GAINESVILLE -- Florida has every reason to be down heading into Saturday’s game against Missouri.
After seven consecutive wins to start the season, the Gators were inflated with confidence and on track to meet their preseason goal of a trip to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. A loss to Georgia last week changed all that, sucking the life out of the resurgence to prominence and putting their fate out of their hands.
Now, the No. 8 Gators (7-1, 6-1 SEC) have to avoid sleepwalking into a noon matchup against a Missouri (4-4, 1-4) team that doesn’t exactly move the needle like recent tilts against top-10 opponents such as Georgia, LSU or South Carolina.
And, they’re literally sick — Gators’ defensive tackle Leon Orr on Tuesday went to a local hospital to get treated for flu-like symptoms and is out for Saturday’s game, and star safety Matt Elam missed practice time with the illness and several others had to be quarantined to prevent a team-wide outbreak.
Missouri has struggled in its first season in the SEC, but starting quarterback James Franklin, a mobile threat under center, returns this week, and the Tigers have enough talent to pose an upset threat in Florida’s final conference game of the season.
But coach UF Will Muschamp, who missed his Wednesday appearance with media on the SEC coaches teleconference because of a death in the family, said he thinks his team is capable of bouncing back from its first loss of the season and maintaining focus on the task at hand.
“We just need to get back — that’s the tough thing about football is you have to wait seven days [after a loss],” Muschamp said, adding that he’s not concerned about the early time of the kickoff affecting his team. Florida has played just one game this season with a kickoff before 3:30 p.m.
“No. … It is what it is,” he said Monday. “They’ve got to play at the same time we do. Let’s get up and get excited about it. As a competitor you ought to want to get back on the field yesterday [Sunday]. That’s what you want to do. But we look forward to it. Our guys will be ready.”
Against Missouri, Florida will be trying to get its offense back on track. That starts with getting running back Mike Gillislee and the ground game going and avoiding giving away the ball.
After averaging exactly 200 yards rushing in their first six games, the Gators have failed to break the century mark in their past two. And although turnovers helped create a blowout against South Carolina at home, the same kind of mistakes spelled doom against Georgia. Missouri leads the nation in forced fumbles, and that’s something Florida’s players harped on during the week of preparation.
“We’re going to go in there with the attitude that as long as we know all of our assignments are understood, and as long as we focus on ball security throughout this week, that we’ll go in there and we’ll be a successful team,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “We won’t hype it up to be something and psych ourselves out, you know, play the game before we even get to the game on Saturday.”
Before turning it over six times in the loss to the Bulldogs, the Gators had only given the ball away four times all season. If Florida can get back to its protective ways and hold onto the ball while establishing its run game against a defense allowing 138.5 yards per game on the ground, Missouri should be outmatched physically.
Block things out
That’s the Gators’ goal now: Beat the Tigers, avoid distractions and projections and let the chips fall where they may.
Georgia plays Ole Miss at 3:30 p.m. immediately following Florida’s game. Should the Bulldogs lose, the Gators win the East and head to Atlanta.
Not a concern, said quarterback Jeff Driskel, who added that players would likely watch the game at the team’s facilities afterward.
“I’m sure we’ll watch the game,” Driskel said. “But it’s not going to be like everybody [will] come in and root for whoever Georgia is playing.
“We can’t worry about what’s going on with other teams.”