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Missouri at Florida preview: Tigers need passing downs success and a short memory

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If last week's performance against Georgia wasn't the new normal, Missouri will have some matchup advantages to exploit against Florida in Gainesville. But it's up to the Tigers to prove they're ready to win again.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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Missouri at Florida

Record AP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Missouri 4-2 lol 48 104 10 55
Florida 3-2 no 44 52 54 9

F/+ projection: Florida 19, Missouri 13 (Florida ~65% chance)

It's amazing how your outlook for the season can change when your offense demonstrably loses the plot, huh? Through three games, Mizzou ranked 12th in the F/+ rankings and was looking toward 9-3 or 10-2 and a run at another East title. But then the offensive line sprang some leaks and lost a starter. And then two-thirds of the starting receiving corps got hurt. And opponents mastered the Stopping Maty book without an effective Mizzou counter.

Now, because of defense and special teams, Missouri is still a top-50 team that still has pretty realistic bowl ambitions. But when your offense plummets from top-30 to bottom-30 in just three games, quite a few goals get wiped off of the table.

Step 1 toward reestablishing some of those goals, then, is a strong performance in Gainesville. A worse (I think) Mizzou team nearly beat a much better Florida team in the Swamp two years ago; Gary Pinkel has outcoached Will Muschamp twice in a row. If he does it a third time, and if Mauk and the offense are at least able to take a couple of steps back toward general competence, Mizzou could quite easily move to 5-2 with two home games against lower-ranked opponents up next on the schedule. But with the taste of recent offense in the mouth, it's hard to predict that.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Vanderbilt (98%, up 5% from last week)
Kentucky (73%, down 7% from last week)
Arkansas (60%, down 3%
from last week)
at Florida (35%, down 23% from last week)
at Texas A&M (27%, same as last week)
at Tennessee (24%, down 32% from last week)

After seven weeks come the first official F/+ rankings, complete with offense, defense, and special teams. Because of special teams adjustments, certain teams moved up or down for reasons beyond how they played last week. Arkansas, for example, nearly beat Alabama but still fell from 30th to 43rd because of an abysmal special teams unit. So while the above odds changed pretty dramatically for some opponents (namely Florida and Tennessee), they remained about the same for others. That's good! Mizzou has a better chance of going 3-0 against Vandy, Kentucky and Arkansas than going 0-3 against Florida, A&M, and Tennessee, so there are still decent odds of reaching seven or eight wins. But that will require the current offensive slide to come to a halt. The defense is only going to hold up for so long.

When Florida Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
UF Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 63.0% (38th)

S&P+ 122.0 (26th) 116.0 (31st) push
Success Rate 45.7% (89th) 48.3% (85th) push
IsoPPP 0.62 (121st) 0.69 (46th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 48.9% (53rd) 44.3% (51st) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.60 (94th) 0.72 (96th) push
Passing Success Rate 40.3% (116th) 55.4% (119th) push
Passing IsoPPP 0.67 (125th) 0.65 (10th) MU big

Florida's offense has more or less attempted balance this year -- rushing only slightly more than the national average on both standard downs and passing downs. The problem with that is that the Gators have been pretty awful at throwing the ball on such downs. The running game is semi-efficient, if mostly devoid of big plays, but outside of a few passes to Demarcus Robinson, Florida has not been able to establish an effective sideline-to-sideline passing game, as was the goal of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper when he was at Duke.

Targets & Catches
Demarcus Robinson: 27 targets, 17 catches (63%), 279 yards (10.3 per target), 1 TD
Quinton Dunbar: 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 67 yards (5.2)
Clay Burton (TE): 10 targets, 9 catches (90%), 55 yards (5.5)
Latroy Pittman Jr.: 8 targets, 3 catches (38%), 17 yards (2.1)
Matt Jones (RB): 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 34 yards (4.9), 1 TD
Brandon Powell (RB): 7 targets, 6 catches (86%), 59 yards (8.4)
Ahmad Fulwood: 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 20 yards (3.3)
Andre Debose: 5 targets, 1 catch (20%), -3 yards (-0.6)

Clay Burton is catching 5.5 yards per pass, which is incredibly low. (Yes, Mizzou could use a guy with a 90 percent catch rate at 5.5 yards per pass. But still.) As a whole, if Missouri tackles as well as it has been of late, the Florida offense will have patches of efficiency and maybe a couple of good drives, but as long as Mizzou is holding its own in the field position battle, the Gators will usually suffer breakdowns and putter out.

Again, though, the wildcard here is QB No. 1a Treon Harris. Muschamp has said that both Jeff Driskel and Harris will play, and while we know the book on Driskel pretty well by now -- he'll make sure everybody's lined up right, he'll play semi-competent ball, and he'll usually at least make sure Florida is punting instead of turning the ball over (at least until recently; he has seven interceptions in three games) -- Harris is a mystery. He was used mostly as a runner against Tennessee, and his own strengths and limitations might force Florida to run more and pass less on standard downs. And that might work out in Florida's favor, at least for the season as a whole.

Passing Downs
UF Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 33.0% (56th)

S&P+ 112.2 (51st) 160.7 (7th) MU
Success Rate 24.7% (114th) 24.2% (19th) MU big
IsoPPP 1.40 (16th) 0.91 (12th) push
Rushing Success Rate 21.9% (102nd) 19.4% (27th) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 1.34 (28th) 1.05 (65th) UF
Passing Success Rate 26.2% (112th) 26.0% (27th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 1.42 (26th) 0.87 (13th) push

Targets & Catches
Demarcus Robinson: 21 targets, 13 catches (62%), 197 yards (9.4 per target), 3 TD
Quinton Dunbar: 8 targets, 3 catches (38%), 55 yards (6.9)
Latroy Pittman Jr.: 8 targets, 4 catches (50%), 18 yards (2.3)
Clay Burton (TE): 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 39 yards (5.6)

Robinson: 21 targets, 197 yards. The next three guys: 23 targets, 112 yards. It's Robinson or bust here. And for Florida, it's been mostly bust. The big plays are plenty big, but there aren't many of them. Missouri's offense has been excellent on passing downs, and the Tigers should absolutely shut Florida down here. If they don't, they stand little chance of winning.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UF Defense Advantage
SD % Run 58.0% (71st)

S&P+ 104.2 (63rd) 121.3 (20th) UF
Success Rate 49.6% (49th) 44.0% (40th) push
IsoPPP 0.79 (58th) 0.68 (38th) push
Rushing Success Rate 50.3% (41st) 45.8% (64th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.59 (95th) 0.50 (21st) UF big
Passing Success Rate 48.6% (56th) 40.8% (24th) UF
Passing IsoPPP 1.07 (23rd) 1.03 (108th) MU big

Season-long averages are a nice reminder that Missouri's offense isn't always what it was last week. But trends are trends, and as impressive as the Tigers were against defenses like Toledo and UCF, it's been a while since Toledo and UCF were on the docket.

Still, let's take these season averages at face value and remind ourselves that Mizzou does have some strengths and potential advantages, especially if Darius White is finally healthy.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 29 targets, 25 catches (86%), 317 yards (10.9 per target), 3 TD
Darius White: 15 targets, 8 catches (53%), 127 yards (8.5), 2 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 14 targets, 11 catches (79%), 142 yards (10.1), 4 TD
Marcus Murphy: 13 targets, 9 catches (69%), 84 yards (6.5)
Sean Culkin (TE): 12 targets, 5 catches (42%), 36 yards (3.0), 1 TD

Mizzou is running more frequently on standard downs (all downs, actually), and that's pretty smart, for reasons both understandable (Mizzou's got two good running backs) and depressing (Maty Mauk suddenly can't pass). Florida's run defense hasn't been very good from an efficiency standpoint; while the Gators don't allow many big run plays (and Mizzou makes hardly any), Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy could make sure that Mauk isn't facing as many must-pass situations as he did a week ago.

(That assumes that Mizzou's offensive line plays better than it did at the start of the Georgia game; let's just say that if it doesn't, nothing else matters in this game.)

Passing Downs
MU Offense UF Defense Advantage
PD % Run 26.0% (94th)

S&P+ 83.8 (106th) 88.8 (92nd) push
Success Rate 28.9% (94th) 33.0% (90th) push
IsoPPP 1.06 (88th) 1.08 (63rd) UF
Rushing Success Rate 25.9% (78th) 23.8% (46th) UF
Rushing IsoPPP 0.83 (106th) 0.88 (30th) UF big
Passing Success Rate 29.9% (90th) 35.3% (99th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.13 (66th) 1.12 (63rd) push

It's a shame that Missouri and Florida didn't play in early September, when the Tigers had quite a bit of passing downs swagger. This is where recent opponents have been able to bring out virtually all of Maty Mauk's bad habits, pressuring him just enough that he feels pressure when it isn't there, then giving him no open receiving targets when he flees the pocket. Again, getting Darius White would help immensely (I'm using "would" instead of "will" because he was listed as a starter last week, too, and didn't play, and we won't know about his status until game time). He is Mizzou's best (only) field stretcher, and he could stretch defenses out a hair more than they have been of late. And if we assume that Vernon Hargreaves III will win most of his battles against Bud Sasser, that means Mizzou will need some receivers to step up and give Mauk a place to look. Nobody did last week, and if White isn't back, it might be the same story this time around.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 14 targets, 7 catches (50%), 145 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 13 targets, 7 catches (54%), 85 yards (6.5), 1 TD
Darius White: 8 targets, 7 catches (88%), 103 yards (12.9), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 53 yards (7.6)
Marcus Murphy: 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 25 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Lawrence Lee: 5 targets, 1 catch (20%), 8 yards (1.6)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 5 targets, 2 catches (40%), -10 yards (-2.0)

By the way, a recommendation to Josh Henson (because he's obviously looking for recommendations from me): go back to making third-and-4 and third-and-5 rushing downs. Mizzou's run game isn't as safe a bet as it was last year, but it will keep defenses more honest, and it would be one more way to keep things safer and simpler for your currently scatter-brained sophomore behind center.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Short memories

Again, if Missouri's offense plays like it did last week, nothing else matters. The line has to be prepared and effective against Florida's athletic front four. The receivers have to catch the passes they get two hands on. And even if Maty Mauk is going to be running around a bit too much for our (or his coaches') liking, he has to make better decisions when he's doing it. Mizzou's offense isn't suddenly going to be excellent again, but Mizzou also might not need it to be. Give your defense a long field to work with when you fail, and you might have more time to figure things out.

So yeah, competence or bust here.

2. Passing downs

Both defenses have significant advantages on passing downs. Mizzou's ability to close out drives on passing downs was the reason the Tigers were able to pull off a late comeback against South Carolina, and Mizzou's inability to catch up after falling behind schedule was the reason they needed a comeback against South Carolina in the first place.

Count the passing downs successes for each team -- not even big plays, just conversions on third-and-7 or eight-yard gains on second-and-11 -- and you'll probably figure out who won.

3. The Treon wildcard

I covered this a couple of days ago. What we know about Florida's offense and what we know about Missouri's defense tells us the Tigers should be more than capable of keeping the Gators in check. What we don't know, on the other hand, is pretty scary simply because we don't know it.

On the other hand, there is a giant unknown variable here. True freshman Treon Harris filled in against Tennessee when Driskel completely lost the plot, and while he didn't actually do much -- 2-for-4 passing, four rushes for 24 yards -- Florida did score twice with him behind center. He provides a mobility threat that Driskel doesn't, even if he's still relatively new to the offense. He was suspended last week for the LSU game, and while he's back with the team, Will Muschamp has said that Driskel will start. But Missouri heads to Gainesville with no idea who might be behind center for a majority of the game. And the two quarterbacks are just different enough to make preparation very tricky.

We have no idea whether a sustained dose of Harris might result in a sea change for the Florida offense as a whole, or whether his limitations will be quickly exploited. Like a good guitar player, Harris is benefiting from unknowns and mystique. But until we do know what he's capable of, it's a little scary to think of him jumping in and changing everything about how (and how well) Florida's offense operates.

4. Ray, Golden, Brantley, Hoch, Vincent, Augusta, Harris...

On the other hand, even if Harris is the real deal, if his line is getting beaten, his options are limited. Mizzou's defensive line -- its entire front seven, really -- faces a Florida front that is solid but beatable. If Mizzou wins this trench battle handily, holding up to attempted run blocking and getting passing downs pressure on whichever quarterback, then the name of Florida's quarterback won't matter that much.

Florida's offensive line is just good enough to make me think the Gators could hold their own with a good gameplan and execution. But Mizzou's defensive line was good at the beginning of the year and appears to be getting better. IF the Tigers dominate here, that might be enough as long as ... well, see Factor No. 1 above.

*****

On paper, you can find plenty of matchups that favor Missouri, enough to believe the Tigers have a real shot in Gainesville. And of course they do -- they haven't lost a road game since 2012, they beat a better South Carolina team on the road just two games ago, and Florida has already lost at home to LSU and nearly lost to Kentucky.

Still, we all saw last week's game. That Missouri team maybe wins one game the rest of the way. It's up to Missouri to prove that last Saturday's game was a crazy blip and not rapid trending. I absolutely think the Tigers can win this, but having watched the last three games, I'm not ready to predict it. The numbers say something like Florida 19-13, and I'm thinking more like 20-10. Prove me wrong, guys.