GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida already controlled its own destiny in the SEC East, and now it has some leeway on its quest to a second straight division title as well.
With Tennessee taking a third conference loss Saturday, the closest competition for the Gators (6-1, 4-1 SEC) is now … Kentucky (5-3, 4-2).
No. 10 Florida simply has to take care of business at this point. That’s the message coach Jim McElwain is preaching to his team as it prepares to head to Arkansas (5-3, 1-3) this week.
To that end, here are the five key storylines heading into that matchup:
1. More from Luke Del Rio
If this sounds familiar, well, yeah.
Quarterback is the most scrutinized position, especially at Florida given the program’s struggles at that spot for so long.
Luke Del Rio managed the game (15-of-25 passing for 131 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) in the Gators’ 24-10 win over Georgia as the defense led the way, shutting down the Bulldogs and setting up opportune field position for the offense time and again.
Florida can win that way, but there’s also no reason these Gators can’t a complete team.
The pieces are there.
In Antonio Callaway (27 catches for 441 yards and 2 TDs), promising freshman Tyrie Cleveland, Brandon Powell, two capable tight ends in DeAndre Goolsby (when healthy) and C’yontai Lewis and a host of talented young receivers, there are playmakers in the passing game.
With Jordan Scarlett (468 rushing yards, 6 TDs) and Lamical Perine (333-1), there are playmakers in the rushing game.
The offensive line is even showing some improvement.
If Del Rio can bring just a little more to the quarterback spot, then the Gators would really be rolling.
This offense doesn’t have to morph into Texas Tech, but a few more plays over the middle and on intermediate routes would only open things up more for the rushing attack.
And what better time to take a step forward than against an Arkansas team that ranks 92nd nationally in giving up an average of 31.4 points per game?
2. That defense, though
So that is Plan A. Plan B is to keep relying on a dominant defense that has staked its claim as one of the best in the country.
The Gators rank second nationally in total defense (239.9 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (11.7 points allowed per game). They are one of only two teams (along with Army) to rank in the top 10 in both pass defense and rush defense and are the only FBS team to hold six different opponents to fewer than 150 passing yards.
This is a championship-caliber defense from back to front.
And it faces an intriguing matchup from Arkansas, which despite its last performance, has one of the most balanced offenses in the SEC.
Quarterback Austin Allen ranks third in the conference with 2,048 passing yards and running back Rawleigh Williams III ranks fourth on the ground with 807 rushing yards.
Allen is expected to play after leaving the Razorbacks’ game two weekends ago with a knee injury and resting during their bye.
Despite a humbling 56-3 loss to Auburn its last time out, Arkansas is averaging 30.9 points overall this season.
It should be a good test for the Gators’ defense and another opportunity for that unit to assert itself as one of the nation’s best.
3. Don’t dwell on one performance
One of McElwain’s directives this week will be to make sure his team is not putting any stock in Arkansas’ dismal performance against Auburn.
Before that shellacking, this game looked to be one of the toughest on Florida’s schedule. At one point, the Razorbacks were considered one of the better teams in the SEC.
Did that all change that quickly?
Well, maybe. But the Gators can’t think that way.
Arkansas built its resume with wins over TCU (41-38 in overtime) and Ole Miss (34-30) when both teams were highly ranked. Neither is in the Top 25 anymore.
The truth is the Razorbacks struggled against upper-echelon competition, losing big to Texas A&M (45-24), Alabama (49-30) and Auburn.
Florida is the better team at this point, but that’s no guarantee.
4. What to do with the running backs?
After playing much of the season with a four-headed running back committee, the Gators were down to two last weekend.
That left Scarlett (career-high 26 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown) and Perine (15-33) to pick up the slack.
Fans had been clamoring to see those two get a larger share of the carries. The result, though, was a combined 3.07 yards per carry between the two of them against a solid Georgia defense.
McElwain said Thompson will be back this week along with the Gators’ running back by committee.
It will be interesting, though, to see if Thompson reclaims the same share of the workload he had prior to his suspension.
5. The final stretch
Florida is no doubt positioned well, for the reasons listed above, but now it’s time to close.
The Gators will be reminded over this final month of what happened last year. A strong start unraveled at the very end as the offense went ice cold down the stretch and the team stumbled to the finish line, ultimately losing three straight games (including the SEC championship game and bowl game).
The test for these Gators is to build on their current momentum while playing three of their final four games on the road.
It starts at Arkansas, which has proven a tough road environment for SEC teams in November the last couple of years, and after a home game with South Carolina the Gators will finish at LSU and at Florida State (non-conference).
The players say they aren’t getting the national respect they deserve. Well, here’s their chance over these next four weeks to go out and earn it.