COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Gators have already been where Missouri currently sits heading into Saturday’s SEC East showdown.
Around the Tigers’ practices this week something was definitely different.
“We have another quarterback coming in and we have full confidence in him,’’ Missouri receiver Marcus Lucas told reporters. “I don't think there's going to be any letdown."
The Gators were forced to make that transition earlier this season when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was lost for the season to a broken fibula. Tyler Murphy replaced Driskel and led the Gators to three consecutive wins until a loss at LSU.
Missouri now faces the same situation.
Tigers starting quarterback James Franklin was lost for an extended stretch in last week’s win at Georgia and the job now belongs to redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.
According to reports, Mauk ran a similar offense to the one Missouri uses when he was in high school.
The guess here is that Mauk didn’t face a defense as talented as Florida’s when he was setting all kinds of records at Kenton (Ohio) High. Still, the Gators can expect to face a talented dual-threat quarterback like they faced in Franklin a year ago.
“He was a parade All-American coming out of high school there in Ohio, and a guy, who athletically, can do everything that they want to do," Florida coach Will Muschamp said.
Mauk’s first career start is just one backdrop looming over Florida’s first trip to Missouri.
Let’s take a look at the Gators-Tigers matchup with The Opening Kickoff:
FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH
When the schedule came out, few expected Florida’s game at Missouri to have this much meaning. At least not for the Tigers. Missouri’s second season in the SEC is going much better than its first (5-7), which included a 14-7 loss in Gainesville. How will the Gators bounce back from last week’s loss at LSU? How will the Tigers respond in their biggest home game since joining the conference?
The loss of starting tailback Matt Jones means more carries for Mack Brown and true freshman Kelvin Taylor. Brown has played regularly but Taylor saw his most extensive work in last week’s loss at LSU, rushing 10 times for a career-high 52 yards. The offense needs a boost and if it’s going to come from the run game, Brown and Taylor are the most likely candidates.
Florida’s defense will need to be on high alert for a surprise or two from the Tigers. Mauk completed his only three passes at Georgia after coming in for Franklin. The Tigers turned the momentum back to their favor on a trick play after Franklin’s injury and Georgia had trimmed the lead to 28-26. Mauk tossed a lateral to receiver Bud Sasser, who then threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to L’Damian Washington in Missouri’s 41-26 victory.
This is the first matchup between ranked teams at Faurot Field in three years. Despite the early start, the Gators can expect a fired up atmosphere for their first visit to Columbia. In that game three years ago against No. 3 Oklahoma, the No. 18-ranked Tigers won 36-27.
A key matchup to watch is Missouri’s offense, ranked third in the SEC with an average of 515.7 yards per game, against Florida’s SEC-leading defense, which is surrendering just 235.3 yards per game. Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson’s spread offense is averaging 45.7 points per game but under Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, the Gators have shown the ability to slow down spread offenses.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Florida’s offense came under scrutiny after producing only 240 yards in last week’s loss at LSU. With Jones out, the Gators lost their top running back in pass protection, so it will be imperative for the offensive line and Brown and Taylor to block well. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said the biggest issue for the offense at LSU was getting beat physically on the offensive line.
Missouri starting receivers Dorial Green-Beckham,Sasser and Lucas are big and physical. Green-Beckham is 6-foot-6 and Lucas checks in at 6-5 with a team-leading 30 receptions. The trio has a size advantage over Florida’s secondary and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Vernon Hargreaves III will be challenged when playing man-to-man.
Florida starting left tackle D.J. Humphries was disappointed in his performance against LSU. Humphries will have to be sharp in protecting Murphy’s blind side. Missouri is second in the conference with 17 sacks.
Speaking of pass rushes, Florida failed to register a sack for the first time this season against LSU. With Mauk making his first start, if defensive end Dante Fowler and his teammates up front can apply pressure that would be a huge bonus for Florida’s defense.
Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is having a monster season. Sam earned a spot on the Sports Illustrated Midseason All-America Team this week. The senior standout has six sacks and 10 tackles for loss during Missouri’s climb to the top of the SEC East.
THE QUOTE FILE
“We just need to play well defensively. Our defense doesn’t need to worry about what our offense does. They need to play well, and we didn’t play well Saturday in Baton Rouge.” – Muschamp when asked if defense carries an extra burden due to offensive struggles
"I mean, he ran the ball hard. You see he made some good vertical cuts and did a good job in space. I think he showed us something.” – Pease on Taylor’s performance at LSU
"It might be the best defense in the country. I don’t think you worry about that. You just have to trust the people around you.” – Missouri coach Gary Pinkel on facing Florida’s SEC-leading defense
"I'm not the type to get nervous. I usually get a little hyped.” – Mauk on preparing for his first career start
“Doesn’t shock me at all.” – Muschamp when asked about Missouri’s 6-0 start
WELCOME TO THE ZOU
The Tigers were fired up at Georgia after their biggest win since joining the SEC. Faurot Field is nicknamed "The Zou." With the Gators making their first trip there, here is a Missouri hype video for a flavor of the SEC newcomer's history ...
The Gators are 1-1 all-time against Missouri but have never played in Faurot Field.
10 QUICK HITTERS
As of Thursday Missouri had tickets left for the game. “We need 67,124 in the house,’’ Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said. “We need our fans to show up early. We need them to be loud and stay late. We need to make sure that there is a sea of gold when the Florida Gators come to town.”
The Gators have held SEC opponents to less than 20 points in 13 consecutive games, currently the longest streak in the conference. Florida is 10-3 over that span.
Missouri has not scored fewer than 38 points in any of its six games. The Tigers’ defeated Toledo 38-23 in the second game of the season. Meanwhile, the Gators beat Toledo 24-6 in the season opener.
Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett ranks first in the country with 38 touchbacks. Baggett has not allowed a return on 38 of his 48 kickoffs, providing the Tigers a good field-position weapon.
Why did Missouri’s win at Georgia get so much attention? It was the Tigers’ first road win against a top 10 team since a 14-3 victory over No. 9 Mississippi State 32 years ago.
Pinkel needs five wins to tie former Missouri coach Don Faurot for most wins (101) in school history. Missouri’s field is named after Faurot, an idea of his impact on the program.
Muschamp said kicker Frankie Velez will handle field goals from inside the 30-yard line and that Austin Hardin will be used for kicks around 47 yards and longer. Velez was 2-for-2 in his first career appearance last week.
Durkin, Pease, receivers coach Joker Phillips and tight ends coach Derek Lewis have coached a game at Missouri. So has Muschamp. As Texas’ defensive coordinator in 2009, the Longhorns limited Missouri to 173 total yards in a 41-7 victory.
Gators receiver Quinton Dunbar had three catches for 29 yards to extend his streak of games with at least one reception to 22.
Something will have to give on third down Saturday. Florida’s defense is ranked eighth nationally, limiting opponents to 27.1 percent success on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Missouri’s offense is converting third downs at a 51.9-percent clip, 10th in the country.
--Missouri’s start has SEC media buzzing writes Pete Brand of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune.
--Missouri’s SEC run rests on Mauk writes Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Gators need a win to keep pace in the SEC East and keep their hopes alive of representing the division in Atlanta at the SEC Championship game. Same for Missouri, whose upset win over Georgia caught everyone’s attention.
This game could come down to which team makes the better adjustments. Mauk is inexperienced for the Tigers and Florida’s defense certainly wants to spoil his first start. Florida’s offense now must adjust to life without Jones.
If the Gators’ defense plays up to its standard and the offense stays away from turnovers – Georgia committed four against the Tigers – this is a winnable game for Florida.