This Saturday, Florida and LSU will finally play their much-ballyhooed rescheduled game. The game was initially postponed from October 8 due to Hurricane Matthew, and after much contentious debate, rescheduled to November 19 in Baton Rouge.
The game the Gators and Tigers will play on Saturday will be far different than what they planned to play: Both had “cupcake” opponents set to meet them in their own stadiums on that day, prior to Matthew. But Florida-LSU will also be far different from what it was anticipated to be back in October.
Let’s take a look back at where the two teams were before the originally scheduled date, and where they are today.
October 8 — Then
Entering the week of October 8th, 4-1 Florida was coming off a dreary 13-6 slog of a win over Vanderbilt. That game was the Gators’ second with Austin Appleby starting under center, and those four quarters against the Commodores featured the Appleby from the last two quarters against Tennessee. (The Appleby from the first two quarters against Tennessee showed up again in Gainesville this weekend, leading the Gators to a 20-7 victory over South Carolina.)
Florida also played the Commodores largely with backups on the defensive line, and gave up 144 yards on the ground. The offense was sputtering and struggling, as it had been since after the halftime mark at Tennessee, with the Gators only mustering 236 yards of offense and one play longer than 20 yards against Vandy. The offense had been inconsistent all season, even prior to Luke Del Rio’s injury, but the Gators had turned in comfortable, if not inspiring, offensive performances against Massachusetts and North Texas, and one beautiful rendition against Kentucky — which, in October, didn’t seem as impressive, as the Wildcats were just 2-3 entering the second week of the month.
And there was reason for hope of immediate improvement for the Gators’ offense: Del Rio was practicing and was expected to be back. Del Rio had dressed for Vanderbilt, and Jim McElwain had noted that he could have played there in an emergency situation. Joey Ivie (thumb) and Jordan Sherit (arthroscopic surgery), meanwhile, were ruled out against the Tigers. Caleb Brantley and Bryan Cox, who both made brief appearances against the Commodores, were anticipated to play. Alex Anzalone was to play in a thumb splint.
Entering the week of October 8, the Tigers were riding high, having just played their first game under interim head coach Ed Orgeron after the firing of Les Miles. Miles was let go after LSU picked up their second loss of the season, losing to Auburn in week four. The Tigers had previously dropped their opener to Wisconsin in Green Bay.
In his first game at the helm, Orgeron’s group handily defeated Missouri, 42-7, without Leonard Fournette, who was nursing an ankle injury. In Fournette’s stead, running back Derrius Guice rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns on only 17 carries. The Tigers’ offense had struggled earlier in the season, and the big win in Orgeron’s first outing, which saw LSU’s offense roll up a school record 634 yards in an SEC game, was heralded as a sign of progress in Baton Rouge.
Fournette was noted as unlikely to play against the Gators, had the game been able to be played on its originally scheduled date. The running back had not practiced that week. Guice, who performed well against Missouri, would have proven a test for Florida, regardless of Fournette’s condition, but it appeared the Gators would not have to face LSU’s erstwhile Heisman contender, who had run for 320 yards on them in 2014 and 2015 combined.
Florida still appeared to be in good shape in the SEC East on October 8, but certainly was not in great shape. Tennessee controlled its own destiny at 2-0 in conference play, and while the Volunteers were staring down Texas A&M and Alabama, it seemed improbable that a team that had made absurd comebacks a trademark was likely to pick up more than those two losses, given that their only remaining SEC East foes were South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. The Gators would likely have needed to win out to beat out a two-loss Tennessee, given their head-to-head loss, and that would have required sweeping games against LSU, Georgia, and Arkansas.
LSU also looked to be no better than fourth in the SEC West, behind not just the Auburn team that edged it at home, but an undefeated Texas A&M, and indomitable Alabama. The Tigers’ 3-2 record would have been their worst by winning percentage entering a game with the Gators since 2000, when they were also 3-2 — and had lost to UAB — in Nick Saban’s first year in Baton Rouge. (Also on that 2000 LSU coaching staff: Future head coaches Jimbo Fisher and Derek Dooley, long-time Saban assistants Sal Sunseri and Mel Tucker, and venerated offensive line coach Rick Trickett. One year later, Will Muschamp would arrive as defensive backs coach.)
November 19 — Now
Things have taken a turn for Florida’s health. The Gators should be without seven starters this weekend in Baton Rouge, with an SEC Championship berth on the line, and it could be worse. Luke Del Rio, David Sharpe, Cameron Dillard, Marcus Maye, Bryan Cox, Alex Anzalone, and Jarrad Davis have all been classified by McElwain as out, leaving Florida without its starting quarterback, left tackle, center, and most experienced defensive lineman, and without its top three tacklers — Davis, Anzalone, and Maye — all likely 2017 NFL Draft picks. CeCe Jefferson and guard/center Tyler Jordan both dressed and practiced on Tuesday, and are questionable for Saturday’s game, but if they can’t go, Florida might be without eight or nine starters in Baton Rouge.
Appleby will make his fourth start for the Gators, and third on the road, against the Tigers. While McElwain praised Appleby’s decisions against South Carolina, things will get much more difficult for him against LSU. The offense has largely been able to move the ball all season — with some notable exceptions — but has struggled with turnovers and completing drives. McElwain noted that LSU is not the type of team that the Gators can afford to commit three turnovers against if they hope to win.
While Florida’s run game has shown better consistency, with Jordan Scarlett receiving the bulk of the team’s carries in recent games, the Gators have still had struggles. The Gators rushed for 171 yards against South Carolina but netted only 12 yards rushing against Arkansas. Florida also gave up three sacks against the Razorbacks. LSU, with 24 sacks on the season, will be a stiffer test for the Gators than either the Hogs or the Gamecocks.
And, of course, Florida has completed its home schedule, and that’s reason for concern for the Gators. Florida has been fantastic at home this year, outscoring its five opponents by a combined 126 points, but it has been very much vulnerable on the road this season, posting a 2-2 record and failing to score more than 28 points. The Gators defeated Vanderbilt in laborious fashion, squandered a 21-0 lead in a loss to Tennessee, and were thoroughly trounced by Arkansas. Appleby this week noted the communication breakdowns experienced by the Gators in loud and hostile environments.
Tiger Stadium should fit that description.
The Tigers have picked up one loss since October 8, like the Gators, but it was far from a bad loss: LSU managed to hold off Alabama until the fourth quarter, but the top-ranked Tide eventually scored 10 points to put away the punchless Tigers. In each of its three wins since October 8, LSU has scored at least 38 points and allowed no more than 21.
Leonard Fournette is available and expected to play in Saturday’s contest, and played against Arkansas; though he might not be at full speed, after re-tweaking his ankle against the Razorbacks, Fournette gutted Mississippi, with 284 yards on just 16 carries, for an absurd 17.8 yards per carry that eclipsed his previous top mark as a collegian by almost five yards per carry. His teammate Derrius Guice has been excellent, too: Guice rushed for a career-high 252 yards last Saturday against the Razorbacks, and LSU totaled 390 yards on the ground against the same team in the same city that Florida managed just 12 yards on one week prior.
On the other side of the ball, no SEC team has allowed fewer passing touchdowns this season than the Tigers, who have only yielded five. The Tigers’ defense has played well all season, and held both Arkansas and Alabama to 10 points in back-to-back weeks. No LSU opponent has scored more than 21 points this season and the Tigers have pitched shutouts in 12 of the 20 quarters since Ed Orgeron took over.
Both teams have things to play for on Saturday. Florida clinches the SEC East and a trip to Atlanta with a win. If the Gators pull that off, Jim McElwain would become the first head coach to go to the SEC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons. (Steve Spurrier’s 1990 Gators were not eligible for an SEC championship because of NCAA probation, but his 1990 and 1991 Florida teams would have vied for the league title had they been eligible, and had a game existed.)
LSU, meanwhile, could potentially reach the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, if it finishes the season with wins against the Gators and Texas A&M. The Tigers sit at No. 16 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, but figure to rise if they win out: Their three losses are all to teams in the top 15 of the rankings.
Ed Orgeron is likely also coaching to keep his job. While a report this week suggested LSU has reached out to Jimbo Fisher’s agent, rankling LSU and Florida State fans alike, Orgeron has some significant momentum with LSU fans, and would seem to have a fine chance to stay with the Tigers and have his interim tag removed if he can pilot them to two more wins, and a 6-1 record after taking over for Miles.
Florida, which has lost five of its last six meetings with the Tigers, now faces a very difficult road trip to Baton Rouge — and a game that is likely more challenging now than it would have been had the game been played earlier in the season for more reasons than relocation. Mounting injuries and a healthier opponent could spell trouble for the Gators.
But, lest we forget, there is a very compelling reason that that game was not played on that date, a cosmic reshuffling of the cards that neither Florida nor LSU could control. The only reasonable compromise, ultimately, was for the Gators to hit the road again. This weekend, they will play the hand they were re-dealt, while holding on to their SEC East hopes, and their desire to beat the Tigers for the first time since 2012.