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Deja Vu and Florida’s Defense

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LSU has already played and beaten this quality of defense. Twice.

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Florida v South Carolina
I ain’t scared.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

While this year’s LSU-Florida game is not the game that LSU fans have circled on their calendars as the Big One, it is that game this season for Gator fans.

The LSU-Florida game is the first sellout in the Swamp in three years. The fanbase, which had started to see its enthusiasm wane under Jim McElwain, seems revived under new coach Dan Mullen. The Gators are back in the top 25, and they scored a big win last week against Mullen’s former team.

Now, I wouldn’t go as far as CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who said, “It’s the game of the year for both teams.” No, it’s the biggest game for one of them, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. LSU is eyeing Georgia next week while Florida is busy pushing all its chips to the center of the table this weekend.

This enthusiasm gap is part of the reason that it is not hard to find college football writers picking the Gators this weekend. Why not? It’s at home, it’s a sellout, LSU might be looking ahead, and both are top 25 teams.

But an even bigger narrative emerging in the pregame hype is that LSU will struggle with Florida’s defense. I’ll let Sports Illustrated make the argument:

That makes a meeting with Florida’s defense extremely worrisome. The Gators defense is full of ballhawks, and the unit tied for first in the country with 14 takeaways. Florida makes things extremely difficult for opposing passers, ranking fifth nationally with an opponent completion percentage of 48.4%, and stifles offenses in obvious run situations. The Gators allow first downs on only 50% of third-and-short situations, the fifth-best mark in the country. Their 12.2% sack rate is fourth. If D-linemen like Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga (7.5 combined sacks) smell blood against a hobbled LSU offensive line, Burrow will have a long afternoon ahead of him.

This isn’t to call out SI. Plenty of publications are making similar arguments. It’s a reasonable pick, and the emotional argument is one I get. College football is an emotional game played by kids. Emotion can play a huge role in a game. But I’m having a bit more trouble with the argument that LSU hasn’t faced a defense quite like Florida’s.

Counting only FBS opponents, Florida ranks 25th in total defense. That’s really good. LSU has already beaten two teams with better ranks: Auburn (23rd) and Miami (6th). If we use our preferred yards per play metric, Florida ranks 24th at 4.80 YPP. Auburn ranks 22nd (4.76) and Miami 14th (4.57).

But the crazy thing is not just that Auburn and Miami boast better defenses, they derive their numbers the same way. Florida is a defense which relies on pressure from its playmakers on the defensive line and then forcing a bunch of turnovers. Sound like anyone LSU’s already played?

Florida has forced 14 turnovers this year, leading the nation (LSU, by the way, has forced 10). Auburn has forced 11, ranking 8th. Miami? 12, ranking 5th. How did LSU fare against two top ten defenses in the nation at forcing turnovers? LSU turned the ball over precisely zero times in those two games.

Florida has 15 sacks on the season. So does Auburn. Miami merely has 14. Against that makeshift LSU offensive line, both teams managed two sacks apiece.

SI is correct to point out Florida’s excellent pass defense. The Gators have allowed a completion percentage of 50.9% against FBS opponents. LSU’s defense is at 51.0%. Miami allows just 51.8&, and LSU won that game with ease. Auburn went down to the final seconds, but their defense allows just a 53.1% completion rate, and they had to play Washington.

When you look at the passing yards/attempt, Florida’s pass defense slips a bit due to its propensity to allow big plays. Florida allows 6.5 YPA against FBS offenses, while Auburn allows 6.3 and LSU 6.4. Miami laps everyone at 5.9 yards/attempt allowed against FBS teams.

*Poseur’s Note: Also, without going too far down this rabbit hole, the offenses Florida has faced have been aerially challenged. Ranked by yards per attempt, State ranks 69th, Colorado St 78th, and Kentucky 85th. UK can move the ball, but they do so on the ground. The only passing game with a decent YPA Florida’s defense has faced is Tennessee, averaging 8.6 YPA for 26th in the country. When the Vols are the best team you’ve faced, let that be your guide for how seriously to take Florida’ schedule unadjusted numbers. For the record, LSU ranks 58th, with 7.8 YPA.

This idea that Florida somehow presents a unique challenge to LSU’s offense is simply not true. LSU has not only faced two better defenses, it faced two defense who play pretty much exactly the same way as Florida.

Despite facing two of the best defenses in the country in its first four games against FBS opponents, LSU has still managed to score 34.5 a game in those games, good for 30th in the country.

Florida’s defense is good, but it’s literally nothing LSU has not seen before.