Funny how a coaching search can dominate the conversation. I almost feel like we’ve barely discussed what should be a high-intensity matchup for LSU, given everything that has happened this year between these programs.
And the Tigers will come into this as a heavy favorite, given how many injuries the Gators are dealing with right now, but Florida still has a division title to play for, and they’ll be ready to give their best effort. That’s on top of the extra intensity that the moving situation – plus a little trash talk from the Tigers, could cause.
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for LSU either. For one, this is Florida, a school that has recruited a significant portion of this roster and a state that many Tigers call home. For another, the leadership of this team has made it abundantly clear that they are playing for Ed Orgeron and want him to become LSU’s head coach beyond this season. A convincing win over the Gators, especially given all of the bickering between the two athletic departments over the last month, would certainly buy a little extra goodwill from Orgeron with Joe Alleva and his confidants. It will also continue to keep the Tigers on track for a potential birth in the Sugar Bowl – and there may actually be some advantage in an earlier kickoff here, given that LSU has a short turnaround before Texas A&M.
There’s also the matter of the 19 seniors that will be honored before the game, which includes team leaders like Tre’davious White, Duke Riley, Kendell Beckwith, Lewis Neal, Dwayne Thomas, Ethan Pocic and Travin Dural.
What To Watch For On Saturday
Roll With It
Florida is a football program you associate with defense in recent years, and with good reason. And this year’s unit is no exception – fifth in the entire nation in scoring defense, fourth in S&P+, 13th in rushing defense and No. 2 overall in pass defense efficiency.
But for all the stud units and special players the Gators have had over the years, the thought process in the LSU football ops has always been “we can run on these guys.” And it’d be hard to argue otherwise. After all, LSU has averaged 197 yards on the ground in this series the last three years. Leonard Fournette had his breakout performance against the Gators in 2014, and he ran for 180 yards last year – a game some tried to sell as a “contained” performance.
And with the Gators’ best run-stopper, middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, out of the game with an injury, expect a gameplan somewhat similar to what we saw last week against Arkansas. That is to say, a healthy dose of Fournette and Derrius Guice.
Florida runs a modified 4-3/3-4 hybrid front, and while their run defense figures have been very gaudy, this unit has still been vulnerable against teams like Tennessee, Vandy and Arkansas, who rushed for more than 200 yards two weeks ago. The Gators have 27 sacks, with a lot of athletic defensive linemen — Caleb Brantley is the latest inside guy that will likely be a high draft pick — but it’s a line that has been so good at getting up the field that they get easily frustrated with straight-up drive blocking, and tend to lose their gaps against zone blocking.
Of course, you still don’t want to test these corners in the passing game. Jalen Tabor gets all of the headlines, but Quincy Wilson has quietly been maybe the best corner in the country this year. They have size, they’re physical and they get their hands on the ball very well.
Of course, with all of the injuries to safeties and linebackers, that gives LSU plenty of other targets to go after in the passing game, without linebacker Alex Anzalone and safety Marcus Maye out there. Tight ends, backs and even wide receivers in the slot.
Maye in particular is a big loss. Florida always asks a lot of their safeties, with a lot of pre-snap movement to help hide coverage. Maye was a guy who seems like he’s been playing since the Urban Meyer days, and while Nick Washington and Marcell Harris are both upperclassmen, it’s hard to give unknowns that kind of movement before a snap if you can’t be sure they’ll be where they’re supposed to be after the snap.
Obviously, keeping Danny Etling on schedule and in plus situations to throw the ball will be important, but look for a few more misdirection-type of throws, like bootlegs and screens to try and frustrate the Gator pass rush and stress those safeties near the line of scrimmage.
Florida’s injuries create certain vulnerabilities. Steve Ensminger would be wise to fit his gameplan to that, instead of what usually works for LSU.
You know, I think Jim McElwain is a heck of a football coach. And I still find myself wondering if he’s going to make it, long-term, at Florida. You watch this team, and they average all of 26 points per game with a pair of transfer quarterbacks – one of whom is hurt – and all of one skill position player that legitimately scares you. But they somehow convert 46 percent of their third-down situations and are 28th nationally in time of possession. He’s somehow coaxed a modicum of efficiency out of this group, enough to still put them in position to win their division for the second time in a row – a feat no coach in this conference has ever accomplished in his first two seasons.
But here’s the thing; that’s not how you meet expectations at a place like Florida. It’s not a “make it all work with chewing gum and duct tape” job the way Vanderbilt or Kentucky or a lower-tier program is. It’s a job where you go out and recruit the hell out of Florida, load up on skill position talent and unleash hell. And Florida finished outside of the top 10 nationally, and sixth in the conference in the 247 composite rankings last year. And they’re currently 18th those rankings or the 2017 class, behind seven other programs, including three in their division.
McElwain has to start infusing some talent into this team, or he’s not going to last in Gainesville.
As it is, the Gators may be down one starter from and offensive front that hasn’t exactly been all that great to begin with. LSU and Dave Aranda need to play this one straight up, similar to what was so successful against Arkansas. Play with different fronts, and use some stunts and line movements to make the Gator offensive line hesitant and keep them playing on their heels. Austin Appleby is a bit more mobile than Luke del Rio, and McElwain will work hard to keep him in good situations with easy throws and plays that can gain just enough to avoid third and long. But if LSU can win the line of scrimmage and create some negative plays, that will help dictate that schedule to the offense.
This game is there for the taking for LSU, if the Tigers can just keep up the intensity level that we’ve seen over the last five games.