While Florida doesn’t control its fate in the SEC East, the Gators certainly can put themselves in position for a second consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl selection if they win out. On paper, the largest obstacle to Florida doing just that — and likely ending up in either the Orange or the Cotton Bowl — comes this weekend at Missouri.

The Tigers have owned the Gators of late.

Florida’s last trip to Faurot Field was an unmitigated disaster. A week after Jim McElwain’s resignation, interim head coach Randy Shannon took the Gators to Columbia and promptly saw the Gators blown off the field in a 45-16 Mizzou victory. The loss was a sobering reminder of just what a cultural tire fire McElwain left behind, as Gators linebacker David Reese, then a sophomore, admitted many of his teammates “basically quit.” 

Less than a year later, Cece Jefferson mocked the atmosphere at Missouri at SEC Media Days, a peculiar decision because, you know, stadiums tend to get quiet when games aren’t competitive. When Jefferson’s comments were relayed to Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, the Missouri quarterback replied, “We’ll be sure to remember that when we visit Gainesville this fall.” Lock and the Tigers did remember, and Missouri mauled the Gators on both lines of scrimmage in a 3-touchdown rout in The Swamp that November.

All told, Missouri has won the past 2 meetings against the Gators by an average of 25 points, with neither game truly competitive for more than a quarter.

Before you write these results off and tell me how much “better” Florida is today than it was 2 years ago or even last November, consider the following: Florida’s past 2 losses to Missouri came to Tigers teams that entered the Florida game with records of 3-5 and 4-4, respectively. It’s isn’t like the Gators were getting their doors blown off by elite Missouri teams. On the contrary, decidedly mediocre Missouri teams have simply had Florida’s number.

In fact, Saturday will mark the first time since 2015 the Gators have played a Mizzou team with a winning record entering the Florida game. And while Missouri has lost 3 in a row entering Saturday, the Tigers have also won all 5 of their home games this season by an average of 29 points. Missouri is simply a different football team at Faurot Field, and the Gators will need to be ready to go and play well Saturday to have a chance to win.

Here are 3 key matchups that will define the game.

Florida’s hot and cold pass rush against Kelly Bryant

The Gators rank 11th nationally in sack rate, 12th in defensive havoc rate and, when healthy, have been ferocious getting after the quarterback in 2019.

Unfortunately for Florida, the pass rush abandoned them against the 2 best quarterbacks they’ve faced this season: Jake Fromm and Joe Burrow. Florida registered 0 sacks in those 2 games and registered minimal pressure or havoc as well — a big reason LSU piled up 42 points in beating Florida and the Bulldogs converted 12-of-18 3rd-down chances in their Cocktail Party victory.

One reason for Florida’s struggles? Bookend All-American caliber defensive ends, Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard, have not played a single SEC game together as a healthy unit. Zuniga tried to gut it out against LSU and Georgia, but was limited and largely ineffective, while Greenard lasted only one play against LSU and played at about 80% against Georgia in Jacksonville by his own admission. Both are expected to be healthy for the first time in SEC play Saturday.

Florida’s pass rush is simply different with them — or even one of them at 100% — out there, as we saw last week against Vanderbilt.

It will need to be against Kelly Bryant, a College Football Playoff caliber quarterback, and a dynamic Missouri passing attack that has averaged 245 yards passing and 8.5 yards per attempt (1.4 above the national average) in the 7 full games Bryant has played. A hamstring injury suffered against Kentucky caused Bryant to miss last week’s game against Georgia, and Missouri’s offense went limp without the senior leader. But Bryant is expected to play against the Gators and Florida will need pressure or risk being picked apart again by a talented opposing quarterback.

Bryant, as you can see above, is masterful at extending plays with his legs, though Missouri’s offensive line has not pass protected great this season (2.11 sacks per game). That means Florida should be able to at least dial up pressure, even if they don’t always get home. They’ll need to against a Tigers offense that has played like a top national unit at home (40.4 per game), even if they have yet to win a game away from home.

Kyle Trask vs. an elite Mizzou secondary

Like most 5-4 football teams, Missouri has about an equal share of strengths and weaknesses.

Perhaps its greatest strength, however, is an elite pass defense.

The Tigers rank 4th nationally in pass efficiency defense (best in the SEC), 5th in S & P pass defense and are allowing only 5.5 yards per pass attempt (3rd nationally and best in SEC).

Early in the season, you could make the argument that the Tigers had piled up impressive pass defense numbers against weak pass offenses — and to some extent, that’s true. Until facing Jake Fromm and Georgia, Missouri had faced 5 Power 5 offenses ranked 100th or worst in pass efficiency offense. and only 1 FBS passing offense (Troy) ranked in the top 50 in yards per pass play. 

But as it has all year, Missouri played well against Fromm, limiting the Georgia All-American candidate to just 173 yards passing and a completion percentage under 50 percent (13-for-29).

The Tigers don’t rush the passer (9oth in sack percentage) or create havoc (84th in havoc rate) very often, which makes the number for their secondary all the more impressive.

Still, Trask and Florida will be the best and deepest group of quarterback plus wide receivers and tight ends this Mizzou defense have faced in 2019.

The Tigers continue to battle on defense without their best defensive player, linebacker Cale Garrett, who has been out since suffering a torn muscle against Troy, but Florida will stress them in the pass game in multiple ways. Can linebacker Nick Bolton, who has had a breakout season, assist in covering Florida’s Kyle Pitts? Or will that duty fall to speedy safety Jarvis Ware, who hails from Apopka, Fla., and might have a point to prove against a program that overlooked him in recruiting?  With Pitts occupying safeties, can Missouri’s corners hold up for four quarters in coverage?

It’s an interesting battle of strength on strength.

Will Missouri gash Florida in the run game (and with the tight end) for a 3rd consecutive season?

As noted, the past 2 Missouri-Florida games have been defined by Missouri’s ability to impose its will on the Gators up front.

In Missouri’s 45-16 win in 2017, the Tigers ran for 227 yards, rattling off 5 yards per carry and busting the game open early behind the hard-running of Larry Rountree III, who had 83 yards and 3 TDs.

A season later, Rountree and his teammates again gutted the Gators, piling up 221 yards rushing at well over 5 yards per touch.

Rountree is tremendous after contact, and a Florida defense that has struggled with tackling away from The Swamp will need to fit gaps properly and take good angles to the football, in addition to wrapping up and finishing tackles.

Missouri has struggled mightily to run the ball on the road this season, but they’ve been a different football team at Faurot Field, rushing for at least 165 yards in every home game and breaking the 200 yard mark in 3 contests. Rountree III is averaging almost 2 yards per carry more at home (5.9) than on the road (4.0), a staggering figure that speaks to Missouri’s schizophrenia this season.

When Missouri can get the run game going, it establishes everything else, especially play-action to All-American tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who absolutely obliterated Florida in the first half a season ago before leaving with an injury.

Todd Grantham’s defense has struggled against tight ends and power run games at times in his tenure. If that happens again Saturday, the streak will stretch to 3.