Play of freshman quarterbacks could be key factor in Florida-Mizzou

On its path to consecutive SEC East titles, a game like Saturday’s Florida-Missouri contest was the kind Mizzou typically found a way to win.

In fact, this is a game that the Tigers did win in the previous two seasons – beating the Gators by a total of 48 points in those two meetings – but Florida looks like a different team this year.

New coach Jim McElwain has No. 11 Florida (5-0, 3-0 SEC) unbeaten and threatening to force its way into the top 10, while Missouri (4-1, 1-1) hasn’t performed like a championship-caliber club thus far. Gary Pinkel’s team is still in the thick of the Eastern Division race, though, plus it gets Florida at home on Saturday. This key division game might come down to the play of two young quarterbacks.

With the help of ESPN’s Stats & Information group, let’s look at some key elements of Saturday’s game:

Defending Will Grier: Redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier’s emergence has been a key factor in Florida’s rapid improvement on offense. It’s not as if the Gators are an offensive juggernaut – they rank 10th in the SEC in total offense (394.2 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (34.4 points per game), but the offense is not a complete liability the way it has been in the last few seasons.

Poor quarterback play was the main culprit for the past woes, but Grier is helping turn things around. He has started the last four games and posted a Total Quarterback Rating of 67, which would be the best by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow in 2009 (75.8). In comparison, Florida quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Treon Harris combined to help Florida rank 102nd in QBR last season (42.5).

A big area of improvement is Florida’s downfield passing game. Since the start of the 2014 season, all Florida quarterbacks not named Grier have completed six touchdown passes of 30-plus yards. Grier has five touchdown passes of 30-plus this season.

That could be an area of Florida’s offense that will be worth watching. Mizzou leads the SEC in total defense (263.6 yards per game), scoring defense (12.0 points per game) and pass defense (154.2 yards per game), is tied for first in interceptions (seven) and is tied for third in sacks (13).

Defending Drew Lock: Give Missouri’s true freshman quarterback Drew Lock credit -- he was not overwhelmed by the moment when Pinkel named him the starter for last Saturday's game against South Carolina in place of suspended veteran Maty Mauk.

The Tigers played it close to the vest on offense, but Lock turned in a solid performance (21 for 28, 136 yards, two touchdowns) in Mizzou’s 24-10 victory. It helped take some of the pressure off Lock’s shoulders that Ish Witter and Russell Hansbrough led Mizzou to a season-high 163 rushing yards.

Overall, Lock has thrown the ball downfield better than the struggling Mauk had, completing 50 percent of his throws of 10-plus yards compared to Mauk’s 33.3. Lock has three touchdowns and no interceptions on such throws, good for a Total QBR of 88. In comparison, Mauk had five touchdowns, four interceptions and a QBR of 37.

The sputtering offense was one reason why Missouri lost to Kentucky and nearly lost games against UConn and Arkansas State. It brings the SEC’s worst total offense (322.4 ypg) into Saturday's game, and that’s a bad sign against this Florida defense.

The Gators rank among the SEC’s top five in rushing defense (second at 97.8 yards per game), scoring defense (third at 16.6 points per game) and total defense (fifth at 304.2 yards per game). Oddly enough, they rank ninth against the pass (206.4) despite having one of the conference’s most talented secondaries.

Lock might have a difficult time exploiting Florida’s secondary, so it will be of the utmost importance to maintain balance on offense. If Hansbrough, Witter and the offensive line struggle to accomplish much on the ground, the Tigers could struggle again.

Remember last season: The key personnel is mostly different, but last season’s Mizzou-Florida box score reminds us that quarterback don’t have to play well for a team to win.

Mauk was 6-for-18 for 20 yards and an interception against Florida last season and the Tigers still won easily. The Gators outgained Mizzou 283 yards to 119, but lost 42-13 due in large part to six Florida turnovers.

That’s one of the more unusual results you can find, as Mizzou manufactured a variety of non-offensive touchdowns: a Marcus Murphy kickoff return, a Murphy punt return, a Markus Golden fumble return and a Darvin Ruise interception return. Murphy scored the Tigers’ lone offensive touchdown on a 5-yard run.

The moral of the story here is to take care of the football and keep it clean on special teams. Both teams have done a good job with turnovers – Florida is second in the SEC with a plus-6 turnover margin and Mizzou is fourth at plus-3 – but they have been below average in the return game. If this is a close game on Saturday, one of those areas might be a deciding factor.