Missouri at No. 13 Florida: The storylines

Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner (23) bring down Missouri tight end Jason Reese at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in the game Oct. 15, 2016. The Gators beat the Tigers 40-14. (Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent)


Who: Missouri (4-4, 0-4) vs. No. 13 Florida (6-2, 4-2)

When: 4 p.m.

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Vegas Line: UF by 6

All-time series: Missouri joined the SEC in 2012 and the teams have played annually since then. The Tigers lead the overall series 4-3.

Last 10 years: The two teams have played six times and split those games. Missouri used wins over Florida in 2013 and 2014 win the East and Florida returned the favor the next two years to go to Atlanta.

Last time they met: Jim McElwain was fired on a Sunday and Florida looked like a team that had just lost its coach. In Columbia, Mo., Drew Lock carved up the Gators to the tune of 45-16.

Fun fact: The only time the two teams played prior to Missouri joining the conference was the 1966 Sugar Bowl when Steve Spurrier rallied the Gators but fell short 20-18 because Florida went for two after each touchdown. Spurrier was the MVP of the game.

What’s at stake?

Missouri needs to win two of its final four games (Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Arkansas) to become bowl eligible. Florida can notch double-digit victories for just the second time in six years and third time in nine years by winning out (Missouri, South Carolina, Idaho and at Florida State).

“We want to finish out the season strong,” UF defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “We just lost this big game, messed up a lot for us. But at the same time, we can’t dwell on it. We’ve just got to move on and try to win the rest of these games.”

Grinding on the ground

The Gators have shown steady improvement running the ball over the course of the season. But the big guys up front will be facing one of their toughest challenges today. The physical and aggressive Missouri defensive front is strong against the run. The Tigers are giving up just 126.5 rushing yards a game. They gave up a mere 91 against Kentucky’s potent ground game last Saturday, holding the Wildcats to 2.6 yards a carry. “They’re an active front,” UF offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “They move. They move well, they run well, they don’t stay blocked very long. They play very hard. They’re sound fundamentally.” So, big test for the Big Nasties today.

Tale of two Tigers

It’s almost as if there are two different Missouri teams. The one that beats up on non-conference opponents, scoring all kinds of points and racking up lots of big players and yards. And then there’s the other Missouri — the one that is 0-4 in the SEC and often struggles offensively, like the Tigers did in their 15-14 loss to Kentucky last Saturday. Here’s a tale of the tape on the Tigers: they have won their four non-conference games by an average score of 49.0 to 21.3, while they have lost their four SEC games by an average score of 33.5 to 22.0. The Tigers are certainly dangerous, but not quite as dangerous as their overall stats might indicate.

Gators still trending — for now

There’s no such thing as a moral victory at Florida. But there is such a thing as showing progress in defeat. That’s what the Gators did in their 36-17 loss to Georgia last Saturday. It was a six-point game with nine minutes remaining, so the final score was not indicative of how competitive the game actually was. A year ago, the Gators lost to the Bulldogs 42-7. A week later, of course, they were stoned by Missouri 45-16. So, the Gators will have a chance again today to show how much progress they’ve made this season. Only this time they plan to do it with a win. “(Those games against No. 7 Georgia and No. 5 LSU) let us know that we’re capable of being a Top 10 contender in the country,” wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “We’ve just got to execute all the time at a high level. And that starts within practice. We just can’t let it slip. We’ve got to keep executing, keep growing, keep getting better and just continue to grow.”

Key matchup

Florida’s safeties and outside linebackers against Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam:

If the Gators thought Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta was a lot to handle, wait until they get a load of Okwuegbunam — and at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, he’s quite a load. Okwuegbunam is not only a big, imposing target, he runs (and runs routes) like a wide receiver. When quarterback Drew Lock needs a first down or a big play, the big tight end has been his go-to guy. Certainly, he’ll have opportunities against UF’s safeties and outside linebackers. There are some potential holes there in pass defense, something the Bulldogs exposed last Saturday, with Nauta catching five passes for 73 yards and fellow tight end Charlie Woerner burning the Gators for a 35-yard reception. The Georgia tight ends are good, but Okwuegbunam takes it to another level. “He’s an NFL player waiting to go to the league,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “You’ve just got to understand where your help is and what the down-and-distance is.”

Florida’s thin secondary against Missouri’s Drew Lock, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-16 romp against the Gators in 2017. Lock hasn’t been nearly as good against SEC opponents this season, completing 50 percent of his passes for 732 yards, with one touchdown and five interceptions against Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky.

The Tigers looked like one of the best defenses in the league last week, especially against the run. Led by three experienced linebackers, including sophomore captain Cale Garrett, they held Kentucky to 91 yards on the ground and 2.6 yards a carry. Florida is at its best when it’s able to run the ball with Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine. The Gators scored a combined 46 points in the three games (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Georgia) in which they failed to gain 200 yards on the ground.

Players to Watch

Missouri: LB Cale Garrett needs to play well for the Tigers to have a chance. Garrett leads the team with 69 tackles, including a career-high 14 last week in a one-point loss to Kentucky. Three of those came on fourth-down stops.

Florida: Backup QB Emory Jones played a little in a loss to Georgia last week, his first game action since the opener, and carried four times 12 yards. Coach Dan Mullen wants to get him more involved down the stretch while keeping open the option of redshirting him.

Facts & Figures

Missouri is 5-2 all-time against teams ranked 13th. … Mizzou ranks second in the SEC and 19th nationally in sacks allowed, averaging just 1.25 a game. The Tigers have surrendered just 35 negative plays, which ranks 14th nationally. … Florida has 28 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks, in its last four games. … DEs Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga have combined for 17½ tackles for loss, including 11½ sacks. … Florida is 25-4 in homecoming games since 1989, including a 40-14 win against Missouri in 2016.

Today’s game questions

• Coming off the disappointing loss to Georgia, will the Gators come out flat and get off to a slow start?

• Can the Gators establish a running game against a Missouri defense that is giving up just 126.5 rushing yards a game?

• Will Missouri quarterback Drew Lock pick apart the depth-shy UF secondary?

• The Missouri offensive line is giving up just 1.25 sacks a game. Can the Gators put some pressure on Lock?

• Can the UF defensive front shut down the Tigers’ running game like Kentucky did a week ago?

Click back Monday for Andreu’s answers

Andreu’s pick

Florida 21, Missouri 20

(Season record: 5-3)

Sun sports columnist Pat Dooley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.