Game Time: Noon ET/11 a.m. CT
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network || Tiger Network
How to watch online: Watch ESPN
Odds: Missouri -3 || Over/under 61.5 (via OddsShark.com)
If someone had said a few weeks ago that the Florida-Missouri game would feature an interim coach, most people wouldn’t have thought twice. Well, Barry Odom did have a horrendous start to the season. That performance against Purdue seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s … wait. Florida has the interim coach? Jim McElwain got fired? Now, it’s interesting.
It seems so long ago that Georgia blasted its rival to the tune of 42-7 last week. The blowout loss to the new-No. 1 team in the country signaled McElwain’s final game with the Gators. It came on the heels of narrow losses to Texas A&M and LSU and close wins over Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee.
A few weeks ago, it seemed as though nothing could make Missouri a favorite against an SEC opponent. But the capitulation in Gainesville has led to that unforeseen phenomenon. The Tigers, as of this writing, are a three-point favorite at home.
It’s amazing how quickly things reached this point for a Florida program coming off consecutive appearances in the SEC Championship Game. Suspensions were the offseason storyline along with a quarterback battle. The combination of the two have accelerated a regression to the mean in The Swamp.
Randy Shannon has been tasked with guiding the Gators to a bowl game. A loss on Saturday could really put a dent in that plan. It would drop Florida to 3-5 overall with games remaining against South Carolina (away), UAB (home) and Florida State (home). With the Northern Colorado game canceled early in the season, there’s a very real possibility the Gators wind up 5-6. A win over Missouri would go a long way towards preventing that black eye.
Will Tigers Take Advantage?
This game could not come at a better time for Missouri. The Tigers are coming off two confidence-boosting wins over Idaho and Connecticut. Sure, that’s to be expected when those schools are on your football schedule. But given the way Mizzou started the season, they didn’t look like they would be blowouts a few weeks ago.
Drew Lock is, well, locked in. He’s playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Granted, the schedule has helped. Then again, prior to the wins, Missouri faced Georgia and held its own. The Tigers hung around in the first half and ultimately put up the most points the Bulldogs have allowed all season. Frankly, that might have instilled more confidence than blasting UConn. Although, it had to feel good to finally win a road game in the Odom era.
Back at home this week, the Tigers should like their chances against a program in turmoil. It’s not long ago that they were in the Gators’ shoes. An off week helped Missouri tremendously. Florida has no such luxury. Shannon is as capable an interim coach as you will find, but he’s got his hands full.
In theory, these teams match up well. Missouri’s offense and Florida’s defense are the strength of each team. The Tigers defense and Gators offense are the Achilles’ heels. Depending on who comes to play, this game could be a shootout or a low-scoring affair. It could also be a blowout one way or the other depending on Florida’s focus level.
Teams in their situation often come together and play well initially. But when in-game adversity strikes, will they stick together or fold? The answer to that question will likely determine the outcome of this game.
How Will Malik Zaire Perform?
As if everything else wasn’t already working against the Gators, they will be running out a new starting quarterback. After seeing time in just two games thus far, Malik Zaire will start on Saturday for Florida.
Zaire landed with the Gators as a graduate transfer. He seemed to be the answer to McElwain’s constant quarterback issues. However, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks earned the starting job entering the season-opening game against Michigan.
Even though Zaire appeared in that loss, Franks has kept his starting job until this week. Zaire hasn’t shown much in his limited time, completing just 12 of 23 passes for 142 yards. It seems like forever ago when he was thriving during his brief run as starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
In some ways, Florida has nothing to lose going with Zaire. It’s not like Franks was tearing it up. He has completed 60 percent of passes with 830 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Luke Del Rio, meanwhile, completed 16 of his 25 pass attempts for 138 yards, a touchdown and a pick during mop-up duty.
Zaire’s performance will obviously be a key factor in the game. It’s unlikely he will have an outstanding game, but against a poor defense he should be able to put up solid numbers.
With the possibility of Missouri putting up a lot of points, Florida will need to be able to find the end zone. The Gators should be able to slow down the Tigers, but they could still easily reach the 30-point mark. If that happens, it’s hard to see the Florida offense keeping pace.
So, what happens?
Teams in the Gators’ position often come out extremely motivated. Expect that to happen on Saturday with Florida jumping out to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter.
The problem with that strategy is it uses up a lot of energy. That will allow Mizzou to get back in the game late in the second quarter. Before Florida regains the lead early in the second half.
Adversity will strike the Gators late in the third quarter. The Tigers will take advantage to grab a six-point lead entering the final period. That’s when Shannon’s defense will stiffen up, allowing Florida to score the go-ahead touchdown late. For good measure, Lock will march his team down the field in the closing seconds. Only to see a game-winning field goal attempt sent well wide as time expires.
It will start a late-season turnaround for Florida. On the other side, it will show Missouri has a ways to go before it can compete in the SEC under Odom. The schedules the rest of the way aren’t difficult for either team, meaning the result on Saturday will go a long way towards getting one of these teams a bowl bid. Expect that team to be the Gators.
Prediction: Florida 28, Missouri 27