GAME NOTES: (USA TODAY) After their statement victory a week ago, the 14th-ranked Missouri Tigers will try to prove they truly belong among the nation's elite on Saturday afternoon when they host the 22nd-ranked Florida Gators.
Florida had been winners of three straight before venturing to Baton Rouge last weekend where it fell to nationally-ranked LSU in a 17-6 final. The Gators' two losses this season matches their total from the entire 2012 campaign, but at 3-1 in conference, they are still in control of their own destiny in the SEC East with games against Georgia and South Carolina still to come.
Missouri has been without question one of the nation's biggest surprises this season, as it has yet to lose in six tries. The Tigers moved to 2-0 in the league last week with an outstanding 41-26 win over Georgia for their first win over a top-10 team on the road since 1981, resulting in a huge jump in the polls from No. 25 to No. 14.
"I just think we earned a little more respect," said Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, whose teams have started 6-0 three times in his 13-year tenure. "The respect level just went up a couple notches."
"There is no question that one of the goals for this team is to get back to Missouri's winning way," he continued. "It is a big deal to them. They want to get back to competing for championships."
The all-time series between these two programs is tied at 1-1. An unranked Missouri squad fought hard at No. 8 Florida last November but lost, 14-7.
Florida's offense has performed poorly this season, ranking 13th out of 14 SEC teams in scoring (21.8 ppg) and yardage (367.8), and it reached new lows in last week's six-point output at LSU by netting just 240 total yards.
The Gators' already lackluster offensive attack suffered a huge blow when it lost tailback Matt Jones (339 yards, two TDs) for the season after suffering a knee injury against LSU. Jones is just the latest casualty for the injury- riddled Gators, who have also lost QB Jeff Driskel, WR Andre Debose, OT Chaz Green and DT Dominique Easley to season-ending injuries. Mack Brown (340 yards, three TDs) will shoulder the load in the backfield sans Jones.
Tyler Murphy has been strong this season taking over for Driskel, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 645 yards with seven total touchdowns and just one pick, but he struggled against LSU to the tune of 115 passing yards while being sacked four times.
"(LSU) did a good job applying pressure on us," Murphy said. "I didn't do a good job of getting rid of the ball quickly enough. If you want to be successful on offense, that is something you are going to have to overcome."
"Tyler's going to be fine," Florida head coach Will Muschamp said of his signal caller. "He's a mature young man. He's handled everything beautifully. He will continue to. That's the type of person he is."
Florida employs an impressive trio of receivers, with Trey Burton (26 reception, 310 yards, TD), Solomon Patton (22 receptions, 380 yards, four TDs) and Quinton Dunbar (21 receptions, 303 yards) all keeping pace with one another.
Despite its poor offense, Florida have been able to remain relevant on a national scale thanks to its outstanding defense, which ranks fourth nationally in points allowed (13.0 ppg) and third in yards permitted (235.3 ypg).
Antonio Morrison has a team-high 35 tackles, while Dante Fowler, Jr. (7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, two FF) and Cody Riggs (6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, three passes defended) have been game-changing playmakers. Vernon Hargreaves III has picked off three passes, and Loucheiz Purifoy (INT, FF, blocked kick) is one of the nation's best cover corners.
The Missouri offense has been nothing short of a well-oiled machine this season, scoring 45.7 ppg (second in SEC) while displaying some of the best balance in the nation with 239.3 rushing yards and 276.3 rushing yards per game, but those lofty marks will be tough to reach in the coming weeks without its star quarterback.
James Franklin had accounted for 1,577 passing yards, 290 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns to just three interceptions prior to suffering a shoulder injury in the Georgia game that will likely cause him to miss 3-5 weeks. In his absence, Maty Mauk will get the call under center, and he completed all three of his pass attempts in relief last week.
"I came in and everybody just told me to keep calm," Mauk said. "So I came in and got the plays to our guys. We executed well at the end. We scored when we needed to."
Without Franklin, the Tigers are expected to lean even more heavily on their stable of running backs. Russell Hansbrough leads the way with 391 yards to go with three touchdowns. Henry Josey (358 yards) gets his number called around the goal line often, cashing in with seven scores, and Marcus Murphy (350 yards, five TDs) is arguably the most explosive of the three, averaging 8.8 yards per carry.
Luckily for Mauk, he has plenty of talented receivers to throw to. Marcus Lucas is effective in moving the chains with 30 catches for 301 yards, while L'Damian Washington (29 receptions, 455 yards, seven TDs) and Dorial Green- Beckham (27 receptions, 399 yards, four TDs) are outstanding down field and in the red zone.
In addition to an outstanding offense, Missouri also sports a defense capable of pulling its weight, allowing just 23.0 ppg with a SEC-leading 13 interceptions.
Kentrell Brothers is the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week after logging 10 tackles and an interception versus Georgia, giving him 29 stops and three picks on the season. Andrew Wilson has a team-high 44 tackles, E.J. Gaines also has three interceptions, and Michael Sam is one of the nation's premier defensive linemen with 10.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks and a forced fumble.
Just when Missouri appeared to be ascending towards the nation's elite, it was dealt a devastating blow with the loss of its quarterback and senior leader, but the Tigers showed they can overcome adversity last week by closing out the Georgia game without Franklin. Florida's top-notch defense has the potential to feast on the inexperienced Mauk, but the Gators' offense doesn't appear to be much of a threat, especially on the road against a solid foe. Figure for the Tigers to remain undefeated and continue their meteoric rise in the national rankings.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Missouri 24, Florida 21