The Florida Gators’ locker room buzzed as players and coaches alike danced and celebrated to the blasting music after Saturday’s victory. The scene looked like the Gators just punched a ticket to the SEC Championship.
Instead, they just came back from a 14-point deficit against the Samford Bulldogs and won 70-52.
"I've never won a game that wasn't worth celebrating," head coach Dan Mullen told media Monday. “The players work way too hard."
After scratching and crawling to a victory over its FCS opponent, Florida (5-5, 2-5) returns to SEC competition this week as it travels to Columbia, Missouri, to take on the Mizzou Tigers (5-5, 2-4).
The Tigers enter Saturday fresh off a three-point victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks, but they have struggled overall this season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Mizzou allowed at least 28 points in every game since week one this season, where it allowed 24 to Central Michigan. The Tigers defense ranks dead last in the SEC in points allowed per game (35.9) and is second-to-last in yards allowed per game (456.0).
Mizzou specifically struggles against the run. It allows an SEC-worst 249.6 yards per game on the ground and 5.8 yards per carry. However, the Tigers are coming off their best defensive performance of the season against the Gamecocks, allowing just 57 rushing yards and scoring a defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery. For comparison, the Gators yielded 284 yards on the ground to South Carolina in their 40-17 loss on Nov. 6.
The Florida offense should, in theory, match up well with the Tigers. The Gators average 227.7 rushing yards per game and boast two mobile quarterbacks in Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. Their stable of running backs includes lead horse Malik Davis and complimentary option Nay’Quan Wright and Dameon Pierce. Pierce has been one of the best running backs in the country in his limited opportunities, ranking as Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded running back (92.5 offensive grade) and averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Pierce has yet to see double digit carries in a single game this season.
While the Tigers run defense has been near the bottom of the barrel, the Tigers run offense has been rock solid. Running back Tyler Badie leads the SEC in rushing with 1,239 yards — over 200 more yards than the next closest rusher. Despite the senior’s production, Mizzou is still middle-of-the-pack in offensive production, averaging 31.5 points and 434.3 yards per game.
The Tigers may also have their own quarterback controversy developing. As The Maneater sports editor Kyle Pinnell pointed out, quarterback Connor Bazelak appears to be on a tight leash, and head coach Eliah Drinkwitz isn’t afraid to pull his starter if need be.
“I think he starts, but I wouldn't be surprised if Drinkwitz goes back to Brady Cook or Tyler Macon,” Pinnell said in an interview for Know Your Enemy.
Bazelak has put up some numbers this season — fourth in the conference in passing yards — but he is also prone to turnovers, tossing 10 interceptions so far this season. The Florida defense is coming off a downright horrible performance against Samford, allowing quarterback Liam Welch to throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns and run the ball for 65 yards and two more scores. Now, the Gators did limit the Bulldogs to just 10 second half points, but Samford’s 52 points were the most an SEC opponent ever allowed to an FCS school.
On the opposite side, Jones looks to build on his record-setting eight-touchdown performance from last week. He may have a tougher time accumulating yards through the air, though, as the Mizzou pass defense allows the fifth-least passing yards per game in the conference (206.4).
Mullen expressed full confidence in Jones Monday, saying the redshirt junior earned the right to start, but Richardson should still see some packages as well.
With both defenses in less than stellar shape, expect fireworks in Columbia Saturday. The game kicks off at 4 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast live on SEC Network.
Contact Michael Hull at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.
Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer.