Mizzou to face rested – but possibly rusty – No. 10 Florida

By Mark Long
Associated Press
Florida head coach Dan Mullen reacts during the second half of a game against Mississippi earlier this season. No. 10 Florida resumed meetings and practices for the first time in two weeks Monday and will face a Missouri team that has won two straight Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida linebacker James Houston arranged chairs in his living room to simulate blockers and placed a tennis ball on top of a garbage can to work on his hands. Running back Malik Davis slid his bed against one wall to create extra space to practice plays. Quarterback Kyle Trask threw passes to his girlfriend, an outfielder on the softball team.

The 10th-ranked Gators got a little creative to stay sharp during their two-week quarantine following a COVID-19 outbreak.

Nonetheless, coach Dan Mullen expects his team to be rested and rusty when it hosts Missouri on Saturday night in the Swamp.

"It's going to be a build-up all the way to Saturday for us," Mullen said.

It will mark three weeks since Florida (2-1) last played, a lengthy layoff that could prove problematic for a team that opened the season with hopes of playing for a Southeastern Conference and national championship.

The Gators now have a seven-week gauntlet of league games ahead, with the next two being crucial to accomplishing their goals. It begins against the Tigers (2-2), who have won two straight in varying fashion, and continues against rival and No. 5 Georgia (3-1) in Jacksonville. 

Win both and Florida would be atop the SEC East. Lose either and Mullen's guys would need help down the stretch to reach the conference title game for the first time in four years.

"I know everybody on the team is probably itching to play, itching to hit, itching to do everything and prove themselves because we just came off a loss," Houston said. "We're itching to prove ourselves that we're still the same Florida Gators. We're coming for the national championship. We're coming for the SEC championship."

The hiatus did little to erase the sting of Florida's 41-38 loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 10. But the Gators don't really want it to go away.

"You have that little taste in your mouth," Houston said. "That's the fuel, though. You need that. You need that to keep pushing yourself and have that motivation to keep grinding. I think it was a very good motivator that we had two weeks to let that marinade and sink into everybody's head what we've got to do and how we've got to move forward."

Just one day after that loss to the Aggies, Florida started seeing its outbreak. Mullen, at least two assistants and about 30 players tested positive in the following days. Everyone on the plane – about 75 people in all – was quarantined. 

It forced the Gators to shut down team activities and work remotely. The Southeastern Conference rescheduled two games because Florida would not have had at least 53 scholarship players available to play.

The Gators resumed practice and in-person meetings Monday, but they had to adhere to strict re-acclimation rules that included multiple cardiac testing and a four-day buildup for anyone who tested positive. It meant Mullen couldn't have a full practice with a full team until Thursday.

"I think our team did a great job of just staying locked in and continuing to take that next step in our game mentally," Trask said. "That's the most you can do with the situation that was handed to us. … We didn't miss a beat once we got back to practice."

Florida still could be down several starters against Missouri, although Mullen insists he will have more than the 53 needed to play.

The Tigers are planning to adapt to whoever steps on the field.

"There's no way to know," Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz said. "You just go in assuming that they'll be at full strength. We know the challenges we have. We know the kinds of scheme that they're going to try to run. We'll adjust while we're in the game. I don't think we're going to act like they're not going to have their best guys."

WINNING STREAK

The Tigers have won consecutive games in differing fashion. They beat defending national champion LSU in a shootout, winning 45-41, and then dominated Kentucky 20-10 last week, mostly on the ground. No one knows which team will show up in Gainesville.

DEFENSIVE HELP

Florida hasn't been able to stop the run all season, prompting Mullen to get more involved in defensive meetings. What really could help is the return of stout defensive tackle Kyree Campbell, who was suspended the first three games.

UNDEFEATED STARTER

Mizzou quarterback Connor Bazelak is 3-0 as a starter, completing 78% of his passes for 687 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He could catch a break with about 17,000 fans on hand for Florida's home games.

SWAMP SUCCESS

The Gators have won nine straight at Florida Field, celebrating every game at the Swamp since Mizzou thumped them two years ago. Current Denver Broncos starter Drew Lock threw for three touchdowns in the 38-17 Tiger victory.

SEC East battle

WHAT — Missouri (2-2 SEC) at No. 10 Florida (2-1)

WHAT/WHERE — 6:30 p.m. (CDT) Saturday (SEC Network Alternate, Comcast Cable channel 259/KMBZ (98.1 FM)).

LINE — Florida by 12 1/2.

SERIES RECORD — Missouri leads 5-4.

WHAT'S AT STAKE —  Florida returns to the field for the first time in three weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak. More than 30 players and coaches tested positive for the coronavirus – about 75 were quarantined – following a trip to Texas A&M. The SEC postponed two of Florida's games. Now, the Gators are entering a seven-week SEC gauntlet, with the first two (Missouri and No. 5 Georgia) likely deciding their fate in the East Division.

KEY MATCHUP — Florida versus COVID. The Gators expect to be rested and rusty following a two-week layoff. They also could be without several starters because six players tested positive since the outbreak. More could be quarantined because of contact tracing, so it's unclear who will be available.

PLAYERS TO WATCH — Missouri: RB Larry Rountree III is coming off a 37-carry, 126-yard, two-touchdown performance against Kentucky. The Gators have had trouble stopping the run, but stout defensive tackle Kyree Campbell is expected to make his season debut Saturday and could help shore up the weakness.

Florida: TE Kyle Pitts is one of the best players in the country and should be ready to go after dealing with a left ankle injury last time out. Pitts finished with five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown – all season lows – in a 41-38 loss at Texas A&M. None of his receptions came in the final 10 minutes of the game.

FACTS & FIGURES — Missouri has won two straight: a shootout against defending national champion LSU and a dominant defensive performance against Kentucky. … QB Connor Bazelak is 3-0 as a starter, completing 78% of his passes for 687 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. … Florida has won nine in a row in the Swamp. The team's last home loss was a 38-17 drubbing against Missouri in 2018. … The Gators are 3-1 following a loss under coach Dan Mullen. … Florida's 127 points are its most in any three-game stretch in SEC play since 2008, when it totaled 129 in win against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Alabama.

– The Associated Press