COLUMBIA, Mo. — In a year when the job security of more than a third of the Southeastern Conference’s coaches has been questioned, Florida became the first school to fire its coach last week.
The Gators parted ways with Jim McElwain and announced defensive coordinator Randy Shannon as their interim coach following last week’s loss to Georgia. McElwain led the Gators to consecutive SEC championship game appearances in his two full years as coach, but Florida went just 4-9 against ranked teams in his tenure.
Florida’s players were surprised by the change but say they’ve made it a mission to block out the distraction this week. Wide receiver Brandon Powell is among the Gators going through their second coaching switch — following Will Muschamp’s firing in 2014.
“We’ve been trying to explain it to all the younger guys about staying focused,” Powell said. “You’ve got to control what you can control.”
The Gators’ first game under Shannon comes Saturday at Missouri (3-5, 0-4 SEC), and it comes after Florida (3-4, 3-3) has dropped consecutive games to Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia. In those losses, the Gators averaged just 13.3 points — a disappointment in an offensively challenged season that’s seen the school rank 113th nationally with an average of 337 yards per game.
Shannon opened up the quarterback competition this week and announced graduate transfer Malik Zaire as the starter Thursday. Last week, Zaire led the Gators’ only touchdown drive in relief of Feleipe Franks, who threw for just 30 yards and an interception on 7-for-19 passing.
“Best man should play,” running back Mark Thompson said. “Competition every week. How you practice is how you’re going to play.”
Missouri players dismissed the notion that a new Florida coach will make their jobs easier. The Tigers lost 42-7 to LSU last season in coach Ed Orgeron’s debut.
“Losing a coach doesn’t do much to a team, especially when you’ve got guys out there that know their job,” Missouri quarterback Drew Lock said. “There’s not much difference in the team that’s coming here on Saturday.”
Some other things to watch as Shannon, who went 28-22 as head coach at Miami from 2007-10, looks for his first win at Florida:
MISSING DAVIS: Florida leading rusher Malik Davis was ruled out for the season with a knee injury Monday. Davis hurt his right knee in the Gators’ 42-7 defeat to Georgia last week. He leads Florida with 526 yards rushing. Lamical Perine and Thompson will likely split carries against the Tigers.
RED ZONE TARGET: Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam has scored five touchdowns in the last two games. Okwuegbunam and receiver J’Mon Moore lead Missouri with seven touchdowns each, and Okwuegbunam has compiled 193 yards on just 15 catches this season.
CLEAN-UP DUTY: A shoulder injury has knocked Missouri running back Damarea Crockett out for an indefinite time. In his place, Larry Rountree III, Ish Witter and Dawson Downing have piled up 358 rushing yards in Missouri’s last two games.
OFFENSE REFUELED: Missouri’s offense struggled mightily early in the season, scoring a combined 30 points against South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn. But the Tigers have rebounded nicely, averaging 45.5 points and 530 yards of offense in their last four games.
While the prospect of winning the division this year seems unlikely, Florida and Missouri have combined to win each of the past four SEC Eastern Division titles. The teams lost in the SEC Championship game all four times.