GAINESVILLE, Fla. — What once looked like a mismatch has suddenly become a game ripe with storylines and intrigue.
There was always going to be the Will Muschamp factor as South Carolina’s first-year head coach returns to The Swamp to face a Florida program he led from 2011-14.
The Gators’ quarterback quandary overshadows that now.
Coach Jim McElwain announced Monday that starter Luke Del Rio has an injured shoulder that will keep him out “a while.” He didn’t announce exactly how the No. 22 Gators (6-2, 4-2 SEC) will move forward at the position, although he said all three of the team’s remaining quarterbacks could be involved.
There’s also the rash of injuries the Gators have incurred in general and how that affects several position groups on the field.
Suddenly, South Carolina (5-4, 3-4), with the momentum of three straight wins, looks like more of an obstacle for Florida.
Here’s a closer look at all the storylines heading into the game Saturday:
1. What to do at QB?
Veteran Austin Appleby, the graduate transfer from Purdue who made two starts earlier this season with Del Rio sidelined, was set to get the first reps in practice Monday.
But McElwain is also considering the possibility of using one or both of the team’s true freshmen quarterbacks.
Neither Feleipe Franks nor Kyle Trask have played in a game yet, but all options are on the table.
So what should the Gators do?
While their College Football Playoff hopes were done in by that 31-10 loss at Arkansas last weekend, they still control their own fate in the race for the SEC East title and a spot in the conference championship game.
The eastern division may not generate much respect at this point, but for a second-year head coach still trying to win over the fan base, a second straight SEC championship game appearance is significant. Losing out to Tennessee or — gasp — Kentucky only raises more questions heading into the offseason.
So as much as many fans are eager to turn the page and get a glimpse of the future, McElwain owes its to himself and the team’s veteran players to go with the quarterback that gives the Gators the best chance to win in the short-term.
He may still decide that’s one of the freshmen — Franks, a highly-coveted 4-star recruit would likely have the edge over Trask — but Appleby should get every chance to earn the job this week.
Fans soured on him quickly earlier this fall. He had a phenomenal first half at Tennessee before struggling during the Gators’ second-half collapse in Knoxville. He ended up completing 23-of-39 passes for 296 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception overall in that game, showing the ability to make big plays downfield, before showing very little the next week in a narrow win over Vanderbilt (19-of-28, 144 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT).
The fact remains, though, that he has started 13 games in college (11 at Purdue). With so much still at stake for the Gators, it would be a tough call to turn everything over to an untested true freshman.
2. Muschamp makes his return
Coaches are no fun sometimes.
It would be refreshing to hear a guy speak bluntly and candidly in a situation like this, but Muschamp did everything he could to try to sell the idea that his return to Florida this week carries the same emotional intrigue as the Gamecocks’ meeting with Massachusetts last month.
Florida hired Muschamp, who grew up in Gainesville, to replace Urban Meyer. He lasted four seasons with the Gators, going 28-21 overall before being fired.
He guided the program to an 11-2 finish in 2012, but things quickly unraveled. The Gators went 4-8 the next year, losing to Georgia Southern and finishing with their worst record since 1979. After going 6-5 during the 2014 regular season, he was dismissed.
Muschamp looks to have South Carolina moving in the right direction now, though. After inheriting a 3-9 team, he has led the Gamecocks to three straight wins (including an upset of Tennessee). They’re now one win away from a bowl game.
It will be interesting to hear the crowd response Saturday as he returns to The Swamp. And no matter what he says, he isn’t convincing anyone when he says this game doesn’t carry some extra significance for him.
3. Depleted defense
Just a week ago the Florida defense was coming off a thorough dismantling of Georgia, staking its claim as one of the best in the country while ranking second nationally in points and yards allowed.
Then they were hung out to dry Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark., by a feeble Florida offensive performance.
Arkansas kept the Gators’ defense on the field for more than 39 minutes, wearing them down and beating them up.
Linebacker Alex Anzalone broke his arm, fellow linebacker Jarrad Davis re-injured his bum ankle and defensive end CeCe Jefferson hurt his foot.
McElwain said Monday that Davis would likely join Anzalone as a spectator this week, and if that ends up being the case, the Gators have some big unknowns at a very key position.
True freshman David Reese and redshirt-freshman Kylan Johnson would likely fill those voids, leaving the Gators especially thin on depth at the position.
Reese and Johnson have had their moments and possess plenty of potential, but Anzalone and Davis were responsible for communicating calls to the rest of the defense. That responsibility will now have to fall on the young guys.
4. Introducing Jake Bentley
South Carolina’s three-game winning streak has coincided with the coaches decision to turn to true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley.
Bentley isn’t just a freshman. He graduated from high school after his junior year to enroll at South Carolina. That being said, he’s actually older than South Carolina’s fellow true freshman quarterback, Brandon McIlwain.
But Bentley’s adjusting to college football just fine.
The 6-foot-3 rookie from Opelika, Ala., has completed 54-of-74 passes (73 percent) for 622 yards, 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions through three games.
He had touchdown passes of 17 and 35 yards while completing 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards in that upset win over Tennessee, and he was even better last week against Missouri while completing 22-of-28 passes for 254 yards and 2 TDs.
While Florida’s defense is ailing, its secondary is just fine. All six of the Gators’ top defensive backs have interceptions this fall — with cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson combining for 7 — and half of those DBs have pick-6s.
This will no doubt be the best test Bentley has faced in his young career.
5. Surveying the East
Again, for all the hand-wringing over the Gators’ performance last weekend and all the uncertainty at quarterback, this team still leads the SEC East at 4-2.
Kentucky is in the mix at 4-3, but the Wildcats would lose a tiebreaker to Florida if it came to that. The Gators also own the tiebreaker over 3-4 Georgia and could knock the 3-4 Gamecocks out of the race this weekend.
Their main challenger remains 2-3 Tennessee, which is in the only one of those teams with the tiebreaker edge over the Gators from their head-to-head win in September.
The Volunteers close the season with three very winnable games against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
That means the Gators have zero margin for error at this point. After South Carolina this week, they close conference play at LSU next weekend in what looks to be a daunting matchup.
Florida would have to win out or hope Tennessee stumbles yet again, but any scenario that gets the Gators to the SEC championship game has to start with a win this weekend.