Florida will board its plane to Mississippi with one of the most intriguing storylines of the season.
The buzz about the type of welcome coach Dan Mullen will likely receive upon his arrival in Starkville has dominated Gators football headlines this week and will linger until well after Saturday’s kickoff.
But the Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) know the hostile environment they should expect when they take on No. 23 Mississippi State at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Preparing for the deafening sound of banging cowbells at Davis Wade Stadium seems to be the easier battle for Florida heading into its second consecutive road matchup.
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“I mean we can handle it. We handled Tennessee,” said defensive back Donovan Stiner. “We’re not focused on what the fans and all that. We just focused on the field and the game.”
Florida will perhaps face the best defensive line it has seen this year. Mullen calls it among the premier D-lines in the nation.
“Boy, they’re tough,” Mullen said. “Most people I think say they’re probably the best defensive line in America, and I know the depth that they have at that position too. Not just the one group that comes on the field that’s extremely talented.”
MSU defensive end Montez Sweat and defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons will be tough to contain.
Simmons leads the SEC in tackles for loss this season (7.5). Sweat is second in the SEC in TFLs (7.0) and in sacks with 4.5.
Florida’s developing offensive line will need to establish some toughness right away to challenge the Bulldog’s line anchored by the two Preseason All-Americans who play fast off the ball and will bring that physicality on every down.
“We got to do our job,” said UF offensive line coach John Hevesy. “Whoever it is, to me we got to do our job in what we do and our technique and fundamentals and execution.”
The Bulldogs sit atop the SEC rankings in pass defense, only surrendering 5.6 yards per pass attempt.
But the team ranked second in the SEC in that same category? Florida.
The Gators are giving up 6.1 yards per attempt, and their defense seemed to have renewed life with the return of linebacker David Reese last week in their 47-21 victory against Tennessee.
UF is first in the SEC with a +10 turnover margin and leads the nation with 14 takeaways.
Mullen and his team know the importance of remaining consistent on that side of the ball, especially with the quarterback they will face this weekend.
Nick Fitzgerald has accounted for 81 career touchdowns — including nine this season.
And Mullen summarized the threat the veteran quarterback will pose in just a few words.
“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s extremely fast,” the coach said.
Fitzgerald is second in the SEC in scoring and leads all SEC quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns (5).
“He’s obviously a dual-threat guy who can make plays with his feet,” Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “But he’s got really good arm strength to make plays down the field, and they got guys that can protect, so we understand we’ve got a challenge in that already.”
Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks told reporters that he spent time with Fitzgerald at a quarterback camp this summer and the two talked about Mullen’s system that Franks is still learning. Franks knows that he has to still show that improvement in this weekend’s test.
“I don’t want to be one of the top. I want to be the top,” he said. “Much more stuff to work on for me. I just got to keep on working. Our guys got to keep on working to get a big win this week.”