A few weeks ago, this looked like the lull before the schedule got even tougher. A trip to the Swamp is never an easy proposition, but this one seemed like it was going to be as easy as trips to the Swamp could possibly get.
Then LSU’s “easy game,” relatively speaking, got a whole lot tougher. Florida reeled off three straight wins after their first loss to Kentucky since 1986. Instead of being doomed to a second division finish, the Gators have since rallied, knocking off their biggest rivals (Tennessee) and a top 25 team out to beat their former coach (Mississippi St).
This was supposed to be, if anything, a trap game before the heavyweight tilt against Georgia next week. Instead, LSU is headed into the Colosseum to face a rabid fanbase energized by a top 25 squad. Good thing tigers had a pretty good record in head to head combat in the Colosseum.
Before we get into a panic over the newly invigorated Florida Gators, let’s take a step back and evaluate those wins. Throwing out their win over an FCS team, Florida has now beaten 1-4 Colorado St, 2-3 Tennessee, and 3-2 Mississippi St. Hey, at least the wins keep slightly improving, but Florida is yet to beat a team that has a win over an FBS team with a winning record.
By contrast, LSU’s FBS opponents are a combined 14-5. Of course, four of those losses came to LSU, and the other one was Ole Miss’ loss to Alabama. LSU has beaten two top ten teams while also posting a scoring margin of 15.8 PPG against FBS opponents, good for 18th in the country. So LSU is performing better and doing so against a schedule that is one of the toughest in the country both in its depth of competition and in top end talent. A road game against Florida will only be the third toughest game of the season to date, and might not rate in the top five by season’s end.
The massive gap in schedule quality is why you have to be careful when comparing the statistical profiles of these two teams. Florida averages 6.39 YPP on offense while LSU averages just 5.70. On defense, Florida allows 4.63 YPP to LSU’s 4.69. And so it goes down the line, Florida having the slight statistical edge across the board, leading many people around the country to believe that this is a matchup of evenly matched teams.
LSU has played better teams and largely dominated them. LSU jumped out to double digit leads in every game so far this year, and while Auburn certainly made it a game down the stretch, LSU’s third quarter vacations have hurt its statistical profile and not much else.
Florida, by contrast, has played two good teams so far and been dominated by one and outlasted the other in a nearly unwatchable rock fight. Hey, I’m not going to deny the strategic value of the occasional rock fight, that’s been a winning strategy in Baton Rouge for quite some time now, but Florida is lacking the kind of weapons that make that sort of game terrifying: namely a running back like Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice.
It’s not like Florida stinks. They are a good team, and they are even tougher at home. Dan Mullen is a good coach who has taken it to LSU recently. It would be foolish to think LSU is just going to waltz into Gainesville and walk out with an easy win.
But this is not the Florida Gators we’re used to. The roster has been depleted and there’s no real playmakers who scare you. There’s still talent, but it’s not the fully stocked cupboard of years past. It will take a few seasons to get the Death Star fully operational again, which is why it’s vital to strike hard and fast on Saturday. Get out to the standard double digit lead only without the standard third quarter swoon.
LSU should win this weekend because it is the better team. LSU’s won four of the last five against Florida, so it’s not like there’s any bizarre voodoo the Gators hold either.
But this was supposed to be an easy game. And now, it most certainly isn’t. That’s the way it goes for these Tigers. Everything is going to be hard. That’s what makes it so rewarding when they win.
Win this, and next weekend’s game will be one of the biggest home games in what has seemed like forever. It will certainly be the biggest game of the Coach O era to date. But that doesn’t happen if you don’t take of business this weekend. Florida may not be the Big Bad at the end of the game, but you can still die before you get to the Boss Level. Nothing is easy, take nothing for granted.