Florida Gators

Florida’s championship road must go through Baton Rouge

Florida must go through here: Mike the Tiger mascot waves the flag after LSU scores a touchdown during the game between the Missouri Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA.  (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire)
Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

There has been so much conversation about a game that wasn’t played by the Florida Gators. Now the focus can return to the games that will define their season.

There have been conspiracy theories suggesting Florida used a weather opportunity to escape a game that might lead to an SEC East title. Now that it has been rescheduled — last Saturday’s Hurricane Matthew-postponed game in Gainesville will now be at LSU on Nov. 19 — the Gators can go about the business of defending their division championship, fair and square.

Here’s the complication: Are the Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) actually capable of doing that?

So far, the results have been underwhelming.

The injury to quarterback Luke Del Rio shook things up. You can’t blame his replacement, Austin Appleby, for the 38-28 collapse against Tennessee, because he helped to build a 21-0 advantage. It was the Gator defense that couldn’t keep up. The offense didn’t have much to offer in a 13-6 follow-up road escape at Vanderbilt.

Now the Gators resume — with Del Rio returning — in Saturday’s visit by Missouri (2-3, 1-4), followed by the annual rivalry game against Georgia in Jacksonville.

Tennessee (5-1, 2-1) hosts top-ranked Alabama on Saturday, so the Gators could be back in the division lead if they take of business against Missouri and the Crimson Tide avoids an upset.

Then the real fun begins.

It could very well be determined by Florida’s ability to win … at LSU.

The LSU-Florida mess could have been handled much more gracefully. Of course, it’s easy to second-guess in hindsight. With Hurricane Matthew approaching, LSU said it was proactive, offering many different solutions for last week. Florida was cautious, not wanting to move its home game, and it waited a long time before making a decision.

Last Saturday, of course, was a beautiful day in Gainesville. Any hurricane veteran knows the track of the storm can shift, but calls must be made well ahead of that. Florida parents know all too well about the cancellation of school days — mostly to account for the buses — only to have their children off on days that are suitable for the beach.

It seemed like the game could’ve shifted to Sunday or Monday, but the schools were not exactly working well together and SEC officials wouldn’t — or couldn’t — intervene.

Lessons were learned all around. The conference has now been empowered to take charge of any future situations. Just to be clear on the conspiracy-theory angle, the SEC said teams must play eight conference games in order to be eligible for the league championship game.

The upshot was the best compromise that could be managed: LSU wouldn’t budge off its insistence of maintaining its Nov. 19 home game — a contest against South Alabama that was sandwiched by road dates at Arkansas and Texas A&M.

On Nov. 19, the South Alabama-LSU and Presbyterian-Florida games are now cancelled (with financial settlements given to the opponents) and replaced by Florida at LSU.

To compensate, LSU will travel to Florida in 2017 AND 2018.

Now the Gators have a much rougher finish … and just five home games in Gainesville (after losing both the LSU and Presbyterian dates) for the first time since 1980.

LSU fans, who suspected Florida was putting off the game to get healthier, should now have a healthy franchise running back, Leonard Fournette, available against the Gators. Fournette was not able to play last weekend.

The LSU-Florida football rivalry just got a bit crazier, and you can bet the Nov. 19 contest will be spirited to say the least.

Regardless of when and where the LSU-Florida game is played, it doesn’t answer the key question.
Are the Gators good enough to win a division title?

That will be determined… but their road just got more difficult.

Because of contentious circumstances, Florida’s road to another SEC Championship Game likely will need to go through Baton Rouge.

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