Both Florida and Missouri enter Saturday's game inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with 0-2 conference records.
Before either team claims its first Southeastern Conference win of the season, the Alligator's sports editor Joseph Henry connected with sports editor of the Maneater — the University of Missouri's independent news publication — Brandon Haynes to discuss the eastern division clash.
So we have to start with talking about last weekend's game against then-No. 1 Georgia. The Tigers gave the Bulldogs all they wanted in Colombia and almost pulled off a massive upset. What were the areas that Missouri didn't excel in that kept it from getting the job done?
Haynes: Before I jump into what went wrong, I do think we should applaud Missouri for being the only team to challenge the defending champs defensively all season. Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker's revamped defensive scheme gave the Bulldogs a look at a physical scheme that they were not prepared for. Despite the test, Georgia did what they do best and pulled away in dramatic fashion. A key reason for the collapse on the Tigers' side was a few self-inflicted mistakes along the offensive line. Two that stand out the most are the false start from the one-yard line after senior running back Cody Schrader's 63-yard rush. The other, a crushing hands-to-the-face personal foul that moved the Tigers out of field goal range and forced them to punt late in the fourth quarter. Both of those penalties on Mitchell Walters, not only killed momentum but cost Missouri a chance at history.
Outside of the penalties, which is an area the Tigers struggle, the offense could find little success against Georgia's defense. While it's known throughout the SEC that the Bulldogs impose their defensive will on all opponents, Missouri quarterback Brady Cook learned the hard way late. On the final possession, the St. Louis native Cook threw three incompletitions, finalizing the outcome with about four minutes remaining. Outside of a few deep competitions and Schrader's dash, the offense stalled as it has throughout a majority of the season. In fact, had it not been for kicker Harrison Mevis, the Tigers would not have even remained in contention for an upset. Mevis drilled five field goals, including a 56-yard attempt en route to being named the SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Week.
Sitting at 2-3 on the season with the only wins coming against Louisiana Tech, who is 1-3, and Abilene Christian, a FCS opponent, how have the Tigers still shown competitiveness this season?
Haynes: If anyone takes a peek at Missouri's record and opponents, there is serious doubt about the team's ability to compete. However, when analyzing it deeper, there definitely appears to be a few positives surrounding competitiveness. For one, the defense is for real. The Tigers allow the 39th-lowest yards per game, harbor the nation's 12th-best third down defense and enter with a Top-50 run defense. After last year's historically rough defensive performance, Baker has the Tigers rolling on defense.
Now, when looking at the Tigers' schedule and record, that's where the questions stand out. Missouri took care of business against LA Tech and Abilene Christian, but has suffered losses to two current Top-20 teams, No. 2 Georgia, No. 20 Kansas State, as well as Auburn. The Auburn loss stands out because it probably should not have been one. After going down 14-0, the momentum swung in full force for Missouri. If not for an uncharacteristic miss from Mevis or a game-ending fumble by Nathaniel Peat, the Tigers would be 3-2. The Kansas State loss came amidst putrid weather conditions, including heavy rain and lightning. Those conditions favored the run-heavy Wildcat offense, guiding them to victory. And as we discussed against Georgia, the Tigers had a serious shot at victory. Realistically, Missouri is likely less than three plays away from a 4-1 team.
Where do you see the Missouri offense getting most of its prediction Saturday against a Florida defense that has allowed 421.4 yards per game, third worst in the Southeastern Conference?
Haynes: Looking at the statistics, it's evident that Florida's defense struggles in ways reminiscent of last year's Missouri team. The Tigers will look to expose those weaknesses, specifically in the running game. Missouri will showcase a running back committee, led by Peat and Schrader, who have combined for 523 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Not only will the Gators' defense have to contain them, but quarterback Brady Cook has displayed potential as a rusher as well. On his own, he has 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Aside from the run game, Missouri also brings a loaded wide receiver corps to Gainesville. Dominic Lovett, the SEC's leading receiver, headlines the charge. However, Lovett may not be available after an ankle injury he suffered against Georgia. Without Lovett, the offense took a notable step back last weekend, but there are a few names to keep an eye on if he's out. For one, look no further than the five-star recruit Luther Burden, who has been utilized as both a receiver and rusher. Barrett Banister, a fifth-year receiver, and sophomore wideout Mookie Cooper provide valuable targets as well. The name I'm still waiting to pop out, however, is Tauskie Dove. Last year's receiving leader for the Tigers has remained quiet, but will be poised to make noise if Lovett is out.
Sophomore wide receiver Dominic Lovett leads the SEC in receiving yards this season with 460, 95 more than Kentucky's Tayvion Robinson in second. How does he match up with the Gators secondary, specifically UF cornerback Jason Marshall Jr.?
Haynes: There's little doubt about the talent Jason Marshall Jr. brings to the field every week. If Lovett plays, it will be a matchup to watch all day long. The biggest difference in Lovett's transition to success this year is his route running ability, and that will be a key motivating factor in who wins the battle in the Swamp. With an injury, Lovett's separation and quickness may be hampered, so it's likely Cook will be forced in other directions. Marshall Jr. was a five-star recruit for a reason and the success has translated well over to the collegiate level, but the Florida defense is giving up over 250 pass yards per game, so expect Lovett to find his fair share of targets and an explosive play if he's healthy. If Lovett is a no-go, I'd personally like to see the battle of Burden and Marshall Jr. Two highly touted recruits facing off in the secondary would make for a fun Saturday of SEC football.
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson had a get-right game last weekend against Eastern Washington, accounting for 285 yards and two touchdowns in limited action. How will Missouri hope to contain Richardson's ability to create explosive plays?
Haynes: I think this question makes mention of one Missouri weakness—explosive plays. The Tigers' aggressiveness on the defensive end sometimes opens up opportunities downfield for offenses to take advantage of. That's one reason why the headline of Richardson against Missouri's revamped defense will be one discussed after the game. The first key to limiting Richardson's explosiveness will be stopping the run and creating pressure. Montrell Johnson Jr. and Richardson have totaled 523 rushing yards combined, so limiting those two will solve several problems.
The next step will be limiting the passing game, where Justin Shorter ranks No. 7 in the SEC with 314 yards. With Kris Abrams-Draine possibly out at the cornerback position, the Tigers' chances of defeating Florida take a significant hit. I think, like many saw against Georgia, the Missouri defense will pressure Richardson and continue its aggressive nature in order to prevent the passing game. Against Stetson Bennett, that pressure truly affected him in the pocket throughout the game and it showed in the result. If you're a Florida fan, you know that a big key to Missouri's gameplan will be Ty'Ron Hopper, who hails from the Gators. Expect his name to come up a lot alongside Jaylon Carlies and Martez Manuel.
While the Gators elected to air it out more than usual on Sunday against Eastern Washington, they are still a run heavy team. Which couple of players on the Missouri defense will be most impactful in stifling Florida's ground game?
Haynes: I think I mentioned it above, but I'll give you more of an explanation. Baker implemented a new defensive scheme this year, which has been particularly effective at limiting the run. Nicknamed the 'STAR', it's a hybrid safety that serves as an additional linebacker to protect against the run and allow for more quickness on all levels of the defense. The main 'STAR' on the Tiger defense is Manuel, who has served as one of the vocal leaders as a second-year captain. What's special about Missouri's defense is how involved its secondary is in preventing the run as well, which is part of the reason why defensive backs Carlies and Joseph Charleston have so many tackles.
Hopper, a familiar name, will make the most of his return to Gainesville as Missouri's best defensive player this year. Not only is he making himself known at the SEC level, but he will likely hear his name called in the NFL Draft next April. His athleticism and quickness makes the new Tiger defense look night-and-day from the one of last year. Along the defensive line, Isaiah McGuire, Kristian Williams and Darius Robinson will create nightmare matchups for the Florida offensive line. Although it'll be labeled as an explosive offensive game, watch out for the defenses to make the biggest statements.
These teams have played 10 times since the Tigers joined the SEC. The all-time series, excluding a 1965 neutral site matchup, sits even at five games a piece. With that said, which squad breaks the deadlock and comes out of the Swamp with a victory Saturday? And what's the final score?
Haynes: The last time these two programs faced, Missouri needed overtime to take down the Gators. Florida fired Dan Mullen the next day, so I'd be surprised if this game did not serve as a revenge game of sorts. At the same time, the Tigers are coming off of two heartbreaking losses and showcase the potential to will themselves to victory. The possible absences of Lovett and Abrams-Draine will knock Missouri down on both sides of the ball, however, it's Brady Cook time. I think this will be the game where Cook breaks out, exposing the Florida defense flaws after struggling to lead the game-winning drive last weekend against the Bulldogs. Expect Hopper to make some noise and create another takeaway while Burden tacks on a receiving touchdown to quiet the Missouri fans who are calling for more targets his way. Richardson will lead a game-tying drive to make things interesting at the end before the 'Thiccer Kicker' takes Missouri to the win column.
My prediction is 27-24 Mizzou with Mevis making up for his game-winning miss at Auburn by drilling a game-winner in the Swamp.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.