GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After two lackluster showings the last two weekends at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Florida coach Jim McElwain said what many Gator fans were probably thinking as well.
“First off, guys, it’s good to be done with the state of Tennessee,” he said to open his weekly Monday news conference.
The No. 18-ranked Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) followed their second-half collapse against the Vols with an uninspiring 13-6 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Their return to The Swamp this weekend doesn’t mean anything gets easier for Florida.
The Gators host a revitalized LSU team this Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after the Tigers (3-2, 2-1) rolled to a 42-7 win at Missouri on the strength of 418 rushing yards and 634 offensive yards in all — a program record for an SEC game.
It was LSU’s first game since firing longtime head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The players clearly rallied around interim head coach Ed Orgeron and new play-caller Steve Ensminger.
Florida has to contend with all of that this week while also dealing with a spate of untimely injuries.
The Gators may get starting quarterback Luke Del Rio back from a knee injury, but there are plenty of other issues they have to address heading into a pivotal high-stakes showdown.
Aside from the potential effects of Hurricane Matthew, here are five storylines to monitor leading up to the game with LSU.
1. SEC championship hopes on the line?
That loss at Tennessee two weeks ago put Florida in a hole in its quest for a second straight SEC East title.
The Gators nearly got some much-needed help as Georgia looked to have a win all but secured over Tennessee last weekend until Josh Dobbs’ last-second Hail Mary touchdown to Jauan Jennings kept the Vols unbeaten.
Tennessee has to go on the road to Texas A&M this week and then hosts Alabama after that so the standings could certainly still change. However, if Florida is going to overtake the top spot it almost certainly has to win the rest of its conference games.
There is no margin for error at this point.
Beyond that, the Gators needs to prove they can beat a team like LSU. After the last two weeks, that’s not so clear.
2. The return of Luke Del Rio … possibly
McElwain acknowledged this was the game Del Rio was targeting all along for his return from a knee injury that sidelined him the last two weeks.
That said, the coach needs to see how his injured quarterback responds physically in practice this week.
Del Rio has dressed for the last two games and was available as an emergency option last weekend, but he hasn’t done much in practice since the injury and was going to be eased in as this week progresses.
There’s certainly a good chance Del Rio will play Saturday, but an official decision from McElwain likely won’t come until later in the week.
Fifth-year senior Austin Appleby started the last two games for the Gators and has completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 470 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception overall. The offense has scored just 20 points over the last six quarters, though, and Del Rio won the job initially because he had a better command and knowledge of the offense.
In three starts, Del Rio completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 672 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, albeit against weaker competition.
There may not be a big difference in the physical ability of the two quarterbacks, but the coaches’ confidence in Del Rio and his command of the playbook could help the offense take a step forward.
3. Depleted D-line
McElwain delivered a discouraging injury report Monday, which indicated the four defensive linemen who started Florida’s first four games would all be either out, limited or ailing Saturday against LSU.
Senior defensive tackle Joey Ivie was already sidelined with a thumb injury that is expected to keep him out 4-5 weeks. Redshirt-junior defensive end Jordan Sherit did not play after a game-time decision at Vanderbilt and will now be out longer as he gets his knee scoped. Redshirt-senior Bryan Cox Jr. came off the bench for the first time last week and is playing through an unspecified leg injury that sounds like it is definitely limiting him. And redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley is questionable with a finger injury, but he insisted after the last game that he would be able to play.
Either way, the Gators are going to be stretching their depth against what might be their toughest matchup up front all season.
How the defensive line performs could be the story of the game — one way or the other — for Florida.
4. Leonard Fournette and company
The most impressive thing about LSU’s 418-yard rushing performance last week against Missouri is that the Tigers did it without Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette, who was out with an ankle injury.
Sophomore Derrius Guice rushed for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns on 17 carries and junior Darrel Williams added 130 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 carries to lead the way in that romp.
Regardless, it’s clear the Tigers are going to be quite a challenge with whoever is in the backfield.
Overall, LSU ranks 21st nationally in rushing this season at 237 yards per game, but that attack could be even more potent with a new play-caller if last Saturday was any indication.
Florida actually ranks 11th nationally in rush defense, holding opponents to an average of 90.6 yards per game, but those stats are skewed by games against Massachusetts and North Texas. The Gators gave up 147 rushing yards to Vanderbilt last week and will be tested even further now with their depleted unit up front.
5. Offensive line woes
A week after taking up for his beleaguered offensive line and shielding the unit from blame in that loss at Tennessee, McElwain was more pointed in his comments about the group after the narrow win at Vanderbilt.
While Del Rio’s potential return Saturday could give the offense a jolt, the Gators have shown so far they are only as good as their protection and blocking up front.
The offensive line will get sophomore guard Tyler Jordan back in a full capacity after he returned from an eye injury in a limited role last week. That will help. The Gators could be losing junior left tackle David Sharpe, though, as he is questionable with a shoulder injury.
Sharpe has had his struggles, so the bigger issue if he can’t play might be in regard to depth.
In that scenario, Florida would likely move sophomore Martez Ivey from left guard to left tackle, move Jordan from right guard to left guard and let sophomore Fred Johnson continue to fill in at right guard.
Whatever the combination, the group needs to be better if Florida is going to improve offensively.