Tribune Mizzou athletics reporter Eric Blum spoke with Pat Dooley of The Gainesville Sun ahead of Missouri's game against Florida on Saturday at Faurot Field.

Dooley has covered Florida athletics for more than 30 years. He provided his thoughts on this year’s Gator team, the best Southeastern Conference athlete he’s watched and much more.

The conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Blum: Where do you think the Florida football program currently stands?

Dooley: This is something I said before the season: I felt like their roster was an issue because Florida had lost so many players to the transfer portal and to injuries, so their numbers were down already. Then the Gators had more injuries and more guys leave. I think Florida head coach Dan Mullen said last week that they are in the 60s in terms of number of scholarship players that could play. It’s showed at times. I think Mullen has done a great job with it, though. He’s continuing to build momentum toward the future. I think the future is bright for this program, but they’ve got to build it through recruiting classes. This year’s team to be 8-2 is pretty remarkable, and at the same time, they’ve got to finish strong like the Gators did last year. If they can do that, it’s going to be that much more impressive, because in theory, if they win both games and they win a bowl game, they’ll win more games than they did a year ago. If you lose to Missouri, Florida State or to both — and I don’t expect either of those games to be easy — then Florida has taken a step back. These last games will show exactly where they’re at.

Blum: After losing to Georgia but then blowing out Vanderbilt, does Florida have momentum coming to Columbia?

Dooley: The whole thing about the Vanderbilt game was to get an edge back after losing it against Georgia, giving up 12 third-down conversions, and the Gators did that. But Vanderbilt is terrible. Forget about Georgia State beating Tennessee, Vanderbilt beating anybody is a stunning result with the team I saw here, much less Missouri, possibly the surprise of the year in the SEC. It was good for Florida to get their edge back and have some fun. We went into this year knowing that the offensive line was going to be the biggest question with starting four new players. One of those players got yelled at and benched against Georgia and then quit the team. It’s been a weakness. The Gators haven’t run the ball. It’s almost like Washington State. The Gators throw the ball all over the place and they’ve found a way to win eight games. Mullen has done a remarkable job coaching with what he’s got. Defensively, Florida has been spotty. (The games against) LSU and Georgia were embarrassing the way they played defense, the first part of South Carolina was awful. But Florida also has three shutouts this year and is ranked in the top 10, just like Missouri is, in defense. It’s been a weird year in that regard. The Gators deserve where they’re ranked in the College Football Playoff rankings, but they’re not a great team and never felt like a CFP team.

Blum: Despite Missouri’s recent offensive struggles, what do you see as the path to victory for the Tigers?

Dooley: I think the key for Missouri is to play from ahead because that’s what Florida wants to do. That’s the goal. It allows the Gators to be more creative with their play calling, it allows them to take more chances and they coach a lot better when they’re playing from ahead. They’ve made comebacks in the fourth quarter. They have six wins from behind in the fourth quarter under Mullen. I’ve been there when Missouri gets it rolling and that’s been the pattern against Florida — if it gets it going, Florida has a hard time. It’s not going to be the loudest crowd in the world and it’s going to be a cold day and it’s going to be hard for Florida to come back if it does fall behind.

Blum: Who do you think is the best athlete to come through Florida in your time on the beat — and in the conference as a whole?

Dooley: The best athlete I think to ever play here was Percy Harvin — not the best player, Tim Tebow was on a different level — but Harvin was the best athlete I’ve ever seen in college football, to be honest. Nobody had that physical upper body and could run like a deer and had that first step to break through. It was a fascinating three years with him here, and he was in the perfect offense for it because they ran him a lot even though he was a wide receiver. Herschel Walker and Tebow were the two best players I’ve ever seen. Walker was the most dominant player I’ve ever seen because every play was about him, whether they ran him or faked it to him.

Blum: The spread as of Thursday favors Florida by 8 1/2 points. Do you think that's fair? And if so, what’s your final prediction for the game?

Dooley: I would think Missouri covers. But I think the gamblers are staying away from this game because the Tigers have been so schizophrenic and Florida is good enough to win this game easy, but vulnerable and fragile enough to lose this game. I think this is one to stay away from. I think Florida will find a way to win this game. I think the Gators know what they’re playing for even though people say the season is over with the loss to Georgia. It isn't. They can still get to a New Year’s Six bowl and win more games than they did a year ago. And who knows what happens at Auburn (vs. Georgia) on Saturday?

eblum@columbiatribune.com