COLUMBIA, Mo. — This time around, the roles have reversed. A year ago, Florida was the surprise team in the SEC East — threatening to win the division title for the first time since 2009.
But after falling short with a loss to Georgia, the talk of the East this season is Missouri. And the Tigers already have a win against the Bulldogs, surprising UGA 41-26 last week. A win against Florida, with South Carolina also visiting Mizzou this season, puts it in great shape to win the East for the first time since joining the league two years ago.
While the Tigers look to be on the rise, the Gators could be fading into the sunset — with an open date next week before playing Georgia in Jacksonville and traveling to South Carolina in November. Four of UF’s final six opponents in the regular season are ranked in the top 15 in the polls.
LSU dominated the Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) on both sides of the line last week in a 17-6 loss. And today, UF faces Missouri (6-0, 2-0), which is much like LSU in that it loves to dominate on the lines.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in trouble, but my experience tells me we’ve got some things to work at,’’ senior defensive back Jaylen Watkins said.
Despite losing two of its three games on the road so far, Florida still believes it has a lot to play for. Gators players insist the loss in Baton Rouge won’t have an impact this week.
“Definitely, we still would like to have that game (LSU), but we do have everything in front of us that we want to accomplish this season, which is the SEC East and going to Atlanta,’’ Watkins said. “We have to just refocus and get ready to go, in the secondary.
“I think we know (Missouri) is tough, it was a very close game last year, it actually came down to the last drive, so they are playing really good football right now, and they are going to throw the ball around a little bit, so for us as a secondary we’ll have to prepare.’’
Florida beat Missouri 14-7 in Gainesville last fall, the first meeting after the Tigers joined the SEC. The programs have met only one other time, a 20-18 Mizzou win in the 1966 Sugar Bowl.
The Tigers have the No. 2 scoring (45.7 points a game) and rushing (239.3) offense in the league. UF still leads the league in rushing defense but allowed 175 yards on the ground at LSU. At the same time, the Gators had 111 yards rushing. Florida has struggled virtually all season on offense.
“We’ve got to create more (big plays) on the road,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said.
Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy was sacked four times by the Tigers. Missouri is No. 2 in the SEC in sacks per game (2.83).
“We just have to get back to basics, get back to square one. Really just focus on the fundamentals and keep getting better,’’ Murphy said. “Watch the film with the group and just find what we did wrong and how we can correct things so we can create some explosive plays down the field and be more consistent.’’
The Gators lost top running back Matt Jones for the season to knee surgery. The former Armwood star is the fifth starter Florida has lost since August.
“I’m not sure if anyone’s ever been to Missouri. I’ve never been. That’s going to be different, just playing in a different atmosphere and being in a different stadium and stuff,’’ Murphy said. “Hopefully the weather won’t be too bad. I don’t think the cold will affect us, especially when you’re out there running around, you usually tend to warm up. Being from up north, I don’t think it will be that cold. I don’t think it will have a big effect. We’re definitely going to have to be mentally focused and locked in and not get caught up in being in a new atmosphere and new place.’’
With temperatures expected in the 50s at kickoff, it will be chilly and get cold late.
“Usually, when I go home for Christmas, it is in the teens. That’s cold. It’s kind of funny to see people around here when it is in the 60s, they all have hoodies and sweatpants on. I’m the only person with shorts and a T-shirt,’’ Murphy joked of Gainesville.
His biggest worry is heating up an offense that has been ice cold virtually all year. Only Kentucky has scored fewer points per game (20.3) in the SEC than the Gators’ 21.8.
Missouri ranks third in the SEC in rushing defense (126.2 yards per game). Add in the Tigers’ ability to get to the quarterback and it could get ugly.
“We’re going to have to really dial in and really pay attention to their pressure packages,’’ Murphy said. “I’m going to have to do a good job of getting the line in the right protections, seeing whether they’re bringing the pressure. The wide receivers have to be on point and try to get into their routes and get to where they’re supposed to be quickly. And I really have to work on just getting the ball out quick and anticipating where they’ll be.”
Missouri will turn to Maty Mauk after starting QB James Franklin suffered a shoulder injury last week, but the Tigers won’t change much on offense.
“Quarterbacks have success for certain reasons. Some of the things that is important to them to have poise, and poise under pressure. He is going to be nervous but he will do fine,’’ Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said of Mauk.