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Florida vs. FSU: Can the Gators’ improving offense help stage another upset?

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Two excellent running backs, a gelling line, and a strong-armed quarterback are all reasons for hope.

NCAA Football:  Florida at Louisiana State Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s offense is not good, not really. Nationally, the Gators are No. 89 in scoring offense, No. 97 in rushing offense, No. 82 in passing offense, and No. 102 in total offense — and while all of those rankings are better than Florida’s final 2015 marks in those categories, a) they’re not much better and b) Florida played games against FSU, Alabama, and Michigan that factored into those 2015 rankings.

And the top-line advanced stats are even more bearish: Florida is No. 88 in Offensive S&P+, after being No. 56 in that stat in 2015, and is worse in both Rushing and Passing S&P+, too.

So why am I inclined to argue that this offense might be not just better than its predecessor, but capable of being genuinely good? Potential.

By the end of 2015 — and certainly entering its game against Florida State — Florida’s offense was good at essentially nothing. The Gators ran for more than five yards per carry against Georgia, then didn’t do that again for the rest of the year. Treon Harris posted a 144.90 passer rating at LSU, then didn’t manage to reach 135.00 in any of his remaining games. Antonio Callaway didn’t have a 100-yard game after Georgia; Demarcus Robinson had one against Vanderbilt, then three catches over the final five games of Florida’s season, missing FSU because of a suspension.

Florida’s offense, by an absolutely miserable November, had been reduced to Harris completing about half of his passes, Harris being sacked, Harris scrambling for a few yards here and there, and Kelvin Taylor running for a few yards here and there.

This Florida team can do a bit more than that.

It starts with the running game. Jordan Scarlett is averaging more than a yard per carry more than Taylor did last year, and Lamical Perine is averaging just under a yard per carry more, but they’re also both running behind a young line that is improving and gelling, and seemed to find an especially effective set of run blockers with the insertion of redshirt freshman center T.J. McCoy at LSU. Florida ran for a modest 3.6 yards per carry against LSU, but that was the second-most yards per carry the Tigers have conceded in 2016 — only Alabama earned more — and that number is significantly influenced by Austin Appleby losing 20 yards on six carries, as Scarlett and Perine combined for 146 yards on their 29 rushes, just more than five yards per carry.

Not one of Auburn’s top two and Alabama’s top three running backs cracked better than five yards per carry against LSU. (Quarterback Jalen Hurts did, but that had plenty to do with him scrambling, not Alabama’s line.)

Florida State’s defensive line is a very good one, especially against the pass, but it’s been occasionally susceptible to the run, though Louisville and USF exploited it in part with superb running quarterbacks who gained more than 8.5 yards per pop against the Seminoles. I would expect Florida to try to run up the middle as it did successfully against LSU, but would also imagine that using Appleby sparingly in zone-read looks — which worked to perfection once against South Carolina — might be a wrinkle that Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier try, though any extensive use of that is probably unlikely, given the threat of exposing Appleby to more hits and injury.

And protecting Appleby would be a good thing: In his games in the place of an injured Luke Del Rio, the Purdue transfer has opened up Florida’s offensive play-calling by possessing a strong arm that is capable of making throws down the field. Appleby hit one to Tyrie Cleveland for 98 yards against LSU, but also hit big plays to Callaway and Cleveland against Tennessee, and had multiple completions of 15 or more yards against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

Del Rio’s 6.8 yards per attempt isn’t much worse than Appleby’s 7.4, and their yards per completion numbers are literally within inches of each other — Del Rio’s at 11.9, Appleby at 12.0 — so those numbers alone don’t show much difference between the two passers. But Appleby’s passer rating is about 20 points higher, largely thanks to avoiding interceptions, and he now has a better completion percentage than Del Rio — who began the year by completing over 61 percent of his throws — as well.

And it’s the where of the Florida passing game that has changed. Appleby can reliably deliver balls on deep corners that Del Rio simply could not, and puts velocity on throws that Del Rio might float. That, and better decision-making than he showed in his first two starts, is part of why Appleby has not thrown an interception since returning to the field in orange and blue, and given that Del Rio threw six in three games during his midseason return, that’s a welcome change.

One thing Appleby does not do particularly well, though, is respond to pressure. And pressure is something FSU can exert: The Seminoles lead the nation in sacks, and erstwhile Florida targets DeMarcus Walker (13 sacks) and Brian Burns (seven) have teamed as menacing book-ends for a line that has helped stanch the bleeding for a secondary that has been flammable, outside of the mercurial Tarvaris McFadden (a nation-high eight interceptions), before and after an ultimately season-ending injury to the incredible Derwin James. Florida’s offensive line is still weakest on the outside, too, so there will assuredly be havoc for Appleby to manage on Saturday.

But when Seminoles rushers don’t get to the quarterback, explosive plays are possible. FSU is allowing 7.7 yards per attempt, tied for No. 90 nationally — and that number was way up at 8.2 yards per attempt, before the inept Boston College passing game (No. 120 nationally) came to Tallahassee and Syracuse’s Baylor-derived offense sprayed incompletions like candy in consecutive weeks.

Appleby is capable of making throws that can facilitate those plays, and in Cleveland alone, he has a better target than anyone who was available to assist Callaway against Florida State last year. Cleveland is averaging 23.9 yards per catch — significantly more than the SEC-leading 19.4 Callaway had last year, if significantly inflated by that 98-yarder — and has both the stride to get deep and springs to go up for passes, skills many Florida receivers have lacked in recent years. And his very recent emergence, more than anything, is something that is not reflected in season-long numbers for Florida’s offense — so if fans are going to pin hopes for an explosion on anyone, it is best to do so on Cleveland.

It would, of course, be essentially impossible for Florida’s offense to do worse against FSU in 2016 than it did in 2015, when it was shut out and gained a season-low 3.32 yards. But an improved offense — which this one is — has a good chance of doing better.

How much better it can be may be the deciding factor of the game.


For the next few months, we are creating #Strangewiches, unexpectedly delicious sandwiches that embody the spirit and culture of your favorite college town that you can't find on a menu anywhere! For the University of Florida, our friends at SB Nation and Eater helped select the best ingredients to create the BEST, and most strange, #Strangewich for your tailgate in Gainesville. Ingredients below!

Florida [Tuna Tostada: ahi tuna, avocado, peach salsa, cilantro, green onion, mayo, corn tostada]