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FLORIDA AT MISSOURI PREVIEW: Some familiar factors (lines, field position) will tell the tale

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Bill Carter

So. You've probably noticed that my numbers don't like Missouri very much in this one. We can call this a side effect if we want. Since I elected to phase preseason projections out of the process sooner, that has left teams to stand alone on their 2015 merits. Missouri has had one of the worst offenses in the universe this season, and Florida's nearly perfect performance against Ole Miss last week, which accounts for 20% of the Gators' season totals, has rocketed them to fifth in my ratings. Combine those two things, plus some opponent adjustments that are a little harsh to Missouri's defense, and you've got a matchup this weekend of No. 5 vs. No. 101. No. 5 is going to be favored pretty significantly, yes?

I would be surprised if either Florida or Missouri finished where they currently rank. Florida is young and a couple of injuries away from being too thin to survive at this level. The Gators' baseline is obviously quite a bit higher than anybody expected, but I expect them to finish in the teens somewhere. Missouri, meanwhile, doesn't have a very high ceiling at this point, but with the baby steps we've seen in the last two weeks, I'd be surprised if the Tigers didn't at least crawl back up into the 60s or 70s -- not great, but not triple digits, and possibly good enough to reach a bowl.

Still, Florida's got more advantages than Missouri does in this game, and the Tigers will have to play at a level they haven't yet established this year to win the game. Possible? Sure. A Florida hangover -- certainly a possibility for a young team reading its press clippings -- would help, too.

When Florida has the ball...

Missouri probably isn't going to win a shootout, so it's imperative that the Tiger defense come up big. We've seen before what a big advantage up front can do for a defense, and there's hope that Mizzou can penetrate Florida's offensive line pretty well. But forget hope -- this is a must.

Standard Downs

Florida Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 117.1 28 112.6 38 push
Standard Downs Success Rate 53.5% 19 40.0% 24 push
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.07 75 0.89 12 MU big
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.81 81 2.31 22 MU big
SD Sack Rate 6.2% 91 5.2% 56 MU

Florida is pretty good at the Protect Your Young QB playbook -- pass a lot on standard downs (when opponents have to respect the run) and run a lot on passing downs (when opponents really want to attack the pass). Will Grier is improving quickly and might be able to handle more pressure soon, but UF still leans toward pass; the Gators are running just 51.5% of the time on standard downs, 105th in the country.

The efficiency and explosiveness numbers above hint at what kind of passes Grier is throwing here. The Gators want to stretch you from sideline to sideline, putting the ball into the hands of some quick receivers and hoping they can get one block and get upfield a few yards. And it works pretty well. Florida's three primary receivers (Demarcus Robinson, Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell) have combined to catch 39 of 56 passes (70%) for 448 yards (8.0 yards per target) and four touchdowns.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Demarcus Robinson (WR): 30 targets, 22 catches, 222 yards (7.4), 1 TD
Antonio Callaway (WR): 18 targets, 10 catches, 136 yards (7.6), 1 TD
Jake McGee (TE): 11 targets, 8 catches, 76 yards (6.9)
DeAndre Goolsby (TE): 10 targets, 9 catches, 147 yards (14.7), 1 TD
Brandon Powell (WR): 8 targets, 7 ctaches, 90 yards (11.3), 2 TD
Kelvin Taylor (RB): 5 targets, 3 catches, 11 yards (2.2)

Forcing Florida into passing downs will take excellent fundamentals on the outside -- no missed tackles, proper angles, fighting off blocks, etc. Mizzou has been pretty good at this this year, but their quality and consistency will be tested.

If these passes are gaining two to three yards instead of eight to 10, Mizzou's in good shape. Florida's got loads of potential in the run game, but Kelvin Taylor is still relatively inconsistent, and forcing any opponent to go between the tackles, where Kentrell Brothers, Michael Scherer, Terry Beckner Jr., Josh Augusta, etc., wait, is playing to Missouri's strengths. If Missouri doesn't have to focus extra attention on the perimeter, odds are good that Florida will struggle to run.

Passing Downs

Florida Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 124.4 32 108.3 58 UF
Passing Downs Success Rate 25.3% 100 24.8% 35 MU big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 2.54 5 1.43 14 push
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.89 25 2.20 19 push
PD Sack Rate 8.5% 87 12.9% 13 MU big

Florida goes for it on passing downs. The Gators do run quite a bit (37.3% of the time, 47th), but they also kind of use the run to set up the pass. Robinson is very nearly a decoy in these situations, and if Missouri continues to struggle to defend the up-the-seam passes to tight ends (something both Kentucky and South Carolina exploited a bit), Florida will take full advantage.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Jake McGee (TE): 11 targets, 8 catches, 58 yards (5.3)
Demarcus Robinson (WR): 10 targets, 6 catches, 29 yards (2.9), 1 TD
Brandon Powell (WR): 10 targets, 6 catches, 149 yards (14.9), 1 TD
Antonio Callaway (WR): 5 targets, 2 catches, 66 yards (13.2), 1 TD
Kelvin Taylor (RB): 4 targets, 4 catches, 54 yards (13.5)

I mentioned this earlier in the week, but Powell's a scary matchup for Missouri. Barry Odom doesn't seem to use the nickel any more than he has to, but the thought of lining up a linebacker like Donavin Newsom or Clarence Green against a waterbug like Powell is frightening. He took a short pass nearly 80 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss, and Florida's ability to get the ball to play-makers like him in space has made them more dangerous than they've been in years.

Still, you'll take your chances with passing downs. Even though Florida might have an edge here, even a good offense fails more often than not once it's fallen into second- or third-and-long. There is pressure on the Missouri defense to suffer almost no breakdowns because of Florida's advantages on the other side of the ball, but I would still be surprised if the Tigers allow too many points in this one.

When Mizzou has the ball...

Standard Downs

Mizzou Offense Florida Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 76.2 125 118.0 27 UF big
Standard Downs Success Rate 36.5% 126 42.7% 45 UF big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.09 65 1.07 60 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.19 122 2.13 11 UF very big
SD Sack Rate 3.6% 51 5.1% 58 push

Full-season numbers will tell us only so much about Mizzou's offense, huh? For the season, the Tigers have been woefully inefficient but semi-explosive on standard downs, but last week against South Carolina, with Drew Lock starting behind center, it was almost the polar opposite. There were no big plays, but Mizzou was able to stay on schedule reasonably well.

The play-calling here will be interesting. We saw last week that a healthy Evan Boehm can combine with Mizzou guards (particularly Mitch Hall) to open up some running room, and while Florida's Jon Bullard is scary from a quickness standpoint, he isn't some 340-pound boulder. He can be moved.

That said, Florida allows more via pass than via rush on standard downs. While we don't know if there's a single Mizzou receiver that can beat a Florida cornerback downfield, the side-to-side quick passing that we saw last week (and that we'll see from Florida, too) might have a chance at helping Missouri fall into passing downs.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Nate Brown (WR): 19 targets, 14 catches, 139 yards (7.3), 3 TD
J'Mon Moore (WR): 17 targets, 6 catches, 83 yards (4.9)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 9 targets, 6 catches, 87 yards (9.7), 1 TD
Jason Reese (TE): 8 targets, 3 catches, 19 yards (2.4)
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.6)
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 5 targets, 5 catches, 36 yards (7.2)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 5 targets, 2 catches, 12 yards (2.4)

I'm really excited about what Nate Brown will become in, say, 2017. Maybe 2016. But he's still developing, and he's going to face one hell of a test on Saturday. Can he occasionally find space downfield? On the quick swing passes, can he make a guy miss and turn a one-yard gain into a 10-yard gain? Can other wideouts like Moore, Leftwich, or the now-healthy DeSean Blair make a play or two? Florida's full-season advantages here are immense, but I'm curious to see how Missouri chooses to attack here and if the Tigers can find something even semi-consistent. Last week offered hope, but this is very much still a work in progress.

Passing Downs

Mizzou Offense Florida Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 95.2 91 150.5 10 UF big
Passing Downs Success Rate 30.5% 69 20.9% 13 UF big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.52 110 1.94 91 UF
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.37 56 2.63 36 UF
PD Sack Rate 6.5% 67 16.4% 5 UF big

As I wrote on Tuesday, perhaps the most exciting sign for the future of the Drew Lock era at quarterback is that Missouri was actually well above average in catching back up to the chains. Whereas the national average for passing downs success rate is around 30%, Mizzou was over 40% against the Gamecocks, albeit with almost no big-gainers.

Florida's defense, meanwhile, offers you the opposite. The Gators are reckless and efficient on these downs, allowing only a 21% success rate ... but if you beat them, you can get pretty far downfield. That's the dare: they'll offer you a potential big play, but they'll bet that their pass rush gets to your quarterback before he can throw the ball. They're usually right.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 13 targets, 9 catches, 90 yards (6.9), 2 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 8 targets, 2 catches, 14 yards (1.8)
Jason Reese (TE): 8 targets, 7 catches, 73 yards (9.1)
Ish Witter (RB): 7 targets, 4 catches, 22 yards (3.1)
Nate Brown (WR): 7 targets, 3 catches, 53 yards (7.6)
Sean Culkin (TE): 6 targets, 5 catches, 56 yards (9.3), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches, 16 yards (3.2)

Once again, one of Josh Henson's biggest proven strengths over the last three years has been his ability to catch up when Mizzou falls behind schedule, usually by running the ball -- rushing for six yards to turn second-and-10 into third-and-4, calling an option on third-and-5. Maty Mauk's strengths aren't necessarily suited for a "catch up a little at a time" gameplan, but Lock's might be. And as strange as it sounds, Missouri's ability to run on passing downs could make a huge difference, not only in field position and turnovers, but on the scoreboard.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... always the trenches

Spoiler alert: This is probably going to be the No. 1 key all season. Missouri's offensive line was between bad and terrible for most of four games, and Mizzou had one of the least efficient offenses in the country. Last week, Boehm looked healthy and the line opened some holes, and poof, Missouri was relatively efficient.

This key is for both sides of the ball, of course. If Mizzou's defensive line wins its battle, and the Missouri offensive line can either fight to a draw or only occasionally lose, the Tigers might be able to position themselves to win. But this has to be a net win for Mizzou, and preferably a large one.

2. Field position

Last week Missouri was incredibly conservative when in the shadow of its end zone, and considering the two near-disasters that still managed to almost occur (the all-but-a-safety sack in the first half, the telegraphed throw and near-pick six in the second), I don't assume that will change. But in drives that started in Mizzou-friendly field position, the Tigers thrived. That is another happy sign for the future, and it's imperative that some combination of defense and special teams do Missouri some field position favors. That means forcing a few three-and-outs, winning the turnovers battle, and maybe breaking off a good return or two.

3. Finishing

This will also be a key in every remaining game because, again, we've seen the difference. Missouri was awful at finishing drives against Kentucky -- not only in offensive averages, but in defensive averages -- and it made the difference in the game. Missouri was awesome at both finishing and preventing finishes against South Carolina, and it made the difference in the game.

When you finish your scoring opportunities more effectively than your opponent, it offers you margin for error. If you have four chances but score three touchdowns and a field goal, and your opponent has six chances but turns the ball over and misses a long field goal or something, then you might be able to break even. In each of the last two games, the team with fewer chances won because of this. It's huge.

4. Passing downs efficiency

Missouri's defense has suffered the occasional breakdown on passing downs -- not a big play, but the "eight yards on third-and-6" type of breakdown. And considering that Florida has proven willing to use its tight ends and underneath receivers, that might happen again. But if it does, Missouri's offense has to match. The Tigers were encouraging in both the way they avoided passing downs and the way they got out of some of them. Florida's defense isn't going to suffer that many breakdowns, but you've got to take full advantage of the ones you get. And, as mentioned above, if you can use draw plays or second-and-long rushes to keep the chains on your side, that's all the better.

5. Big plays

The dink-and-dunk thing worked pretty well for Drew Lock last week. He was able to establish a pretty good rapport with Jason Reese (who still bobbles the ball on like every catch and makes me all sorts of nervous) and Nate Brown, completing 12 of 15 passes to the two. But the 12 completions went for just 80 yards.

Lock has shown that he can do the pitch-and-catch thing awfully well. But it's going to be pretty hard to beat Florida with the dink-and-dunk unless somebody, anybody, is able to break a big play or two. We saw Missouri completing longer passes earlier in the season, and we know that a healthy Russell Hansbrough is a home run hitter (more so than an efficiency back). I don't care where the big plays come from; I just care that they come from somebody.

I don't see Florida getting many big-gainers, but they're going to get a few. Mizzou has to match, and of these five keys, this is the one I feel least confident in Missouri achieving.

***

My projections say Florida wins easily, something in the neighborhood of 38-9. Honestly, a result that big would surprise me quite a bit, but this one still feels like something in the neighborhood of Florida 28, Missouri 16. The Gators are not always as good as they were last week and could very well be in the market for a hangover game; plus, the Tigers undoubtedly took a couple of steps forward against South Carolina. A few more steps could make them a sound team once again, and if you combine Missouri's best game of the season with Florida's worst, then the Tigers quite possibly pull a nice Homecoming upset. But on average, Florida wins.

Really, then, this game is about not only this week but also the weeks that follow. There's always a chance that Maty Mauk returns and starts again later in the year, but I don't think the odds favor that. Barring injury or massive regression, I'm assuming this is Lock's job now. And if Missouri's going to go bowling this year, the biggest key is going to be surviving the next two weeks with good health and Lock's confidence intact. If he grows in two Missouri losses, great. If he gets sacked seven times and throws four interceptions tomorrow, then ... well ... that wouldn't be optimal, would it? So the Florida game matters because of both tomorrow's win opportunities and the opportunities that will follow moving forward.