GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jalen Tabor thinks the national perception of Florida’s football team is off, skewed by one bad half at Tennessee and not helped by some other less-than-dominant performances.
That’s not a true representation of the No 18-ranked Gators, the star cornerback says.
“They think we skipped out of LSU, they think we got blown out by Tennessee, they think we ain’t smashed Vanderbilt like we were supposed to. UMass hung around. So that’s probably the perception they think,” Tabor said earlier this week.
Well, Florida has since silenced the critics who alleged they were getting off easy with that indefinite postponement of the LSU showdown. The game will indeed be made up on Nov. 19 and will move from Gainesville to Baton Rouge, La.
As for the rest, the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) will get their chance to change some opinions as they return to action Saturday against Missouri (2-3, 0-2) in their homecoming game at The Swamp.
And if they are the team Tabor believes them to be, what better opportunity to make a statement than coming off a weekend break rested and ready to face a Tigers team that got demolished by LSU in its last game?
“We’ve played pretty good football except for one half of one game. One half of football and we’re probably one of the best teams in the country,” Tabor said. “If you take away one half of football, no doubt in my mind.”
Tabor might be certain of that, but these Gators still have plenty of convincing to do.
More so on the offensive side where they have produced just 20 points and two touchdowns over their last six quarters, spanning that second-half collapse at Tennessee and a lackluster 13-6 win at Vanderbilt.
Starting quarterback Luke Del Rio will return from a two-game injury absence and test his sprained knee Saturday.
Fans and teammates alike are projecting him as the answer to the offense’s woes, but that is yet to be seen.
Del Rio was very good in a Week 2 thrashing of Kentucky, passing for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he wasn’t nearly as impressive the following week against North Texas (14-of-25 passing for 186 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) before getting hurt.
Now he’s had three-plus weeks with no game action.
“I’m looking for obviously improvement in all phases,” coach Jim McElwain said, spreading the onus to the entire offense — not just the quarterback. “… We’ll start Luke and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
Running back Jordan Scarlett spoke candidly earlier in the week about the advantage he feels Del Rio brings to the offense over backup Austin Appleby because of his deeper knowledge of and comfort within the system and his ability to make reads and adjustments before the snap.
“I feel like we can make a good statement coming back. We’ve got Luke Del Rio coming back,” Scarlett said plainly. “Not knocking Appleby at all, it’s just that Luke is a little bit more comfortable with the offense and understanding (reads) and stuff like that. …
“We’re coming out trying to make a statement, especially offensively, just to show everybody in the SEC that we’re coming to play no matter who it is.”
If the Gators needed to draw upon yet further motivation, they could also look back to the last time the Tigers visited The Swamp.
Missouri pulled off a 42-13 win over Florida in 2014 in improbable fashion while totaling just 119 offensive yards. The Tigers got a 96-yard Marcus Murphy touchdown on the opening kickoff, later added an 82-yard punt return touchdown from Murphy, a 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown and a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown.
That has been discussed this week among Florida’s veteran players who were around at the time.
“J.D. (linebacker Jarrad Davis) brought it up. That was just embarrassing how we came out,” Tabor said. “Man, homecoming, they returned the opening kickoff. I mean, they had four non-offensive touchdowns. Shhh, that’s tough. They only scored 13 points on offense. Kickoff return, a punt return, an interception return and a fumble return. I mean, sheesh.”
McElwain was still the coach at Colorado State back then and hasn’t found the need to bring up that debacle to his team this week.
For that matter, he is hoping the Gators’ motivation level is high enough as is without needing to look that far in the rearview mirror.
It’s been two weeks since they’ve played a game and more than a month since they’ve looked good for all four quarters of one.
“If that’s what it takes for them to get excited, then God I hope it is (on their minds). Can you bring that up to them the next time you talk to them?” McElwain quipped in his familiar sarcastic way.
“That’s what you don’t understand. Motivation should be driven from within to go do the best you can.”
While Tabor said he feels the Gators haven’t shown their full potential yet, he believes they are right where they need to be.
Regardless of what anyone else might think.
“We take care of business, I mean, we’ve got everything we want in front of us,” he said. “We all know whoever wins (the SEC championship game) in Atlanta is going to be in the Final Four, unless you have two losses. So everything is in front of us. We’ve just got to keep doing what we we’ve been doing, and just have fun when we’re out here.”