GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It’s time to stop rehashing, reacting and reflecting on the SEC’s decision to postpone Florida’s game with LSU, and time to focus on the game the Gators are actually about to play with Missouri.
By virtue of the unanticipated weekend off, quarterback Luke Del Rio has now had more than three full weeks since his knee injury to receive treatment and get ready to play.
He’s back to taking the first-team reps for the No. 18 Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) and will return to action Saturday as the Tigers (2-3, 0-2) visit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
As a primer for that matchup, here’s a closer look at Del Rio’s return and the other key storylines for Florida this week:
1. Back to normal on offense
After the Gators turned to backup Austin Appleby the last two games, Del Rio is ready to go again.
In his typical indirect way, coach Jim McElwain didn’t specifically say the redshirt-sophomore quarterback is starting. But that can be inferred as he noted that Del Rio was ready to play against LSU and would have taken the first-team reps last Thursday in practice had the game not been postponed.
The Gators will also have their full starting offensive line intact as junior left tackle David Sharpe is not expected to be limited by the shoulder injury that troubled him last week and sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan is ready for a full workload after missing two games with an eye injury and playing in a limited role in his return against Vanderbilt.
All of that is good news for the Gators, but we still don’t really know what this offense is going to be.
Florida struggled in the opener against Massachusetts, looked terrific in a 45-7 win over Kentucky and then was not all that sharp in Week 3 against North Texas even before Del Rio went down with the knee injury.
After a terrific first half at Tennessee with Appleby leading the offense to a short-lived 21-0 lead, the Gators have scored just 20 points and 2 touchdowns over their most recent six quarters.
In terms of raw ability and even statistically speaking, there may not be much difference between Del Rio (61.4-percent completion rate, 762 yards, 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions in three starts) and Appleby (61.1-percent, 470 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT in two starts).
As has been touted since the preseason, Del Rio won that job in large part because of his command of the offense after having an extra year on campus to learn the system.
That’s the reason to hope his return translates into more points and yards for the Gators.
And as Del Rio stated himself Monday, he doesn’t think the offense is far off from being more productive.
He’ll get a chance to prove it Saturday.
2. Give Scarlett a chance
Most observers would agree that sophomore Jordan Scarlett has been Florida’s top running back this season.
The Gators continue to use a four-headed running-back-by-committee approach, but it may be time to see how Scarlett responds to a heavier workload.
Through five games, he has a team-high 274 rushing yards in 55 carries (5.0 yards per attempt) and 4 touchdowns. Analysis by Pro Football Focus shows that he is also breaking far more tackles than the Gators’ other rushers.
Junior Mark Thompson (47-197-2), freshman Lamical Perine (37-194-1) and sophomore Jordan Cronkrite (23-106-1) all continue to get turns in the running back rotation, and certainly there is a need and role for multiple backs.
But it would be interesting to see how Scarlett fared with more consistent carries.
3. Vulnerable Missouri defense?
Missouri had a bye last weekend, which gave the Tigers some much-needed time to heal mentally and address some obvious issues after allowing LSU to rush for 418 yards and pile up 634 total offensive yards two weeks ago.
Even more amazing, LSU did all that damage with its second and third-string running backs leading the way as star Leonard Fournette rested an injured ankle.
What’s interesting is that Missouri had only allowed 527 rushing yards over its first four games (131.75 per game) — including holding Georgia to 101 yards on 38 carries and stifling an overmatched Delaware State team to 44 yards on 26 carries.
So what happened against LSU and can the Gators take advantage in the same way?
McElwain suggested that Missouri looked caught off guard by the spread looks LSU was using that game and expects the defense will be well prepared for Florida after having two weeks to get ready.
That may well be, but a team doesn’t give up 418 rushing yards to an opponent (and 241 to West Virginia) without having some legitimate vulnerabilities.
4. Defensive backs in the spotlight
Florida’s star cornerback duo of juniors Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor are surely eager for this matchup.
Missouri sophomore quarterback Drew Lock leads the SEC with 1,675 passing yards and ranks ninth nationally with 335 passing yards per game.
The Gators, meanwhile, are tied for the SEC lead and rank among the national leaders with 8 interceptions, led by 3 from Tabor and 2 from Wilson.
The matchups in the secondary will surely be some of the most intriguing Saturday.
Junior J’Mon Moore leads the Tigers with 27 catches for 450 yards and 6 touchdowns as Lock’s favorite target.
5. Keeping tabs on Tennessee
Maybe we’re not totally done talking about the indefinite postponement of that LSU game and the need to get it rescheduled.
If Tennessee loses at home to Alabama on Saturday and Florida wins, the Vols would drop behind the Gators in the SEC East standings with their second loss.
That would put Florida in control of its destiny, and the demands from others in the conference (like, say, Tennessee coach Butch Jones) to get the LSU game rescheduled will only get louder.