Campus Corner

Four Downs with the Orlando Sentinel’s Florida beat writer Edgar Thompson

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock still wears a No. 12 Lee’s Summit basketball backpack to interviews and only arrived on campus in June, but is feeling comfortable as the Tigers’ starter in that role.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock still wears a No. 12 Lee’s Summit basketball backpack to interviews and only arrived on campus in June, but is feeling comfortable as the Tigers’ starter in that role.

Missouri has a lot on tap for homecoming on Saturday.

Obviously, the main event is the Tigers’ 6:30 p.m. kickoff against No. 11 Florida at Memorial Stadium, but the men’s basketball team also has an open practice fans can attend for free from 2-4 p.m. at Mizzou Arena.

The Tiger Style wrestling team has scheduled its first practice at 2:30 p.m. outside the Hearnes Center on the west lawn along Mick Deaver Memorial Drive.

As for the game, Missouri’s hopes for an SEC East division probably hang on the outcome.

The Gators, 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC, would remain unbeaten and would effectively have a three-game lead on the Tigers, 4-1 and 1-1 in the SEC, with a win.

Now, the bad news: Missouri is 3-8 against top-15 teams since joining the SEC, though that includes an 0-5 mark in the injury-riddled disaster that was the 2012 campaign.

The Tigers are 6-23 under coach Gary Pinkel against top-15 opponents, including a 2-14 mark in those game when unranked themselves.

Anyway, for more on Florida, which delivered a brutal beating against then-No. 3 Mississippi last weekend, ahead of Saturday’s showdown on the SEC Network, we had Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel go Four Downs with The Star.

Be sure to give Thompson a follow on Twitter and read his words about the Gators ahead of the game. On to the Q&A:

First down: The 38-10 drubbing of Ole Miss was especially jarring in light of a mundane 14-9 win at Kentucky and what seemed like a fortuitous one-point win against Tennessee. Is the level of play Florida showed in routing the Rebels sustainable?

Thompson: The squeaker at Kentucky is a distant memory for the Gators after the Ole Miss win and comeback against Tennessee. Florida has just six scholarship seniors and countless underclassmen in key roles, so each week is a new experience with a lot of these young Gators.

A dud like the Kentucky performance is not unexpected, and let’s not forget the Wildcats have matched their 2014 total with two SEC wins, including one against Mizzou. Coach Jim McElwain reiterated all week he has no idea how his team will respond to their success against third-ranked Ole Miss. Last Saturday’s win was the Gators’ most-complete performance in years.

It is unlikely Florida duplicates the effort, efficiency and energy level it showed during its beatdown of Ole Miss, played in front of a raucous, sellout crowd in the Swamp. Redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier threw four first-half touchdowns. Meanwhile, Florida’s vaunted defense dominated Ole Miss’ SEC-leading offense. The Rebels had nearly as many negative plays (six) as first downs (seven) during their first five series.

Florida might never match the dominance it showed against Ole Miss, but with one of the best defenses in the nation, the Gators might not be out of any game this season.

Second down: Are you surprised how quickly the Gators seemed to have turned a corner under Jim McElwain?

Thompson: SEC media, including myself, picked the Gators to finish fifth in the SEC East. With wins against Tennessee and Ole Miss, the unbeaten, 11th-ranked Gators are 2-0 during a five-game SEC gauntlet that many believed might not yield a single win.

McElwain made it clear from the start he had a long-term vision for returning the Gators to national prominence. He pushed through plans for an indoor practice facility, restructured the personnel department and made locking down top Florida talent the top priority on the recruiting trail. But McElwain did not accept 2015 would be merely a rebuilding year and had a short-term plan in mind, too.

It helps to have inherited an impressive collection of defensive talent, but McElwain has been able to squeeze more out of the offense than Will Muschamp ever did. For the past four years, the Gators have had shaky quarterback play and virtually no playmakers. Under McElwain, the Gators suddenly seem to have their quarterback of the future in redshirt freshman Will Grier, who has an array of playmakers at his disposal.

The growth of the offense has energized a defense accustomed to shouldering the entire load. But McElwain’s program remains in a fragile state. Prior to the rout of Ole Miss, the Gators won three games by seven points or fewer. More close games loom. It is a lot to expect the Gators will keep pulling them out each week. Even so, with a win at Mizzou Florida would be on track for a nine-win season, at worst.

After 11 total wins in two seasons, the Gators have defied expectations under McElwain.

Third down: With three guys who already have three sacks and four guys who already have 6 1/2 tackles for a loss, how worried should Missouri be about starting a true freshman quarterback against a defense that is camping out in opponents’ backfields this season?

Thompson: Lock faces a difficult, potentially confidence-shattering assignment during just his second college start. The Gators lead the SEC with 13 sacks and 31 overall tackles for loss during conference games, including four sacks and 11 tackles for loss against Ole Miss.

Chad Kelly entered last weekend the SEC’s leading passer, but took a physical and emotional beating at the hands of the Gators. Florida’s front four led the charge, despite offseason concerns about the unit’s lack of depth and experience.

Just two players entered 2015 with a college start during the regular season — senior tackle Jon Bullard and redshirt junior end Bryan Cox Jr. With 9.5 tackles for loss, Bullard already has exceeded his 2014 total and is playing at an All-American level. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph called Cox, son of the former NFL linebacker, “the hardest-working defensive linemen I have.”

In addition to Bullard and Cox, end Alex McCalister — who has five sacks and six quarterback hits — and tackle Caleb Brantley — an athletic freak at 6-feet-2, 303 pounds — have raised their games. Brantley has eight tackles, including two for loss, in three SEC games.

Freshman end CeCe Jefferson has lived up to his billing as a five-star recruit. Powerful and cat quick, Jefferson has nine tackles, two QB hurries and returned a fumble to the one-inch line against Ole Miss.

Fourth down: Is what we’re seeing from quarterback Will Grier a mirage and is it sustainable if Florida continues to average 3.9 yards per carry on the ground?

Thompson: Grier has been as hot as any quarterback in the SEC during the past five quarters of football. Since the fourth quarter comeback against Tennessee, Grier has completed 35 of 46 passes (76 percent) for 412 yards and six touchdowns.

But during the previous five quarters — the first three against Tennessee and the second half against Kentucky — Grier showed his age and inexperience. At Kentucky, he was 5 of 10 passing for 31 yards and an end-zone interception during a scoreless second half for Florida. He was 12 of 24 with an interception and three sacks after three quarters against the Vols.

Wild swings of inconsistency are to be expected for a young quarterback. A dependable, consistent running certainly would ease the pressure on him and open up more opportunities for play action.

As a coordinator, McElwain built his offenses at Alabama (2008-11) around a power running game. Last season as head coach at Colorado State, McElwain used Dee Hart’s running to help set up one of the nation’s best passing offenses.

But like Grier, youth and inexperience have held back the Gators’ run game. Six of Florida’s top eight offensive linemen are underclassmen. The unit has shown dramatic improvement, holding its own against Robert Nkemdiche and Ole Miss’ talented front seven, but the Gators still do not get consistent push.

Veteran tailback Kelvin Taylor is running with purpose ever since McElwain’s sideline blowup in Week 2 against East Carolina, but Taylor cannot do it alone either.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer