LSU versus Florida. These things have a way of not working out the way you think, but here we are with a top-10, SEC matchup. And it's not likely to be the last one.
What to Watch For on Saturday
What We Have Been Waiting For
Seemed like a good metaphor at first but who are we kidding Leonard doesn't need two swords.
God it's such a cliché but this really is what it's all about. We wait all year for games like this. The buzz on campus all day, the sights and smells of the tailgate and then a full Tiger Stadium. And when I say a full Tiger Stadium, I mean everything that we say it is when we try to explain to people why night games in Death Valley are not just awesome, but important to the very fabric of this program. This is why you drop those tent canopies off on Friday. This is why you buy that new generator and cooking rig. THIS IS WHY YOU WARM UP WITH ALL THOSE LIGHT BEERS ALL DAY!
The Shortest Distance
I was not high on the Gators this summer at all. I figured new staff + quarterback questions + brutally depleted roster would = a pretty rough transition. And to be honest, when I look at the film, I feel like those concerns are pretty justified. But to his credit, Jim McElwain has created some positive momentum and seems to have this team believing in itself, which can go a long way in close games, which are a way of life in this conference.
He made a couple of smart calls bringing his staff together, one of them being defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. For one, he's a smart young coach who did a good job at Mississippi State and has recruiting ties in Florida. But for another, he runs a similar style of defense to Will Muschamp -- an aggressive, 4-3 under front that wants to mix coverages and bring pressure from different angles. It made perfect sense to create the easiest transition for the area of this team with the most talent.
And despite the loss of Dante Fowler Jr., this front hasn't really missed a beat, leading the SEC in sacks and coming in second in tackles for loss with a very quick defensive line and an experienced corps of linebackers. They're holding opponents under 100 rushing yards per game to date, but the stat's a little deceiving when you look at the schedule.
Just about every team Florida has faced to date is a pass-first spread team, and most are ranked in the bottom 40 or so in the nation in rushing. Tennessee, the best rushing team the Gators have seen to date, went for 254 yards on 51 carries. So don't expect LSU to deviate too far from the run-heavy game plan that's worked pretty damn well to date.
Leonard Fournette had his true coming out party last year against the Gators, and LSU has run for 370 combined yards in the last two seasons. Even with talents like Dominique Easley and Shariff Floyd on the UF front, Cam Cameron knew he could frustrate Florida with a straight-ahead, power attack (you may remember that 2013 game being particularly chippy). Turns out quick, athletic linemen that want to rip and swim their way past the offensive line don't really like it when all they see are double-teams and drive blocks. It forces them to stack and shed, and that's not as fun as getting up the field.
What remains to be seen is how John David Moore's absence affects LSU's use of the I-formation. Coming into the season, Cameron and the offensive staff had planned more of a shift towards one-back sets (and LSU has used those probably more than any other personnel grouping to date), but Moore's consistency at the fullback spot was both a pleasant surprise and a comfort. He hasn't been the bulldozer that the Tigers have had in the past, but he's athletic and tremendously sound. I can't think of many times where he's missed his block. Bry'Kiethon Mouton was noticeably more inconsistent last week, but he's a freshman, so that's not unexpected. If they're going to limit him, I would expect it would come more in passing situations where he might have to pick up a blitz.
Florida has too much speed to run wide on much, but Cameron may try to take advantage of that with some misdirection, similar to the game plan against Auburn, which featured a number of fakes and quick pitches, as well as some use of Brandon Harris as a ball-carrier.
Either way, LSU's going to lead with No. 7 in this one early and often.
I've always admired McElwain's approach to a one-back, pro-style offense. He managed quarterbacks exceptionally well within Nick Saban's constraints. Always thought of it as hiding the quarterback in plain sight by keeping them constantly in good situations. Be a slave to schedule. Avoid obvious passing situations at all costs with short, high-percentage throws and the running game.
And that's largely what he's brought to Florida. The Gators love quick screens, stick routes and shallow crosses to set up the occasional down-field shot off of play-action.
But with an incredibly shallow offensive line that's starting a transfer from Fordham, the results aren't quite there yet, even with the now-suspended Will Grier. This offense has scored just 14 points in each of their previous road games, and if you factor out the outliers of New Mexico State and East Carolina, Florida's running game is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry, and the passing game just 6.1 yards per attempt.
Alligator Army wrote this breakdown of how McElwain and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier's gameplan might change with Treon Harris in over Grier, and it matches what I've seen as well. Harris is the slightly better touch passer, while Grier can put more velocity on the ball into tight quarters. Harris is a more mobile, although Grier is no leadfoot, but there's no real backup option here. Nussmeier's not likely to call many designed runs for Harris.
So overall, I'm not sure all that much will change. Florida will run a ton of screens, shallow crosses and play-action bootlegs to try and get Kelvin Taylor, DeMarcus Robinson, Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell out in space. Florida hasn't been a great deep passing team, even with Grier, they rely much more on creating plays after the catch with Powell's speed and quickness or Robinson's size.
When Florida does go to the quick passes, tackling for Kendell Beckwith, Deion Jones, Jamal Adams, Rickey Jefferson, Dwayne Thomas and a possibly returning Jalen Mills will be incredibly important. This isn't an offense that can handle a lot of long-yardage situations right now.
Florida's offensive line gives up about six tackles for loss per game, so there will be some opportunities for LSU's defensive line, particularly Lewis Neal and Arden Key, particularly on those bootlegs, waggles and other pass plays where a defensive end is unblocked. Stay at home, play your responsibility and Harris may be rolling right into your arms.
LSU's also not likely to see a ton of read plays or misdirection, as has been the case with each of the last four opponents. The defense is going to have a little more freedom to attack and shoot gaps in a way that we haven't seen since Mississippi State. I'll be curious to see if Kevin Steele will go after Harris a bit.
Do NOT Expect
When I reference LSU's gameplan for Auburn, I don't just mean the style of running. I don't see LSU putting the ball up a ton in this one, baring a defensive meltdown and Florida racing out to a lead. I don't know that Florida's front seven is capable of handling LSU's run game, but I do know that they have a dangerous group of defensive backs. With the big-play aspect that Fournette and Derrius Guice bring to LSU's running game, the Tigers don't necessarily need big pass plays to put Florida on their heels and keep the Tiger Stadium crowd jazzed up.
So look for the passing game to keep the chains moving and Florida off balance some, but nothing like what we saw last week.