Florida at No. 23 Mississippi State: The Storylines

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Florida head coach Dan Mullen's return to Starkville will grab most of the headlines when his Florida Gators travel to face No. 23 Mississippi State on Saturday. Mullen coached the Bulldogs for nine seasons before leaving for Florida in November. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Today

Who: Florida (3-1, 1-1 SEC) vs. No. 23 Mississippi State (3-1, 0-1)

When: 6 p.m.

Where: Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field, Starkville, Miss.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Vegas line: Bulldogs by 7

Series record: Florida leads 33-19-2. The teams used to play annually from 1954 to 1993 but have only played six times since then.

Last 10 years: The Gators and Bulldogs played in Starkville in 2009 with Florida winning despite two pick-sixes from Tim Tebow and the following year MSU was the winner.

Last time they met: Dan Mullen returned to The Swamp, but it wasn’t offense that won the night. The Bulldogs scored 10 points in the first quarter and held on for a 10-7 win in Urban Meyer’s final season at UF.

Fun fact: The first game between the two teams was played in Jacksonville and ended in a 13-13 tie in 1923. Of the 54 games between the two teams, 15 have been played at neutral sites.

Born to run

Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks has gone from reluctant runner to willing runner to now, well, runner. On read-option plays against Tennessee, he kept the ball several times and took off running, one time trying to leap over a defender after an 11-yard gain. He’ll never be confused with Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, who is only 176 yards shy of overtaking Tim Tebow as the all-time leading rushing quarterback in SEC history. But Franks seems to be enjoying his new role as a runner. “I was just having fun (against Tennessee). I haven’t run the ball that much ever in my life. I find it kind of fun. If I see a hole I’m going to try to hit it and go get a touchdown,” he said. “The guys do a great job blocking for me and I try to hit the hole and go. I don’t know a lot about running and cutting and that kind of stuff, but I try to do my best at it.”

Statement game opportunity

After the early loss to Kentucky in which Florida was dominated on both lines of scrimmage, some were wondering if the Gators would win an SEC game this season. Now, with Kentucky coming off a win over Mississippi State and the Gators winning big in Knoxville, UF could possibly crack the top 25 next week if the Gators can pull the upset on the road against the No. 23 Bulldogs. “We’re not looking to make a statement,” senior rush end Cece Jefferson said. “We’re just trying to win this game and get this thing back on track. I think for the outside world, if we do win this game, they’ll definitely give us some of the respect we deserve and look at us differently.”

Scoring streak on the line?

For the Gators to get the upset, they’re going to have to score some points, maybe 24 or more. But they will be facing the best defense they’ve seen this season, one that is dominant up front with end Montez Sweat, tackle Jeffery Simmons and outside linebacker Leo Lewis. If the Gators struggle early and are sacked and turn the ball over, it could be a long, fruitless (and maybe even pointless) night for Franks and the offense. It’s going to be tough even if the Gators manage the offense and take care of the ball. UF has scored in 376 consecutive games, which is an NCAA record. That impressive streak of not getting shut out could be in jeopardy tonight if the MSU defense plays up to its potential and the UF offense takes a big step back.

Today’s game questions

• What kind of reception will Dan Mullen receive in his return to Davis Wade Stadium? Hostile? Friendly? Somewhere in between?

• How much will the Florida offensive line struggle against one of the best defensive lines in the country?

• Will the Gators get hurt by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s ability to make plays with his legs?

• Can the Gators produce some critical turnovers again after forcing six against Tennessee?

• Will the Gators hit any big plays in the passing game?

Click back Monday for Andreu’s answers

Andreu’s pick

Mississippi State 24, Florida 13

(Season record: 2-2)

KEY MATCHUP

Florida’s defensive front vs. MSU dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald:

The last time the Gators faced a dual-threat quarterback, they got burned by Kentucky’s Terry Wilson, who scrambled out of the pocket time after time and ended up rushing for 105 yards. Wilson may be more elusive than Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald is a more natural runner with deceptive speed and the size and strength to run through defenders. UF’s No. 1 goal will be to try and contain him in the pocket and prevent him getting to the edge like Wilson did. The Gators have been solid against the run since the Kentucky game and having middle linebacker David Reese back is certainly a plus. But, again, this is the first dangerous dual-threat quarterback the Gators have faced since the loss to Kentucky, so there’s some apprehension going into the game.

Florida leads the nation with 14 takeaways, including 10 fumbles recovered. The Gators will try to disrupt a Mississippi State offense that was very good until last week’s struggles in a loss to Kentucky.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

It’s an important conference game for Florida and Mississippi State as they jockey for position in the SEC standings — but this one is also about pride. Coach Dan Mullen returns to Starkville for the first time since leaving Mississippi State’s program for Florida in November. Mullen had nine mostly successful seasons in Starkville — and locals certainly remember the good times — but there are still some hard feelings since he left for another team in the SEC.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Florida: QB Feleipe Franks. The Gators’ quarterback has had a good start to the season with 12 touchdowns passes. Now he’ll try to have similar success while dodging two of the best defensive linemen in the SEC — Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.

Mississippi St: WR Osirus Mitchell. Mississippi State has lacked consistency throwing the ball this season and it’s likely Florida coach Dan Mullen will try to make the Bulldogs beat them downfield. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Mitchell is one of Mississippi State’s biggest targets and he caught six passes for 65 yards last week against Kentucky.

FACTS & FIGURES

Mississippi State has a 7-4 record against Florida in games played in Starkville. … Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald is one of only three players in SEC history with 35 career touchdowns passing and running. The other two — former Florida QB Tim Tebow and former Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott — were also on teams that Mullen coached. … Mississippi State is averaging 247.8 yards rushing, which ranks third in the SEC and 18th nationally. … Florida has already scored 43 points off of turnovers this season after scoring just 44 points off turnovers during the entire 2017 season. … Florida’s 47-21 win over Tennessee last weekend was the first time the Gators had scored more than 35 points in an SEC road game since 2011.

Staff writer Pat Dooley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

20 COMMENTS

  1. The rushing stats scare me most for this game. MSU’s stats indicate that they can rush the ball extremely well, but they did not do that vs. Kentucky. Florida’s defensive stats indicate that they have trouble stopping the run, and especially give up explosive run plays, but they did not do that vs. Tennessee. What happens in this game? By stats alone, it looks like force (MSU running the ball) vs. weakness (Florida stopping the run). But stats do not win or lose games. To win, Florida’s defensive linemen and LBs have to get off blocks, fill and defend their gaps well, and tackle extremely well. And the Florida DEs have to keep Fitzgerald in the pocket and to not give up the edges to him like Kentucky did, as well as pressure him when he drops to pass.

    • Rick. I was going to post the same thing and actually rewrite the questions in a more reflective and positive manner. But I did not want to pile on Robbie, as I was very critical of him on another blog. But Robbie needs to rediscover the journalistic mojo he once had.

      • 1. its not any fun for the newspaper business. most sportswriters are moving on either by choice or being told to move on. sports departments are getting budget cuts, etc. in the end these writers have to reflect what their bosses want. if you want happy thoughts, don’t read the newspaper. don’t watch the news.
        2. ive read so much about how wonderful starkeville is this week, I’m thinking I should have went there, and lived there. Sarasota just cant hold a candle to this place. …. my point is the newspaper isn’t designed to tell you the truth sometimes. maybe I’m wrong and Sarasota isn’t such a great town, I doubt it.
        3. as far as the question about our offensive line, that has been true of every gator game of my life. if we block, we always have the athletes to score. in fact all of the questions are routine enough. here is my question, is it better to have cdm coaching against his old guys or better to be his old guys playing his new guys. usually its the former, but I like our chances today.

    • Tampa… I hope you’re right. But the O line may get worn down by the 4th qrtr. This is the game where depth and physical conditiining is big. Felipe will need to stay composed and not hesitate getting rid of the ball. I hope we use Perine more in the running game because of his quickness to find daylight. We have to get yardage on the ground to win this game.

  2. The article should have been titled: Robbie Andreu writes an article and the unappreciative idiot brigade makes comments trying to find fault in literally anything he writes. This applies to a lot of people but not everyone! No article is perfect you have to take the good out of it- it’s like life itself! There was a lot of good information in the article. If you don’t like it – don’t read it. I never will understand the vitriol Robbie and Pat get! It’s a small website and they aren’t exactly getting paid big bucks to do what they do! Of course, I realize the vitriol will continue! Go Gators!

    • Lol. Don’t know if I feel quite that strongly about it Dave, but I did have an exchange with Tampa, kind of inquiring why even spend time and energy on the vitriol. I chose him because he seems reasonable. And actually he had a legit answer, but I’m kind of deciding if the forum life is for me. I just started trying it this week. A lot of it is inane vitriol (not by all!). My boys are off to college and I miss talking about the Gators with them, but the forum is, well…what it is. Maybe once I know the names better I’ll be able to just spot read the comments of posters who have insightful opinions about the Gators.

    • Melville wrote ”Moby Dick” and Edgar Allen Poe… JUST 2 ”writers” who died… BROKE!
      So, ”big money” is NOT what Robbie and Pat wanted, apparently.
      Just saying… defend the Gatorsports.com writers all you want, God bless ya, but writers are NOT ”big money” usually. But calling people you don’t even KNOW ”idiots”, well, you probably are smart to NOT use a profile pic.

      • gatorgi70x7. Give me a break! I technically didn’t call anyone personally an idiot and I was not defending them at all. I was making fun of it by calling it an idiot brigade. When you poor acid on people with vitriol when they are two nice people who are just doing they’re jobs and these people have families and they aren’t trying to hurt anyone then you have problems. If you think that’s OK behavior well it’s not OK. I would not teach any kid that’s it’s OK to do that. Plus, I’m OK with my post and I would post it to the entire planet along with my profile pic, etc.

    • Dave I disagree with your calling people idiots for not liking Robbie picking against the gators (and being wrong). Robbies a good writer, and him and pat get the fans talking which I really love, so I’m not for doing anything that costs them their jobs and leaves us with, well, writers who don’t even remember that we once were the gold standard for all college athletics not too long ago. the newspaper’s favorite coach, wil Muschamp, got out everythinged again, so until South Carolina rectifies that mistake I’m just gonna have fun beating on them as part of the healing process of this lost decade of gator football.

      • To a degree is OK with me but I think it’s too much. Anyone can make a prediction. It has no effect on the outcome of the game. I think people actually take it personal and try to prove them wrong which makes no sense. It’s a cliche but they’re entitled to it. It takes guts to pick against the Gators. Again, I was making fun of it and no one is an idiot and I actually enjoy the input of some people who post.