GAINESVILLE, Fla. - It was only a year ago that Dan Mullen was asked about the state of his Florida program after he watched his team get humiliated by Missouri in the Swamp.
His response already has become the stuff of legend.
“They keep score. Someone wins and someone loses,” Mullen said, passion rising in his voice. “I don't care what we're doing. If you want to thumb wrestle me right now I'm going to kick your ass. You want to go run stadiums? I'll kick your ass. If you're going to keep score and someone's going to win and someone's going to lose, I want to beat your ass.”
The Gators responded, too. They ripped off three consecutive wins to finish the regular season, then thrashed seventh-ranked Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
“His big thing, ever since he came in, is all about competition,” Gators quarterback Kyle Trask said. “His big thing is there’s a winner and there’s a loser and what are you going to do to make sure you’re the winner? And I think he’s been preaching that ever since he came in.”
It’s a message Mullen no doubt is driving home against this week.
No. 11 Florida (8-2, 5-2 SEC) heads to Missouri (5-4, 2-3) on Saturday after losing two of its past three games. There is no shame in falling to LSU and Georgia, but the Gators likely need to win out and get some help to overtake the Bulldogs and reach the league title game.
Beating the Tigers is no sure thing, either.
The relative newcomer to the SEC has won four of the last six games against Florida, and the past two seasons haven’t been real competitive. Missouri rolled 45-16 in Columbia and 38-17 a year ago, prompting Mullen’s infamous response.
Perhaps the Tigers could use one of those speeches.
Missouri lost consecutive games to Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia, scoring 21 points total. Part of that had to do with an injury to quarterback Kelly Bryant, who is expected back this week, but it nonetheless has threatened to torpedo what had been a promising season.
“The last three weeks obviously has been a tough stretch,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said, “but I do have a great conviction and know that our program is built on the values that you really lean on during this time, and you continue to battle and you fight through that adversity.
“And, you know, there's not a simple solution,” Odom said. “There's not a simple answer other than what we're doing. We've got to do better. We've got to go execute. And we've got to find a way to get back to the winner's circle. So that's our focus.”
Missouri has moved toward Tyler Badie over Larry Rountree III at running back in recent weeks, but Odom revealed that part of the decision has to do with an ankle injury to his incumbent. Both are expected to share carries the rest of the season.
BACKUP TIGERS QB
Bryant took all the reps in practice earlier this week, so he appears ready to go against the Gators. But if he gets sidelined, it’s unclear who is up next. Taylor Powell got the first chance at Georgia but was benched in favor of Connor Bazelak, who wound up playing well late in the game.
Freshman Missouri linebacker Mohamoud Diabate hopes to prove his breakout performance against Vanderbilt was no fluke. The Alabama native notched three sacks in just 19 snaps against the Commodores, and he forced a fumble that teammate Jon Greenard returned 80 yards for a touchdown. Diabate saw his first significant action in place of injured linebacker Jeremiah Moon (foot).
The Gators have embraced being a one-dimensional offense. Florida is 25th nationally in passing at 288.5 yards a game and mostly has abandoned a traditional ground game. Mullen insists he's playing to his team's strengths: The Gators have an inexperienced offensive line and a bevy of talent at wide receiver. Missouri leads the league in passing defense, allowing 147.7 yards a game.
The game features two of the conference's best tight ends, maybe in the country. Missouri senior Albert Okwuegbunam has 22 receptions for 280 yards and six touchdowns, tied for the most scores by any SEC tight end. Florida sophomore Kyle Pitts has 42 catches for 528 yards and five TDs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.