GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After two weekends off in the last month, Florida gets no more breaks the rest of the way.
The No. 14 Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) close the regular-season with a grueling five-game stretch, needing to play their best football of the year to hold on to their narrow lead atop the SEC East standings.
It starts Saturday in Jacksonville with Florida’s annual rivalry game against Georgia (4-3, 2-3).
Here are the five storylines to focus on leading up to that matchup:
1. The status of star linebacker Jarrad Davis
Davis left Florida’s 40-14 win over Missouri two weekends ago with a scary-looking ankle injury. The good news was that it was neither season-ending, nor a high ankle sprain.
But there is still no word yet as to his status for the game this weekend.
Gators coach Jim McElwain is anything but revealing when it comes to injuries, so it’s unclear if Davis has a legitimate chance to play or if McElwain is just putting off any sort of announcement or indication till the end of the week.
Florida safety Marcus Maye seemed at least somewhat optimistic Monday, noting that Davis was working around the clock to rehab and treat his ankle.
What exactly does Davis mean to the Gators’ defense?
Well, there is the tangible data — that he leads the team with 48 tackles, is tied for the team lead with 4 pass break-ups and also has 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 3 quarterback hurries.
And then there are the intangibles — that he is regarded as the pulse of the defense, the guy in the middle who gets everything going and sets the tone.
It would be nice to have a guy like that against a Georgia team with a capable ground attack.
The Bulldogs rank 44th nationally with 195.6 rushing yards per game. While they were held to just 62 yards on the ground against Vanderbilt their last time out, they rumbled for 326 rushing yards against South Carolina, 230 against Ole Miss and 289 against North Carolina this fall.
Nick Chubb (116 carries for 586 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Sony Michel (73-358-1) are capable of leaving their imprint on a game the same way Davis is when healthy.
If the senior linebacker can’t go, the Gators will turn to true freshman David Reese, who played well in relief of Davis in that Missouri game while totaling 6 tackles.
The Gators’ don’t have great depth at that spot, though, and anything they can get from Davis will be a plus.
2. Time to shine for Luke Del Rio
It seemed fair to give redshirt-sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio a pass for his lackluster performance against Missouri two weekends ago.
He was coming back from a knee injury, playing with a bulky brace and surely rusty four weeks removed from his last game action.
He attributed his struggles to bad footwork while completing just 18-of-38 passes for 236 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions.
That’s fine. But Del Rio still has plenty to prove in general.
He has only made four starts in his collegiate career. Nobody truly knows what kind of quarterback he’s going to be, but he’ll answer that question in a hurry as the Gators need him to be a steady leader and consistent playmaker each week the rest of the way.
Del Rio enters this week with a 57.6 completion percentage, 998 passing yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
He could assuage a lot of concerns for this offense by coming out and playing well against Georgia.
And that would be a great story, given his background growing up watching his dad Jack Del Rio coach the Jaguars from 2003-11 inside the same stadium the Gators will play in on Saturday.
3. DBU ready for Georgia QB Jacob Eason
There is nothing Florida’s star junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson enjoy more than a quarterback who will throw the ball downfield and test them.
It will be interesting to see how confident Georgia feels about freshman quarterback Jacob Eason’s ability to do that Saturday.
Tabor and Wilson are fresh off dueling interception returns for touchdown against Missouri and have combined for 7 interceptions already this fall.
They might even have a little extra motivation this week after being glaringly omitted as semfinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, which honors the top defensive back in college football.
And as Maye, Florida’s redshirt-senior safety, noted, the Gators as a whole are eager to face Eason after the 5-star recruit chose Georgia over Florida.
McElwain called Eason “the future of the SEC” on Monday, and the rookie has certainly shown some great promise. But he’s been inconsistent as well.
He was held to just 29 yards on 5-of-17 passing in Week 6 against South Carolina before bouncing back with 346 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt. Overall, Eason has a pair of 300-yard passing games this fall as he also went for 308 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT against Missouri in Week 3.
4. Get the ground game going
While Del Rio had his struggles in that Missouri game, Florida nonetheless had the blueprint for offensive success while rushing for 287 yards on 7.4 yards per carry.
That’s the way this Gators offense needs to play, leaning on the ground attack to set up the passing game and minimize the pressure on Del Rio.
Sophomore Jordan Scarlett (12 carries for 101 yards and 1 TD) and true freshman Lamical Perine (11-106) each topped 100 yards in that game, and those two have been terrific most of this season.
McElwain said Monday he was still committed to the running back-by-committee approach, and even junior Mark Thompson (10-65) ran well against Missouri.
Whatever the combination, for Florida to be a great — or even a very good — offense, it has to consistently move the ball on the ground like it did against the Tigers and like it has at other times this season.
5. Rivalry stakes
While Florida foremost needs a win Saturday to support its push for a second straight SEC East title, this would be one of the biggest games on the schedule no matter where the Gators or Bulldogs stood in the standings.
This rivalry series goes back to 1915 and is hugely important to both teams.
Right now, Georgia leads the all-time series 49-42-2, though Florida has won the last two meetings — by convincing margins of 38-20 in 2014 and 27-3 last year.
Known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” for the massive crowd that flocks to the neutral-site showdown, the annual rivalry game moved to Jacksonville in 1933 and has been played there every year since with exception to a war time break in 1943, a 1994 game in Gainesville and a 1995 game in Athens, Ga.
And for an added storyline, the teams are now led by a pair of coaches who worked together at Alabama. McElwain was the offensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide from 2008-11 while new Georgia coach Kirby Smart was the defensive coordinator throughout that stretch and all the way up through last season.
If all goes as planned for both schools, those two could be launching a fun rivalry of their own this year.