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Mizzou vs. Florida: Five things to watch
Mizzou vs. Florida

Mizzou vs. Florida: Five things to watch

Missouri battles South Carolina

Missouri Tigers running back Tyler Badie (1) takes a hand off from Tigers quarterback Brady Cook (12) in the fourth quarter of a football game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Faurot Field in Columbia. Mo. on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. The Tigers beat the Gamecocks 31-28 and improve their record to 5-5 for the season. Photo by Daniel Shular,

Ben Frederickson and Dave Matter explain how a wacky SEC season got here, with the Tigers having two shots at one bowl-game-securing win, and why beating Florida could be easier than winning on the road against Arkansas.

1. Bazelak or Cook? Who’s the choice at QB?

Will Eli Drinkwitz go back to Connor Bazelak at quarterback or go with the young gun from Chaminade, redshirt freshman Brady Cook? Drinkwitz pulled Bazelak for the final possession last week against South Carolina, favoring Cook’s running ability to close out the win on the ground. But Bazelak didn’t help his cause with two ugly interceptions, described by Drinkwitz as “really poor decisions.” He promoted competition this week in practice, opening the door for Cook to seize the opportunity to take over the starting job. “A little bit of uncertainty, but you have to treat it like any other week,” Cook said after Wednesday’s practice. “You have to prepare and go into it (like), ‘hey, I’m going to get an opportunity and I’m going to be ready.’” In five career games, Cook has shown he can move the ball downfield, completing 80% of his throws with a couple touchdowns. He also showed the last two weeks he can scramble his way out of trouble for first downs. Even if Bazelak gets the start — a soft-tissue leg injury has limited his mobility — Drinkwitz learned last week he can trust the less experienced Cook in a pressure-packed situation.

2. Can the Gators break their fall from grace?

Which Florida teams steps onto Faurot Field? The team that had Alabama on the ropes in the fourth quarter or the team that’s since looked incapable — at times disinterested — of beating a quality opponent. Last week the Gators needed a second-half rally to avoid the kind of loss that cost coaches their jobs when they trailed FCS Samford at halftime. Fourth-year coach Dan Mullen might be working elsewhere next season, and a loss in Columbia or next week to rival Florida State could expedite that process. Do the Gators have any fight left for their head coach? Can their defense show some backbone? Will his occasionally listless offense live up to its explosive potential? There’s lots of pressure on Mullen to avoid another letdown.

3. Will Mizzou’s defense deliver again?

In the category of better late than never, Mizzou defensive coordinator Steve Wilks might be saving his job with a November rally. The Tigers held their ground at No. 1 Georgia. Then last week against the Gamecocks, they controlled the line of scrimmage and made disruptive plays versus the pass. The linebackers are getting downhill. Defensive ends Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat are causing havoc. The secondary, led by nickelback Kris Abrams-Draine, is flying to the ball. The Tigers can’t let up against UF’s two dynamic quarterbacks, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. The defensive front has to keep them contained in the pocket and force mistakes in the air. They’ve combined for 15 interceptions. A few more Saturday could go a long way toward a Mizzou upset.

4. Can Badie go for 200 yards again?

Tyler Badie has rushed for 200 yards four times this season and now faces a Florida defense that’s allowed 266 yards rushing per game over its last three SEC contests against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. Drinkwitz is still searching for a capable No. 2 running back to relieve his Doak Walker Award semifinalist of the heavy workload, but Badie continues to produce week after week. Badie becomes especially valuable for an offense with uncertainty at quarterback. Badie could return for another year of eligibility in 2022, but Saturday figures to be the final home game of his career. Another prolific day on the ground would add to a legacy that gets more impressive by the week.

5. Another Gators-Tigers battle royal?

Any chance last year’s bench-clearing tussle between the Gators and Tigers bubbles over into Round 2? Three of the players the SEC punished for last year’s halftime fight will be on the field — Florida edge rushers Zachary Carter and Antwaun Powell and Mizzou linebacker Chad Bailey — but both head coaches dismissed any talk of bad blood erupting in Saturday’s rematch. Last year’s melee started with Mizzou defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat’s late hit on UF quarterback Kyle Trask — no flag was thrown — and then reached another level of crazy when Mullen escalated the scene, first by running into the scrum and yelling at MU players and coaches, then returning from the stadium tunnel to fire up the crowd. The SEC fined him $25,000 and issued a public reprimand for his antics. “A couple people probably made it worse than it needed to be that were in the middle of it,” Mullen said this week. “And so to be honest, I don’t see how that would even roll into this game. I don’t even think about it.”

Dave Matter’s prediction: Drinkwitz was hoping to greet the Gators with snow, but the forecast calls for spring-like conditions. Instead, he’ll have to rely on a suddenly serviceable defense, a whole lot of Badie and one of his two QBs — or maybe both. Missouri 37, Florida 34

— Dave Matter

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