COLUMBIA, Mo. — Chomp, chomp: The Gators better hurry up.
Florida (5-5, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) has left it late in its quest for bowl eligibility, and now with just two difficult games to go in the season, the Gators’ chances at postseason play might be bogged down for good.
Two chances to get a sixth win might seem reasonable for a .500 team, but UF wraps its season in very difficult fashion. Florida visits No. 11 Missouri (8-2, 4-2) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday before hosting No. 4 Florida State to close out the campaign.
That means the Gators will have their backs against the wall when they visit a floodlit Memorial Stadium for Mizzou’s final home game of the season.
Last year, Florida finished 6-7 in coach Billy Napier’s first year in Gainesville. This time around, UF picked up a quality win over Tennessee but lost theoretically winnable games against Utah, Kentucky and Arkansas. Florida is on a three-game skid with defeats to No. 1 Georgia, the Razorbacks and No. 15 Louisiana State.
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“I know their record is not what they want,” MU coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “But outside of us, I think they’ve played Tennessee as dominating of a performance there (as anyone).”
That win as a ceiling reflects some talent, which Drinkwitz also praised.
“You look at their roster, it’s littered with four-, five-star guys top to bottom,” he said.
Florida quarterback Graham Mertz, who’s from the Kansas City area, is fifth in the SEC in passing yards, just 26 yards behind Mizzou’s Brady Cook. Mertz started his collegiate career at Wisconsin before transferring south for this season. He’s completed 73.3% of his passes for 2,720 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
The lack of turnovers is eye-catching.
“Last year, when we played them, they had multiple draft picks,” Drinkwitz said, alluding to former Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who’s now with the Indianapolis Colts. “This year, I think they’re playing even more efficiently with their quarterback. Graham Mertz is playing outstanding.”
After facing the Vols’ three-headed backfield last week, Missouri will only have to plan for two primary running backs this time around: Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson Jr.
Etienne, the younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars’ tailback Travis Etienne, has received slightly fewer carries than Johnson but has marginally outgained him — the duo has been even all season. Etienne has 628 yards, averaging 5.9 per carry, and seven touchdowns. Johnson has 625 yards with 5.1 per attempt and four touchdowns.
Johnson is much more frequently targeted in the pass game than Etienne is.
“Both those guys are dynamic playmakers,” Drinkwitz said.
Ricky Pearsall’s 62 catches for 876 yards and four touchdowns headlines Florida’s receiving corps, but it’s freshman wideout Eugene Wilson II, a coveted recruit, who’s especially intriguing. He has 51 catches for 479 yards and five touchdowns and no catches for more than 30 yards.
He’s talented enough that Drinkwitz dragged out his go-to word to describe a quality opposition player:
“Eugene Wilson does an excellent job as a true freshman, is really a dynamic player in this league,” Drinkwitz said.
On the Gators’ offensive line, Pro Football Focus has graded center Jake Slaughter’s blocking ability highly. And the MU coaching staff is familiar with guard Micah Mazzccua, a who moved to UF from Baylor.
“He’s a big-time transfer that we even looked at,” Drinkwitz said.
Defensive end Princely Umanmielen has 5½ sacks so far this year, by far the most on the Gators defense — nobody else has more than two. He drops back into coverage a handful of times each game. Slot cornerback Jaydon Hill recorded a sack while blitzing in UF’s game against LSU last weekend. He intercepted Cook twice last year, returning one for a touchdown.
And just as Mertz rarely throws interceptions, Florida rarely does any intercepting for itself either. Three Gators defensive backs have one pick each.
In that LSU game, 20 defensive Florida players entered the game for four or more snaps. Mizzou, for reference, used 18 against the Vols.
That shows the Gators can rotate players in and out with some regularity.
“Their defensive coordinator has made the comment that he had a tool shed of defense. I think it’s more like a man cave — I think it’s very deep,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s got all kinds of defense and plays multiple fronts, coverages, blitz schemes, has all kinds of corrections.”
The all-time series between Missouri and Florida is tied at six wins apiece. Since the Tigers joined the SEC ahead of the 2012 season, the Gators have a slight 6-5 advantage.
Last season, UF won 24-17 in Gainesville, holding fast against the MU offense on a late comeback drive. When the two programs clashed in Columbia in 2021, the Tigers walked off with a win on an overtime two-point conversion.