By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
After squaring off against two bitter rivals, the Florida Gators will square off against one of the two newest additions to the Southeastern Conference, the Missouri Tigers.
The 2013 Florida squad drew comparisons to Missouri’s 2012 team, under-performing because of excessive injuries that ravaged its roster. The Gators hope to replicate what the Tigers did in 2013 as well as the program rebounded from that injury-plagued season to win the SEC East with a 7-1 conference record.
|FLORIDA GATORS||MISSOURI TIGERS|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Gary Pinkel (Year: 14)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
|Common Opponents: 3-3||Common Opponents: 5-1|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: 13th (39.1 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 34th (23.1 ppg)|
Who’s Coming Back?
Though Missouri lost starting signal caller James Franklin, the departure will not affect Florida’s game-planning much considering the Gators actually faced the Tigers’ backup quarterback, Maty Mauk, last season. Mauk played quite well in his first-ever collegiate start against Florida, throwing for 295 yards with a touchdown and a pick and rushing for another score. Though he has only hauled in two touchdowns and racked up 608 yards in his career, Bud Sasser will be the most-used returning target for Mauk.
On the other side of the ball, defensive lineman Markus Golden posted monstrous numbers for Missouri, recording 55 tackles, 6.5 sacks and one interception that he returned 70 yards for a touchdown. Golden amassed these incredible numbers despite only playing 40 percent of his team’s snaps, platooning with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Same and Sam’s fellow NFL Draft pick, Kony Ealy. Also set to contribute is another defensive lineman in Shane Ray, who recorded 4.5 sacks and 39 tackles (nine for loss) in 2013.
The Tigers return a total of 12 starters, eight on offense and four on defense, despite losing several key players to the draft and seeing wide receiver Dorian Green-Beckham dismissed for off-the-field issues.
Sam, who recorded three sacks on Gators signal caller Tyler Murphy in last year’s meeting, is gone to the NFL along with Ealy (9.5 sacks) and defensive back E.J. Gaines (five interceptions). Joining Franklin and Green-Beckham as departed players from the offensive side of the ball are breakout running back Henry Josey and wideouts Marc Lucas and L’Damian Washington. These losses will present present significant issues for a Missouri team looking to remain atop the SEC East.
Running backs Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy and Morgan Steward will combine to try and fill Josey’s void, while Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White hope to stand in for the three-headed hydra of receivers that tormented secondaries last fall.
Though Missouri only returns four starters on defense, and just one member of its secondary, the Tigers defense will have time to gel with three of its first four games against cupcakes in South Dakota State, Toledo and Indiana. Prior to conference play, Mizzou will also take on UCF. Should major strides be made in that period of time, the Tigers will at least be better prepared for its SEC foes.
The two squads shared one common opponent outside of conference play in 2013, Toledo. The Tigers grounded the Rockets 38-23, while the Gators triumphed 24-7 in their season-opener. In total, Florida managed a 3-3 record against all common opponents while Missouri tallied a 5-1 record its blemish against South Carolina on Mizzou’s homecoming.
Last Time Out
Last year, in the game’s opening drive during his first collegiate start, Mauk completed an impressive pass over then-freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III as the first shot in a 36-17 whooping of UF.
The Tigers held the Gators to 59 yards on 31 carries and Murphy to just 92 yards on 15-of-29 passing. Murphy was sacked six times but knocked down over and over again throughout the entire contest.
In fact, Florida’s sole highlights were a pair of explosive plays in a 100-yard kickoff return by Solomon Patton and six-play, 70-yard touchdown drive punctuated by a 21-yard scamper from then-freshman rusher Kelvin Taylor.
Following its showdown with Mizzou, Florida will take advantage of its second off week of the season before travelling to Jacksonville, Florida, for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party against the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field.
In a game that could play a large role in deciding Muschamp’s future, the Gators will look to beat the Bulldogs for the first time since 2010. Georgia is riding a three-year winning streak in the series, and Muschamp has never won a single game in the UF-UGA rivalry, either as a coach or player.
|FLORIDA GATORS||GEORGIA BULLDOGS|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Mark Richt (Year: 13)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 8-5 (5-3)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
|Common Opponents: 2-3||Common Opponents: 4-1|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: 21st (36.7 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 78th (29.0 ppg)|
Who’s Coming Back?
UGA returns arguably the most explosive player in the SEC East in Todd Gurley, a junior running back who had an injury-shortened 2013 season. Despite only playing 10 games, Gurley amassed 1,430 total yards from scrimmage on 202 touches, toting the rock to the house 16 times. Gurley is a threat as a runner and a pass catcher, a matchup nightmare for most defenses.
Though a senior, quarterback Hutson Mason has only seen a meager amount of time under center in games, playing behind Georgia’ most prolific passer, Aaron Murray. In five appearances last season, he threw three touchdowns and five interceptions while amassing 968 yards on 67 completed passes. Mason provides the team some continuity at the position, but he is unlikely to set the program on fire with his stat lines.
The Bulldogs also return the SEC’s leading tackler from last season, Ramik Wilson. As an inside linebacker, Wilson picked up four sacks and combined for 133 tackles, including 11 for lost yardage. Lining up in front of him is sophomore Leonard Floyd, who finished with an impressive 55 tackles (9.5 for loss), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last fall. The duo will anchor what should be a much-improved, incredibly-talented front seven, though UGA’s secondary remains a question mark.
Georgia will be without three key secondary players, two starters, neither of whom left due to graduation or the opportunity to play professionally. Shaq Wiggans departed to reunite with his former defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, at Louisville, and Tray Matthews was dismissed from the program following multiple off-the-field issues. Also cut loose this offseason was and defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor, who was dismissed from the program as part of some ongoing legal problems.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must find a way to succeed in his first season without Murray, who left holding just about every passing record at the school as well as a number of conference records including completions (921), passing yards (13,166) and touchdown passes (121). Murray became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000 or more yards in four consecutive seasons.
Miles hauled in one of the best recruiting classes in 2014, as they did the year prior. Despite losing plenty of playmaking talent, LSU should be able to reload with youngsters, though again, much will depend on the quarterback play.
Defensively, the Tigers could give the Gators fits by improving their shaky run defense. However, if the front seven cannot win the war in the trenches, Florida could be off to the races with its explosive group.
Florida and Georgia shared one common opponent outside of the SEC East last season in LSU. While UF held their cross-division rivals to 17 points in a loss, UGA took the opposite approach and got outgunned by LSU 44-41. In total, the Gators went 2-3 against all common opponents, while the Bulldogs carried a 4-1 record.
Last Time Out
Leading 23-3 at the half, Georgia looked to be on its way to a route of a Florida team that was reeling and completely down in the dumps. The Gators found some momentum early in the second half and scored 17 unanswered points but never got the ball back after punting it away with 8:17 remaining. Despite both teams dealing with major injury issues, the Bulldogs found a way to win their third-straight in the series.