Florida will see if new-found prosperity travels to Missouri
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The phrase is one that has crept into the collective lexicon of the Florida Gators, courtesy of Coach Jim McElwain, who at age 53 and nearing three decades in the profession is all too familiar with the way things used to be.
"Restore the order."
"For a long time, there were the Gators. We were right up there at the top of the order," McElwain explained Monday. "Yet, for some reason, the order has been skewed."
The reasons, of course, aren’t that hard to figure out.
The "order" began with Steve Spurrier’s 122 victories, six Southeastern Conference titles and one national championship over 12 seasons. It took a step back under Ron Zook, but was awakened by Urban Meyer and his 65 wins, two league crowns and two national titles in six seasons before going dormant again with Will Muschamp on the sidelines the last four years.
If anyone had forgotten what the "Gator Order" looked like, it was on full display Saturday night in a 38-10 undressing of then-No. 3 Ole Miss, as the largest crowd to come to The Swamp in three years roared with delight. The game was a wire-to-wire dismantling of an opponent praised as a national championship contender. As such, the Gators (5-0, 3-0) rocketed 11 spots up in the polls and now get to see if their new-found prosperity travels when they take on Missouri (4-1, 1-1) Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
The game will start a run of three straight games (plus an open date) that Florida will be away from home. The Gators don’t come back to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium until Nov. 7.
Then again, if your place in the so-called "order" is a lofty one, venue should not matter.
"I grew up an Ohio State fan, so I remember getting beat by Florida in the  national championship," said fifth-year senior offensive tackle Mason Halter, who played the last four years at Fordham before coming to UF as a graduate-school transfer. "Florida’s a top-tier team to me and, obviously, for the past few years, it hasn’t been."
This week, McElwain figures to remind his players that Missouri, the two-time defending SEC East Division champion, has had a starring role in reducing the Gators’ relevance, both regionally and nationally.
In 2013, UF ventured to Columbia, Mo., for the first time and promptly surrendered 500 yards of offense to a Tigers team led by true freshman quarterback Maty Mauk. The Gators, meanwhile, gained just 151. Mizzou won easily 36-17.
In 2014, the Tigers came to Florida Field as UF’s homecoming opponent and needed about 15 seconds to reverse the roles. Mizzou returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. It later added an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown. Oh, and a 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown and 46-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Tigers managed — get this — just seven first downs and 117 yards of offense, yet handed the Gators an embarrassing 42-13 defeat that marked the program’s most lopsided home loss in 35 years.
"We weren’t expecting things to play out like that, but they did," junior safety Marcus Maye said. "This is a new year, a new team."
Is it ever.
A week after missing some 25 tackles in a dramatic 28-27 home victory over Tennessee, the Gators reintroduced some basic, fundamental tackling drills — stuff they do during two-a-days — at practice in the run-up to facing Ole Miss. The results were astounding, as Florida completely stifled the Rebels, who came into the game leading the SEC in total offense and scoring by turning four turnovers into 19 points and leaning on a ferocious pass rush.
Offensively, UF got four touchdown passes against Ole Miss from redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier, who engineered a unit that went 5-for-5 in the red zone (with three touchdowns), converted eight of 16 third-down opportunities and did not turn the ball over.
"We still have far to go," McElwain said.
True that. The Gators rank 10th in the SEC in total offense (394.2 yards per game) and sixth in passing (253.6 ypg), but that’s lightyears ahead of the 117th and 120th, respectively — out of 128 FBC programs — the offense aggregately rated nationally during Muschamp’s four seasons.
But now that unit will go up against Missouri, noted for its inspired, on-point defense during Coach Gary Pinkel’s tenure. The Tigers check in with a defense that rates No. 1 in the league in scoring (12.0 points per game) and total yards (263.6). Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads the SEC in tackles with 59, while freshman lineman Walter Brady is tied for third in sacks with five.
Offensively, Mizzou suspended Mauk for last week’s game and turned to true freshman Drew Lock, who helped guide the Tigers to a 24-10 home win against South Carolina. Lock hit 21-of-28 passes for 136 yards and two touchdown. He’ll be under center again this weekend.
Pinkel said Monday that Mauk remains suspended and that Lock will start against the Gators.
Collectively, the Tigers rate last in the league in total offense (322.4 yards per game) and rushing (119.4 ypg) — compared to a Florida defense now fifth overall in the SEC (304.2) — but Missouri’s defense is an opportunistic bunch. Its nine turnovers (3rd in the league) have helped a struggling offense with short fields.
Florida has shown its resiliency (in a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against Tennessee) and its ability to dominate (against Ole Miss), but both of those instances occurred at home. UF’s lone road trip in five games thus far was a toothache performance in a 14-9 escape act at Kentucky. Whatever the Gators have earned to date will be put on the line this weekend in an unfriendly environment.
"It should be a fun week for us and yet, we’ll see how our guys handle the success … what little success it is," McElwain said. "See where we’re [at] as a program. This will be a great, great challenge. It will be a lot of fun. That’s why you come to the University of Florida, is playing games like this. We’ll see how they handle it."
And thus see where the Gators fit in the order.