BATON ROUGE, La. — The question this deep into the season remains what to make of this Florida football team?
Are the No. 21 Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC) the team that demolished Kentucky and Missouri and looked pretty darn good against Georgia and South Carolina? Are they the team that wilted on the road at Tennessee and crumbled at Arkansas?
Or a little of both?
That will be determined Saturday as the Gators visit No. 16 LSU (6-3, 4-2), looking to prove they can match up against teams in the top half of the conference, looking to show they can perform in a tough road environment and, of course, looking to clinch the SEC East.
Here’s a thorough look at how the teams stack up heading into Saturday.
Florida: The Gators got a spark from backup Austin Appleby last Saturday as he again stepped in with starter Luke Del Rio sidelined by a shoulder injury. Making his third start of the season and the first since early October, he completed 17-of-21 passes for 201 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception while also mixing in 34 rushing yards and a fumbled snap exchange. It was a mixed bag of good and bad, but Appleby’s performance was mostly encouraging as the Gators moved the football like they haven’t in weeks. He has the ability to elevate this offense, but he was mostly limited to screen passes and other safe throws. That may not be enough against this LSU team.
LSU: Like Appleby, the Tigers start a Purdue transfer at quarterback in Danny Etling. In seven starts and eight games overall, he has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,378 yards, 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He’s a game manager in the truest sense of the term. Last week at Arkansas, Etling completed 10-of-16 passes for 157 yards. Against Alabama the week before, he connected on 11-of-24 passes for 92 yards and an interception. He is merely a facilitator for the Tigers’ offense.
Florida: It looks like Jordan Scarlett has finally earned the opportunity to show that he can be a true lead back for the Gators. He rushed 20 times for a career-high 134 yards last week, leaving the rest of Florida’s running back committee to divvy up a handful of carries. Scarlett has been terrific all season while totaling 617 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns, showing the ability to break tackles and create yards after contact. He should remain a featured element of the offense.
LSU: Everybody knows about LSU’s running backs by this point. Leonard Fournette might be running away with the Heisman Trophy if he didn’t miss three games because of injury. Even still, he’s tallied 803 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. That includes a highlight performance of 284 yards and 3 touchdowns against Ole Miss. He also scored 3 TDs last week at Arkansas, rushing for 98 yards on 17 attempts. Meanwhile, his injury opened the door of the emergence of Derrius Guice (881 yards, 9 TDs). Guice rumbled for 252 yards and 2 touchdowns at Arkansas, marking his fourth game with at least 150 yards on the ground.
Florida: Antonio Callaway remains Florida’s best offensive playmaker even if the Gators have been unsuccessful in utilizing him of late. He leads the team with 35 catches for 533 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he hasn’t topped 4 catches or 48 yards in a game since Week 4. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and Appleby have to find a way to get him more involved going forward. The Gators lack a clear No. 2 receiver at this point, but they have a bevy of options, and tight end C’yontai Lewis has emerged as a capable target with fellow tight end DeAndre Goolsby limited by a fractured finger.
LSU: As previously noted, the Tigers don’t throw the ball a ton. When they do, Malachi Dupre (28 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns), Travin Dural (28-280-1) and DJ Chark (19-314-3) are the primary targets.
Florida: The Gators finished their win over South Carolina last week down three starters on the offensive line. Two of those guys, left tackle David Sharpe and right guard/center Tyler Jordan, could return from ankle injuries and be available this week. With Cam Dillard (knee) out and Jordan going down on the first offensive play last week, third-string center T.J. McCoy was pressed into action and performed well. As did Martez Ivey, moving from left guard to left tackle after Sharpe was hurt, and Kavaris Harkless filling in at guard. That was against the Gamecocks, though. This offensive line, even at full strength, has been up and down all season and faces perhaps its toughest challenge this week.
LSU: The Tigers have been pretty stable up front with left tackle K.J. Malone (6-foot-4, 303 pounds), left guard Will Clapp (6-5, 309), center Ethan Pocic (6-7, 302) and right guard Josh Boutte (6-5, 346). Right tackle has been somewhat of a revolving door. Toby Weatherby (6-5, 302) is listed atop the depth chart there this week. The unit has helped the Tigers averaged 6.4 yards per rush for the season while giving up 16 sacks.
Florida: The Gators are down one defensive end (Bryan Cox Jr.) and should get another (CeCe Jefferson) back, but their strength up front is in the interior. Defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Taven Bryan and nose tackle Joey Ivie rank among the most productive players at their position, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics. Florida has the talent up front to compete with LSU and needs a big game from those guys this week.
LSU: The Tigers use a 3-4 defense, led up front by Davon Godchaux (46 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) and Lewis Neal (47-5.5-3.5). Those guys have done a good job of setting up LSU’s linebackers for big plays. Overall, the Tigers are holding teams to 3.1 yards per carry for the season.
Florida: The Gators head into a second straight game without starting linebackers Jarrad Davis (ankle) or Alex Anzalone (broken arm). That wasn’t an issue last week as freshman David Reese and redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson combined for 18 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, looking comfortable in their first career starts. But again, that was against South Carolina at home. It will be interesting to see how they respond to a tougher matchup in an imposing road environment.
LSU: Outside linebacker Arden Key, who had some critical comments about Florida’s offensive line this week, leads the SEC in sacks per game (1.0). Overall he has 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hurries, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles this fall. Meanwhile, Kendell Beckwith ranks second in the SEC with 90 tackles (including 6 tackles for loss) and Duke Riley is sixth in the conference with 73 tackles (including 8 TFL).
Florida: The Gators have staked their claim as DBU all season, getting 12 interceptions and 3 touchdowns from their defensive backs. Cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson have combined for 7 picks and 2 pick-6s while nickelback Duke Dawson is playing his best football down the stretch. Safety Marcus Maye sustained a season-ending broken arm last week, but Marcell Harris and Nick Washington filled in well.
LSU: Strong safety Jamal Adams is the star of LSU’s secondary, totaling 60 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, an interception, a forced fumble and 3 pass break-ups. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Donte Jackson have 2 interceptions and 6 pass break-ups each.
Florida: Kicker Eddy Pineiro got into some trouble off the field, but he is expected to be active for the game. He’s 13-of-17 overall on field goals this fall, including a remarkable 8-of-10 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Johnny Townsend is a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award and ranks among the national leaders with an average of 47.3 yards per punt. Callaway, meanwhile, nearly had a breakout game in the punt return department last week, coming close several times to going all the way for a score.
LSU: Colby Delahoussaye is 6-of-9 on field goals this season. Josh Growden is averaging 42.9 yards per punt. Guice (17.8 yards per return) and Jackson (25.3) have split kickoff return duties while White is a threat on punt returns with 1 touchdown this season.
The Gators need to win this game for their SEC East title hopes and to bolster a resume that is lacking marquee victories, but the odds are stacked against them. Having the game moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge, after it was initially postponed from Oct. 8 due to Hurricane Matthew, doesn’t help. Nor does being down at least six starters due to injury. Ultimately, though, Florida simply hasn’t shown yet that it can win tough games on the road. That 31-10 loss at Arkansas two weeks ago is hard to forget, especially when LSU went into the same stadium a week later and rolled over the Razorbacks on the way to a 38-10 win. Anything can happen Saturday, but LSU has the clear edge going into this one.