1. Losing a starting quarterback is an easy way to torpedo the season of almost any program. But Tyler Murphy has hit the ground running for Florida so far, and maybe even looked better than Jeff Driskel. How would you assess him as a player to this point?
Well, Murphy being better than Driskel has been a point of contention round our way of late -- ask Alligator Army's commenters! -- but there's no doubt that he's been very, very impressive so far. Murphy manages Florida's offense like he's been a starter for years, places the ball well in the intermediate passing game, makes plays with his feet (by escaping pressure) and his legs (by running) when necessary, and has yet to make a significant mistake on par with the three Driskel made against Miami. If he can keep this up against teams with better defensive acumen than the ones he's beaten so far, Florida might really not end up missing Driskel at all.
2. What exactly was keeping him from the starting job prior to the injury?
That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? Murphy came to Florida in 2010 and was behind John Brantley when he got to Gainesville; in 2011, he lingered there, but also ended up behind both Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, highly-touted freshmen seen as the future of the program in some permutation, and stayed behind both in 2012, when Driskel won the job and Brissett won the backup's role. After Driskel led Florida to 10 wins in 2012 (Brissett gets credit for one of them), it was his job for the foreseeable future, barring injury.
Murphy, by all accounts, including my own, wasn't a great practice player then, and he wasn't a great one in 2013, either. He's smart though, and clearly absorbed enough of the Florida offense to be a more ready backup than I presumed he'd be. And aside from some acclimation against Tennessee in the form of bobbled snaps and agonizingly slow decision-making on his first couple of drives, he's looked like a veteran since taking the starter's role. But that's what this is, more than anything else: A career backup stepping up when elevated to starter.
3. Besides Murphy's emergence, the Gator receivers appear to be getting better as well. What are the names to watch for there?
Just three: Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Trey Burton. They've combined for 60 of Florida's 81 catches on the season, and all three have caught six passes at least once. Dunbar's the most complete receiver, Patton the quickest and fastest, and Burton, who's started at quarterback, running back, and fullback at Florida, the most reliable. Individually and as a group, they're a far cry from any corps that Florida's had since 2009, when a probable racist and a possible murderer were the best two Gators pass-catchers.
4. Even with the passing game's efficiency, this is still very much a run-first offense. Has that area of the offense met your expectations to this point?
Yes and no. Florida runs the ball about how I would have expected it to run the ball, even if I suspect it's been more vanilla than not in its last three games as a way of working Murphy into rhythm. Matt Jones, sidelined by a viral infection this summer, hasn't been the bruising back many thought he'd be, and Mack Brown is just a good backup, nothing more. Converted defensive back Valdez Showers could be a spark in the running game, but he's been hampered by an ankle injury for almost a month, and Patton's rise as a receiver has reduced his usage on sweeps and reverses.
Florida's still got some rabbits up its sleeve if it wants to use them, though: Loucheiz Purifoy's definitely got running plays in the packages installed for him in his dalliances on offense, and Murphy was stellar running the read option against Tennessee and Kentucky before that more or less disappeared last week. I wouldn't be surprised to see a few of Brent Pease's tricks against LSU.
5. Florida hasn't exactly been an explosive offense, but then LSU's defense isn't scaring anybody either. How do you view that match-up?
If the LSU defense that failed to get any pressure on Aaron Murray and the LSU defense that got gouged in the first half against Mississippi State show up, I like Florida's chances of playing patient, efficient offense and controlling the game. If LSU can rattle Murphy or stop the Florida running game early, though, LSU could bury the Gators with quick points, and leave Murphy in the unenviable position of rallying the Gators back in Tiger Stadium.
Few venues are intimidating enough for me to really worry about Florida's relatively mature team getting shook, but Death Valley's absolutely one of them.
6. The Gators are probably the only real, dominant defense in the SEC this season. What's been working for them, and how do you see the match-up with LSU's offense?
The secret to Florida's defense is that there really is no secret: This is just a smart, solid unit that recognizes what the offense is trying to do and stops it. I wish there were more to say than that, given how great that defense has been, but the truth is boring here: Good players playing for good coaches in good schemes make good plays.
I will say this, though: Florida being sound against running games was keyed by Dominique Easley's incredible burst off the line early on this season, and the Gators have struggled a bit up front since he's gone down with an ACL injury that effectively ended his Florida career. If Darious (please call him "Bear") Cummings can replicate his impressive performance against Arkansas for the rest of the season, Florida's got a shot at approximating Easley more often than not. But there's no substitute for his skills. And if Florida can't stop the run, there's no reason to throw on that spiderweb secondary.
7. Anybody that follows college football knows about superfrosh Vernon Hargraves, Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy. Who are some of the other playmakers on this defense?
Hargreaves (it's pronounced Har-GRAVES, spelled Hargreaves; I dunno, either) is maybe the best freshman defender in college football, but his shining has helped overshadow one of 2012's best freshmen taking another step toward being dominant: Dante Fowler, Jr. is Florida's most athletic and menacing defensive lineman, and the one best equipped to win one-on-one battles.
Jonathan Bullard, almost as good as Fowler as a freshman, hasn't quite kept pace with his classmate in 2013, but his versatility (he's slid over to tackle often in the wake of Easley's injury) makes him very good as is, and Michael Taylor has come on as Florida's quickest and most instinctive linebacker. And the biggest hitter on this team is probably Jabari Gorman, who's wearing Major Wright's old No. 21.
8. Finally, will you be making the trip to Baton Rouge, and how do you see this game playing out?
Sadly, I won't be making the trip to Baton Rouge, and so my Death Valley debut must wait (though I'm hoping it comes at night), but I think I'll be watching a great game from my couch on Saturday. This one's going to depend on who starts better: If Florida jumps out to a lead, the Gators could well hold it; if LSU does, I don't like Murphy's chances of staging rallies in the face of a raucous crowd.
And I think it'll be even enough early to allow LSU's superior offense to put it away late in a 27-24 win.