Are the Florida Gators back?
That question has been asked all week after the Gators finished off back-to-back road wins in hostile environments at Texas A&M and Tennessee in games in which they trailed in the second half.
Judging from their performance in those games—particularly the fact that they've solved most of the most pressing issues—the answer is "yes."
But what does that mean moving forward?
Florida hosts Kentucky this weekend before taking a week off in preparation for a three-game stretch against LSU, at Vanderbilt and vs. South Carolina before heading to "the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" for a date with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Can Florida get to that point undefeated?
They can, but it would take some work.
The toughest tests are undoubtedly against LSU and South Carolina, both of which are probably better on paper than the Gators. But games aren't played on paper, and for the Gators this season, both will be played within the friendly confines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
LSU is largely a mystery now, and probably will stay that way up until the Florida game since Auburn, this weekend's opponent, hasn't lived up to its preseason billing.
If you're Florida, you'll have to exploit the one unknown for the Tigers, and that's quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Mettenberger has the big arm, but hasn't had to show it off all that often this year. With games against Auburn and Towson before heading to the Swamp, that's unlikely to change. His first real test may be against the Gators.
If you're Florida, that means you bring the heat early and often.
The Gators have struggled getting to the quarterback this season, currently ranking 10th in the SEC in sacks.
But it's not due to a lack of talent.
Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter and Shariff Floyd comprise one of the nation's top defensive lines, and getting Easley healthy from a knee injury suffered against Tennessee is paramount. "Buck" linebacker Lerentee McCray has played well in place of Ronald Powell, who tore his ACL during spring practice.
Two weeks later against South Carolina, Florida's defense has another challenge with Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw. Shaw has been banged up, so getting to him may force South Carolina to be one-dimensional.
That one dimension is pretty good, though.
Lattimore is a legitimate Heisman contender and has put his team on his back in the past. But these Gators are only giving up 106 rushing yards per game, which isn't overly impressive in the national rankings, but that's mostly due to the fact that two of the Gators' three games were against tough opponents.
To get past South Carolina, a lot of the pressure will fall on Gator quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Driskel improved tremendously between the Texas A&M and Tennessee games. He made quick decisions, didn't take too many sacks, and made NFL-level throws, including one to set up a field goal late in the first half and a third-quarter touchdown to Jordan Reed.
If he can play that way against the Gamecocks—and, pretty much every other week—Florida is going to be in the discussion for the SEC East crown.
"The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" could have significant meaning for both teams this season.
Can Florida get to Jacksonville unblemished? It's going to be tough. But it certainly appears more likely now than it did in August.
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