When a team loses a head coach in the middle of a season, "game keys" take on different dimensions. When a team loses a head coach in the middle of the season for reasons other than wins and losses, magnify that previous statement by 100. As Randy Shannon becomes interim coach and takes over for Jim McElwain, the first, second and third game keys for Florida -- if we're being brutally honest and reductionist about the matter -- boil down to one thing: caring deeply about playing well.
Players can't jump ship. They need to rally around themselves, more than anything else. The coaching staff needs to earn their trust, which is something manifested on game day, but which must be cultivated during the week of preparation.
If the players are fully invested in the program despite the inner turmoil and upheaval, that's more than half the battle. Being passionate and not depressed forms the necessary subtext for this game, but it's such an obvious subtext -- and not related to game tactics -- that it is merely a prelude. With that established, let's move into the true set of game keys for the Missouri Tigers:
1 -- PLAY MALIK ZAIRE
Doing this invites the possibility of struggle, but this season is already a trainwreck. Reward Zaire's willingness to transfer, but more than that, see what a package of plays tailored to his skills can do. Why shouldn't Florida offer opponents a curveball, a change of pace, and -- in the process -- give future opponents such as Florida State something to study on film?
Two other notes about playing Zaire: A) Making a bowl game is not something to risk everything to play for. A program in bad shape, in the midst of a transition, will often view a bowl game as a chore. It's not as though the bowl game will enable players to play a game under the offensive and defensive systems being used by the new (permanent) head coach. Young teams playing a first season under a new coach need a bowl game. A team in Florida's situation does not need to play in the St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26 or 27. Go ahead and play Zaire, even if that means finishing 5-7.
B ) The second note about Zaire is that Florida should want to give its roster playing time, spreading around the minutes and snaps so that more players can feel part of the team... which guards against more players mentally checking out of the season. If SEC East titles or New Year's Six bowls are at stake, stick with the elite players, but in this situation, distributing work to more players makes sense. The incoming coach can learn about more players, which is a way for the interim staff to pay it forward to the new staff and, in turn, earn respect inside the coaching industry.
2 -- CHALLENGE THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Missouri owns one of the weaker defenses in the SEC, so this is a game in which the Florida offensive line has a good chance to thrive. The best offenses in football, college and pro, will take shots down the field on 2nd and 1, knowing they can get a yard on 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 if needed. They can be aggressive in the knowledge that they can get the job done on more snaps if they have to take the extra time.
Florida is not in that position. The Gators have to start from scratch after being eviscerated by Georgia.
The offensive line -- now and also for its future -- needs to get back to basics and find a way to drive a vulnerable opponent off the ball. If Florida cannot pancake Missouri up front, it might as well go home. The Gators need to show their muscle, which is always the primary priority for a team which has hit rock bottom. Renewal on the gridiron begins with being able to punch a weak opponent in the mouth. Establishing leverage perks up everyone on the sideline and in the huddle. It is the most immediate way to turn frowns upside down and create a positive atmosphere throughout a roster. Florida shouldn't pass on 2nd and 1. It should try to pile-drive the ball and work relentlessly in the attempt to wear down Missouri.
3 - GUARD AGAINST THE DEEP BALL AND THE BIG PLAY
Missouri's offense has gotten better as the season moved along. The Tigers' deep passing game landed some downfield shots against Georgia's normally stout defense. Florida has to take those home runs away and force Missouri to incrementally move the ball down the field, especially on the ground. Nothing demoralizes an already discouraged team like giving up 70-yard shots early in a game. It takes discipline and commitment to a task to avoid giving up long balls. Florida's defense -- if it is fully invested in this game -- will not give Missouri many easy plays down the field. The Gators don't need to expect to dominate Missouri, but they must certainly force the Tigers to work very hard and earn everything they get.
If they fall short of that standard, they will probably feel embarrassed at game's end. After the week the Gators have had, Florida should want with all its might to avoid another embarrassing moment.