The Florida Gators need to win one of their last two games to qualify for a bowl game this season. Their first shot at bowl eligibility comes in Columbia, Missouri, against the Mizzou Tigers. I sat down with Kyle Pinnell, the sports editor of the University of Missouri student newspaper The Maneater, to discuss the Tigers ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
Obviously, this hasn’t been a great season for either Mizzou or Florida. How does Mizzou finish out the year strong? What would qualify as a “successful” season for you?
Pinnell: I think for Mizzou, what would qualify as a successful end of this season, you have Florida and you have Arkansas: I know where Florida's been this year, but Missouri has been equally as interesting. They have played close games against Central Michigan, North Texas and Vanderbilt. They played close against Vanderbilt. The same team that Florida, when they were clicking, if you want to call it clicking...they blew them out. I think for Missouri, just getting to a bowl game, which has been the mantra from Drinkwitz and the players in the last few weeks as soon as it was clear they weren't gonna win the SEC East, it's been, ‘We got to win a bowl game.’ So the last few weeks, it's been, pick up three wins or pick up two wins, however you can get them, and they got the job done. Obviously, you have Georgia in between but they beat Vanderbilt, and then they beat South Carolina.
I think making a bowl game, just picking up a win, you gotta do it against Florida or Arkansas. I think more Missouri fans are confident, as confident as you can be if you're a Missouri fan, against Florida versus going to Arkansas, even though Missouri's beaten them (the Razorbacks) each of the past like five seasons. So pick up a win, become bowl eligible. End this season on a strong note.
The Tigers are led on offense by running back Tyler Badie. He leads the SEC in rushing by over 200 yards and averages 6.2 yards per carry. What about his game is so effective, and how can Florida contain him?
Pinnell: Badie has been the best part of this Missouri team, the most fun player to watch. Obviously, last year it was Nick Bolton, this year to Tyler Badie. You always had a feeling with him… He's been behind Larry Roundtree the past few seasons, now really stepping into his own. I think the question going into the season was would he step into that role? He was utilized as more of a pass-catching running back out in the backfield than a workhorse back, and so this season has been awesome to see his development.
I know Drinkwitz talked [Tuesday]. He said he (Badie) is responsible for like five wins… He's been impressive… Badie has been so great, one he has great speed. He's still obviously a good pass catcher. So if you send too many people at whoever Missouri starts at quarterback on Saturday, you at least have Badie as an option out of the backfield. He's been able to run it up the gut, run it down the sides, for most of these games. He was relatively quiet against South Carolina, and then that final drive, Missouri just needed to run out the clock, and they had about four minutes to do so. He had a few runs of 15-plus yards, and so the Tigers can rely on him to do something with the ball.
Now, there's been times where he's had quiet games, where he's gone for maybe 50 yards in the game and doesn't do much. Maybe he'll get the 90, 100 yards because he's a good all-purpose back and he’ll get some receptions. But when he goes off, he goes off for over 200 yards. It's just been impressive to see the way he's been utilized in both the running game and in the passing game a little bit.
How can Florida hope to contain him? I think if you sell out on him, you can stop him. Like I said, there's been games I think he didn’t go off, against Tennessee or like Texas A&M, there’s been games where he’s been kept under control, and I think stopping Missouri is stopping Tyler Badie. You look at the receivers that Missouri has… The receivers are good, not great. So, I think if you slow down Tyler Badie, and the way to do that, obviously, you stack the box. I mean, I'd rather stack the box against Missouri than a team that has enough threats to cover...It's not like you're stacking the box against Georgia, when they have the wide receivers they have, or insert your pick of better wide receivers in the conference. Missouri has a solid wide receiver room. It's better than last year and it's going to take another step forward next year with Luther Burden (No. 1 ranked wide receiver in the class of 2022, according to ESPN.com)... I think if you're Florida it's pretty simple: Just stop them on the ground.
The only thing with Badie is he's really well-rounded as a running back. He does everything really well. He's not like great, great… like he's not going to create his own space and create his own play like that. He’s one of those solid, above average in every single category. His ceiling if he goes off in the game is really high, so he's just really well rounded. You can't just take away the run game and take Tyler Badie away because then he'll be an option in the passing game, get him going that way. So that's the hardest part about dealing with him
While Badie gets the attention that he deserves, the Mizzou passing offense has also put up some numbers this season. Quarterback Connor Bazelak is fourth in the conference in passing yards and fifth in completion percentage. What is his biggest strength as a passer? What’s his biggest weakness?
Pinnell: I don't know if you're gonna see Bazelak on Saturday…I know you're gonna probably quote me on that…Now, I think there's a better-than-average chance he starts, but Drinkwitz pulled Bazelak on the last drive of the game [last week] after an interception he threw and Brady Cook finished it. He was asked about that. He kind of downplayed it; he was just talking about Bazelak still recovering from a soft tissue injury he picked up against Vanderbilt, they needed some like a quarterback who can run or someone who can use some legs. Which I mean, Tyler Macon is a better option for using his legs than Brady Cook. So that was kind of interesting. It was a very interesting situation.
I've always said it when talking about Bazelak; he has a solid floor, but he does not inspire me. I mean, the student section the entire game was chanting, “We want Macon” against South Carolina… His accuracy’s a little wanting, but I think Bazelak, you talked about strengths… he's just a solid quarterback. I think it just goes back to nothing's flashy.
So, there's a lot of highs and lows with him, like he's made some good plays, he's a good game manager, Eliah Drinkwitz trusts him… He's had a lot of good games. But when he's bad, there's been some really questionable interceptions.
I think he starts, but I wouldn't be surprised if Drinkwitz goes back to Brady Cook or Tyler Macon.
Mizzou’s offense has been solid this season, but its defense has really struggled, giving up 35.9 points and 456 yards per game, the most and second-most in the SEC, respectively. What is the defense’s biggest issue? What should Florida be trying to expose Saturday?
Pinnell: If you were to have asked me this question a few weeks ago, I would have been a lot more down on this team than I am right now. I'm going to be completely honest: They’ve been bad…It has not been pretty defensively, but they're coming off their best defensive game of the season. They've actually played two solid games in a row, and I know you're probably like, ‘You gave up 43 to Georgia,’ and I thought that Missouri had a great game defensively, especially early on. They held Georgia to a three-and-out on their first drive; that doesn't happen often. Georgia's first touchdown was a beautiful pass from Stetson Bennett, 35 yards, that was on fourth down and six or something like that, so Missouri almost had a fourth down stop on their second drive.
Then you go into that South Carolina game, you have a fumble recovered in the endzone for a touchdown, you have a couple of interceptions, two interceptions wiped off the board. It was their best defensive game since week one against Central Michigan… So I think right now, I'm definitely more positive about the defense. Now, it’s not perfect, I think if you run the ball at Missouri — as every coach has done this season — you can get a lot of yards. There's times where the tackling has been an issue. There's times when Missouri concedes third and 12s, 3rd and 10s, 3rd and longs.
If you're Florida, I honestly think you got to at least try running the ball to start, see where the Missouri defense is at. If they sell out on the run, there'll be options to kind of attack there.
Missouri, when they face rushing quarterbacks in addition to a running back, they can barely handle their running back. So if [Emory] Jones is going to pull the ball down, I fully expect him to scramble for a good amount of yards. Maybe some designed runs if you're just Dan Mullen to try and throw Missouri off a little bit. They’ve really struggled against other mobile quarterbacks they faced this season. I think that can be an option for Florida.
The defense hasn't been great, but they are coming off their best defense. One thing I'd be interested to see is how much momentum is a real thing on that side of the ball…If you're Florida, it's not going to be the toughest defense. Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves. The only thing I'd be cognizant of is that momentum that the unit has going into this game. See, I think if Missouri gets a couple of three-and-outs to start this game, it can give them confidence, but if Florida breaks something from the first drive, it could be a long afternoon.
What effect do you think the Columbia crowd will have on the game? Florida has just one road win victory this season, and it came in Tampa against USF. How will traveling to Mizzou affect the outcome of the game?
Pinnell: I think this is exactly what you want if you're Florida. Thanksgiving break starts on Friday, so there's gonna be a lot of students home. It's gonna be dead. It's also not going to be that cold. It's going to be 55 — I guess it's cold in Florida standards — like overcast and 50. It's going to be cold, but it's going to be good football weather.
Most students are going to be home, especially because this isn't a football-crazy school like a Georgia or maybe even a Florida where you're going to have a lot of people stick around and then go home on Sunday. People are leaving on Friday. So I think if you're Florida, this is a good time for this game…But I think if you're not used to playing in front of that type of crowd, I think it'll be a good crowd. I don't want to completely discourage the Missouri fanbase, but it's not gonna be rocking.
It's kind of like the US Soccer team playing in Jamaica, right? It's gonna be weird if you're used to, like, half the environment you have…It is an interesting environment. I think if you're the road team, it's going to be a little harder to pick up some momentum just because it's a dead atmosphere too. We're not completely dead, but it can be one of those types of things where it's not going to get too loud in either direction…I think it’ll be neutral if anything
Game and Score prediction
Pinnell: Like I said earlier on, I think Missouri fans, if you had to ask them if they're going to beat either Florida at home or Arkansas on the road… I think Florida is more up in the air. And so, I just don't know. I don't know, like if Florida fired Dan Mullen a week or two ago, I would have said Florida's winning this game…Florida's always in the news, like the last few weeks for something stupid or silly or ‘What a joke, right?,’ whatever Dan Mullen is saying, whatever's going on the defense.
So for me, I don't know…I don't think Missouri really wins this game. I think it's going to be somewhere in the range of like a 42 to 38 type game, and I think Florida wins, but Missouri covers.
At the end of the day. I think it's pretty high scoring, and I think it's gonna be not a lot of defense. But I could also see Missouri winning this…I will say Florida will win this game. It's easier for me to see Missouri winning this game than beating Arkansas in a week.
Contact Michael Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.