difference for Florida up front.

Campbell is probably Florida’s most capable three-down defensive tackle, better at handling interior offensive linemen than anyone but T.J. Slaton and more versatile than Slaton as a potential pass-rusher. It’s not just what he provides as an upgrade on freshman Gervon Dexter or a miscast Slaton on third down that makes Campbell’s return so enticing, though, as his presence should mean that Florida’s defensive front is a bit more sane and sensible on most downs. Campbell at DT could kick Zachary Carter out to defensive end more often, or get Brenton Cox, Jr. to Buck rather than end; it could also mean that Slaton’s snaps are better limited to maintain the massive man’s effectiveness, or that Dexter can go more full-bore in his cameos.

All of these are little things for Florida’s front, but the little things have accreted this season: Florida not being able to set the edge because Cox is constantly trying to spin into position to make a play on his own has been a common sight on film. But Campbell being around might mean Cox ends up on the weak side and pursuing runners being strung out by a better-set edge, with multiple corrections of little things turning big plays into short gains or losses.

And I truly do believe that even fixing some little things could help Florida’s defense significantly. Whatever has been said about the Gators’ inefficiency on third down, fair or not, it’s incontrovertible that they have faced a fair few: The 46 third-down attempts Florida opponents have gotten thus far this year is fourth-most among FBS teams that have played just three games. (Florida’s also faced eight fourth downs, tied for most among FBS teams with three games in the books.)

One or two of those third downs being slightly trickier because of a failed first-down run or being gummed up thanks to Campbell himself or second-order effects of his return could save Florida points on the defensive end and also swing a touchdown or more in a game, given how potent the Gators’ offense has been.

Will Florida’s offense show any major rust?

Here’s where I’m most confident: Trask and Pitts, and to a lesser extent Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, are going to be just fine after a two-week break, so long as they’re not sidelined by or physically diminished after coronavirus infections we’ll never know about.

The things I’d worry about Florida’s offense not having after a layoff weren’t things lacking after the offseason, one that was especially weird and abbreviated. Trask was sharp from his first snap, Pitts has been an impossibility for defenses to slow down rather than stop, and Florida’s gotten excellent production out of Toney and Grimes, each of whom seem better than they were a year ago. Add in contributions from younger players and surprisingly good protection, and the fears about rhythm for Florida’s passing game will be about recapturing what it has never seemed to lack on the field.

Florida’s running game, meanwhile, seems to have as many options as ever. Malik Davis’s fumble against Texas A&M was obviously a painful and ultimately fate-sealing blunder, but he’s looked as good in his role as Dameon Pierce has in his, and Nay’Quan Wright is a lot closer to those two than I think most expected him to be. Emory Jones being sidelined by an apparent injury has limited Florida’s ability to diversify its run game to include a QB, but a legitimate three-back rotation is more than what Florida’s had in largely two-man batteries in 2018 and 2019 under Dan Mullen.

I think Missouri is going to be well-prepared for Florida, as Kentucky’s offense last week was a less exotic scout for the Tigers, but Missouri also got scorched by Alabama and LSU passing games that, fearsome though they are, may actually be a half-step behind Florida’s. And so long as the rust that we didn’t see after a long offseason hasn’t swiftly set in after a fortnight of reduced practice, I think we can expect things to whir up well for the Gators.