The No. 10 Gators (2-1) will need to be sharp to leave the Swamp with a victory in their first game in three weeks on Saturday. Missouri has been one of the SEC’s biggest surprises this season under first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz. The Tigers (2-2) beat LSU and Kentucky in their last two games, and they played Alabama relatively close in their season opener.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness, and three players to watch for from the Tigers.
Three Positions of Strength
Missouri ranks fourth in the SEC in rushing defense at 122.5 yards per game, and UF coach Dan Mullen said their defensive line does a great job of getting off of blocks to prevent big plays. They’re a bit undersized, but they make up for it with speed and quickness. Trajan Jeffcoat leads the way with three sacks, while Tre Williams starts at the other end spot and has added a sack and a forced fumble. Isaiah McGuire and Markell Utsey start at tackle. They’ll challenge a UF offensive line that might not play as physical as usual due to the two-week shutdown.
Junior weakside linebacker Nick Bolton is considered one of the best linebackers in the country, as he was named Preseason First Team All-SEC and was named to the watchlists for the Nagurski Trophy and the Butkus Award. He leads the Tigers with 43 tackles. He’s also contributed a sack, a fumble recovery and three passes defensed. He made a career-high 17 stops at Tennessee in week two. Devin Nicholson starts alongside him and has added 25 tackles and a sack. They don’t have much depth, as only one other linebacker has recorded a tackle this season, but Bolton and Nicholson are one of the top linebacker tandems in the conference.
The Tigers start a redshirt freshman quarterback, and they don’t have great depth at wide receiver, so they lean heavily on a pair of veteran running backs. Larry Rountree is the workhorse, as he’s carried the ball 87 times for 396 yards and three touchdowns. He is 54 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time career leading rusher among non-quarterbacks. He’s a physical, between-the-tackles runner. Tyler Badie is a versatile playmaker, as he’s gained 121 yards on 28 carries and 141 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches. Missouri will likely try to control the ball and limit the number of possessions against the Gators, and Rountree and Badie figure prominently into that game plan.
Three Positions of Weakness
Missouri ranks 10th in the league in pass efficiency defense at 153.35, and they’re the only team in the league that has yet to intercept a pass. The shaky coverage and nonexistent ball skills have led to the Tigers ranking ninth in red zone scoring percentage at 86.7 percent. They are young in the secondary, with seven of the 11 players listed on the depth chart being freshmen or sophomores. Kyle Trask should be able to pile up huge statistics again this week.
With three-year starter and 2018 John Mackey Award finalist Albert Okwuegbunam now with the Denver Broncos, Missouri doesn’t have a dynamic pass-catching tight end. Niko Hea leads the way with just seven catches for 59 yards. Daniel Parker has caught four passes for 11 yards, while Logan Christopherson has caught one pass for 37 yards. Tight ends have given the Gators problems throughout Todd Grantham’s tenure as defensive coordinator, but the Tigers don’t appear to be capable of taking advantage.
This group is very top-heavy. Jalen Knox has made 19 receptions for 216 yards, and Damon Hazelton has made 15 receptions for 151 yards. No other wideout has made more than eight catches or gained more than 99 yards. Of course, UF’s secondary made Texas A&M’s Caleb Chapman look like the best receiver in the country, so it’ll be interesting to see if some of these unproductive receivers have a big game on Saturday.
Three Players to Watch
Defensive End Trajan Jeffcoat
The redshirt sophomore plays the ‘BUCK’ end position and is tied for fourth in the SEC in sacks. He’s also added five quarterback hurries, including four in the upset win over LSU. He’s only 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, but he’s the type of speed rusher that has given Florida left tackle Stone Forsythe trouble throughout his career. The rest of the defense has combined for just four sacks, so finding a way to keep Jeffcoat from taking over the game is key.
Quarterback Connor Bazelak
The redshirt freshman made his first career start on Oct. 10 against LSU. All he did was complete 29 of 34 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns. He followed that up with a steady 21-for-30, 201-yard outing against Kentucky last week. Bazelak also has some decent mobility, as he ran for 40 yards on 10 carries against the Wildcats. Grantham has had a ton of success against inexperienced quarterbacks during his time at UF. Will that trend continue, or will the nightmarish defense they’ve played so far this season continue?
Running Back Larry Rountree
Rountree has been a Gator killer throughout his career. In three career matchups with Florida, he’s rushed for 185 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries (5.1 yards per carry). He’ll probably get the ball 20-25 times on Saturday. The Gators gave up 174 yards to Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller and 100 yards to South Carolina’s Kevin Harris in their last two games. UF needs to prevent Rountree from putting up similar statistics. Or, better yet, they can make a couple of early stops, allow the offense to stretch out an early lead and make Rountree a non-factor.