Marquee matchup in Tuscaloosa

With three conference series remaining in the regular season, the Gators hit the road this weekend for their most difficult challenge left on the schedule. Alabama has bounced back this season, now tied for second place in the Southeastern Conference. Florida's two-game lead in the league gives it a cushion while heading to Tuscaloosa this weekend.

Florida carries an eight-game winning streak in SEC games into Friday night's series opener. After winning the final two at South Carolina followed by sweeps of Georgia and Missouri, the Gators are leading the conference with a 15-6 record, two games better than Alabama and Ole Miss.

The pitching staff has been led by two constants in the last three weeks. Logan Shore and Aaron Rhodes combined to allow one run in 16.1 innings against Missouri, and Rhodes went on to win SEC Pitcher of the Week honors in his third start of the season. Shore's team-leading 1.76 ERA has him squarely in the race for SEC Freshman of the Year.

This weekend, the Gators are going to change things up. The starting pitcher for the Sunday game has been listed as "to be announced" in recent weeks. Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan changed that this week, announcing Karsten Whitson as his Sunday starter.

Whitson opened the year in Florida's rotation but was removed after struggling during four non-conference starts. He disappeared from the mound in weeks after that, but Whitson earned the start against Jacksonville on April 22 to prove he could be effective. The redshirt junior responded with five shutout innings, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out five hitters.

It was the outing O'Sullivan needed to push Whitson back into the rotation. The Sunday starter spot has been a revolving door since Whitson was replaced, but after impressive bullpens and a strong outing during the midweek, O'Sullivan is confident Whitson can get back to form and help the Gators down the stretch.

The Crimson Tide head into the weekend sixth in batting average (.281), third in slugging percentage (.399) and eighth in runs scored (245). They're also second in the SEC with 34 home runs. Austen Smith leads Alabama with a .356 batting average and .468 on-base percentage. Taylor Gushue and Casey Turgeon lead the Florida offense with four home runs each, but the Crimson Tide have four different players with at least that many home runs.

The Alabama pitching staff's 2.90 ERA is seventh best in the league, also allowing the third-best batting average against at .219.

On paper, there are plenty of similarities between Alabama and Florida. The Crimson Tide are coming off a road series loss at South Carolina and need to bounce back to stay in the SEC race, and the Gators would like to pad their lead in the conference standings.

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