GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida will hope it has saved its best for last because the Gators certainly have saved their toughest games for the end of the schedule.
The postponement and ultimate decision to move Florida’s game with LSU from Gainesville to Baton Rouge, La., now set for Nov. 19, made a daunting final stretch even more challenging.
But the good news is the No. 15-ranked Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) control their own destiny.
With Tennessee taking back-to-back losses at Texas A&M and home against Alabama, the Gators have claimed the top spot in the SEC East standings.
Now they just have to hold on to it.
After a bye this week, the Gators will meet Georgia in the teams’ annual rivalry showdown in Jacksonville, Fla. Then it’s off to Fayetteville, Ark., for a clash with an emerging Arkansas team that has been very hard to beat in November the last couple of years. And after its final home game Nov. 12 against South Carolina, Florida heads to LSU and then Florida State for a nonconference regular-season finale.
In the meantime, here are five key storylines for the Gators heading into that stretch:
1. Can Luke Del Rio settle in at quarterback?
After being hailed as the savior for Florida’s offensive woes by fans and at least one teammate, redshirt-sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio’s return to action Saturday did not go quite as hoped.
After missing two games with a knee injury, Del Rio looked rusty and off the mark while completing 18 of 38 passes for 236 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions in Florida’s 40-14 win over Missouri.
And truthfully, he could have had a few more picks while forcing a number of throws into tight coverage.
The 47.4 percent completion rate was well below his season average of 61.4 coming into the game and the 3 interceptions were more than the 2 he had combined through his first three starts.
So Del Rio probably deserves a pass for the rough outing. He’s still playing through the effects of that knee injury, wearing a bulky brace on his leg, and he certainly had shown some very positive signs earlier in the season.
The Gators were able to lean on their defense against Missouri, but they’re going to need more from Del Rio and the offense the rest of the way. He has two more weeks to rest up and clean up the issues that surfaced Saturday.
2. Getting healthy on D
Speaking of rest, no unit needed the bye week more than Florida’s defensive line.
The Gators played the last two games without senior nose tackle Joey Ivie (thumb) and redshirt-junior defensive end Jordan Sherit (knee) and with their other two starters banged up as well. Redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley (hand) has played through his injury while redshirt-senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (ankle, knee, hand) has been more limited.
Florida will hope to have its full complement of pieces up front for the Georgia game, which could make a still imposing defense even more disruptive.
Overall, Florida ranks third nationally in total defense, holding opponents to an average of 252 yards per game, and second in scoring defense (12 points per game allowed).
The Gators are also hoping for a quick return for senior linebacker Jarrad Davis, who left with an ankle injury Saturday. The team put out an update Sunday that Davis has a “badly sprained ankle” and there is no timetable for his return.
He has been the heartbeat of the defense this fall, leading the team with 48 total tackles along with 4 pass breakups, 3.5 tackles for loss and 3 quarterback hurries.
Injury Update: Jarrad Davis has a badly sprained ankle and there is no timetable for his return. #Gators
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) October 16, 2016
3. The best in the business
A primary reason the Gators have been so stingy defensively has been the play of junior cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor.
Never was that more apparent than Saturday, when both Tabor and Wilson returned interceptions for touchdowns in the span of 2 minutes, 11 seconds while also holding Missouri quarterback Drew Lock to 4-of-18 passing for 39 yards.
Those two have combined for 7 interceptions while making their case as the best cornerback tandem in college football.
Florida also ranks second nationally in pass defense, giving up just 132.8 yards per game. More impressively, only one team (Tennessee with 319) has reached 150 passing yards against the Gators.
It will be fun to see how the secondary — and Tabor and Wilson in particular — can keep this up as they raise their NFL draft stock higher and higher.
Just last year, Florida had two defensive backs go in the first round of the draft in cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (No. 11 overall) and safety Keanu Neal (No. 17).
There’s a chance they repeat that feat again, which would put even more weight behind that “DBU” moniker the Gators so embrace.
4. More from the OL
No position group for Florida has received more scrutiny this fall than the offensive line, and it’s only fair to highlight the group when it plays well.
Del Rio took some hard hits against Missouri, but he was only sacked once and it looked to be a much better performance from the offensive line overall as the Gators took advantage of running lanes all game on the way to a season-high 287 rushing yards.
Granted, that was against a Missouri defense that had given up 418 rushing yards its last time out against LSU, but watching freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor manhandle defenders was one of the highlights of the game Saturday.
Taylor and redshirt-junior center Cameron Dillard have graded out well all season. While the spotlight will be on Del Rio and his performance moving forward, his play will go hand-in-hand with the continued development of the left side of the line and the run-blocking of this unit overall.
Florida has been at its best when it can lean on its ground attack. That’s not rocket science, but it is the recipe for success moving forward.
5. LSU looming
Since that game with LSU was postponed two weekends ago due to the threat of Hurricane Matthew, it has hung over Florida like a dark cloud.
First it was the criticism of the SEC’s decision to indefinitely postpone the game rather than find another solution. Then it was the banter from all parties and the posturing by LSU athletic director Joe Alleva about the options to get it rescheduled. And ultimately, it was the insistence by LSU and the acquiescence by Florida to have the game moved to Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 19 as the Tigers refused to forfeit their home game that weekend.
Doesn’t it just feel like Florida’s season is destined to come down to that game now?
Sure, the Gators have to get past Georgia and Arkansas first, assuming Tennessee stays just a game back in the SEC East. But that showdown surely will remain a talking point and story line the rest of the way.