Saturday night. 7 p.m. kickoff. Tiger Stadium. A top-10 opponent.
College Gameday on campus. A tailgating scene that’s sure to be jam-packed and a sold out house in Death Valley. And with almost every major recruiting target on hand.
These are the Saturdays we live for. So let’s light this candle.
What To Watch For On Saturday Night
Ten years of doing this with Dan Mullen between Mississippi State and Florida. That’s wild.
And for the last two years, you could say he’s had Dave Aranda’s number. People certainly do.
I, for one, don’t really believe there’s some magic wand Mullen waves. The 2017 Mississippi State game was more about a completely depleted defensive line. In 2018, LSU still forced nine punts and held them to 20 points, which hardly constitutes offensive dominance.
But there’s no doubt that the Gators’ head coach has been able to scheme some big plays against LSU’s highly thought of defensive coordinator. Seth has a great explainer on some of the ways Mullen has attacked LSU in recent years. And that’s what Mullen does — he’s always had a great eye for finding and attacking particular match-ups. Most forget that he had the blue-print for LSU’s fabled 2011 defense; attack the linebackers in coverage and avoid third-and-long at all costs. He just didn’t have the personnel to make that gameplan work.
In the past, he’s found a way to consistently get to the edge and put alley defenders in conflict. Last year, as Aranda put more help outside, he used option plays and overloads to exploit pursuit, which was hindered by the absence of Jacob Phillips. He knows how to attack a weakness when he finds it.
The Gator offense has been limited at times this year, but still relatively efficient. Don’t be surprised if Mullen tries some sort of gadget or trick play early on to try and grab some momentum and silence the crowd.
Losing a starting quarterback is usually a huge change of trajectory for most teams. The difference between a title contender and merely a good team, and for some the difference in a bowl appearance.
In Florida’s case, it’s actually been a stabilizing force for the offense.
Junior Kyle Trask, in replacing classmate Feleipe Franks, has offered a more consistent, steady hand as the Gator quarterback. He doesn’t have Franks’ raw talent — his powerful arm or mobility — but he’s shown better timing and accuracy so far.
Trask can make most of the throws Mullen asks of him, has just enough mobility to function and knows how to manage this offense. He doesn’t have the peaks of Franks, who has the arm to really threaten the entire field, but there aren’t as deep of valleys either. Lower ceiling, but a higher floor.
Mullen has always been a great manager of quarterbacks with schedule and an emphasis on quick throws on standard downs to complement the running game and set up play-action. And Trask’s timing with an experienced group of Gator receivers led to just enough big plays last week against a very good Auburn defense.
Florida’s receiving corps features a ton of upperclassmen that have played a lot of ball over the years; Van Jefferson caught four passes against LSU in 2016 for Ole Miss. There isn’t one go-to guy to focus on, but multiple players that you can count on to get open and catch the ball. And sophomore tight end Kyle Pitts is starting to develop into a match-up guy at 6-6, 240.
Based on what we’ve seen from Florida to date, and the LSU defense, look for the Gators to try and use the possession passing game to maintain schedule. Slants, shallows, stick and pivot routes to get the ball out quickly. The offensive line has struggled to get push regularly (113th in Line Yards Per Carry and 125th in Power Success Rate), but if they’re staying ahead of the chains, blocking for a third-and-short conversion isn’t all that tough. And Lamical Perine is a burly upperclassmen that can bang away at a defense. We may also see backup quarterback Emery Jones to help supplement that running game.
And you can bet that Mullen would love to try and draw out some long, frustrating drives that keep LSU’s offense off the field. He’ll have to be a little creative with angles and gaps to overcome the inability of the offensive line to just get straight push. But that’s something Mullen knows how to do well.
Conversely, LSU should be willing to roll the corners up, a safety into the box and challenge Trask to make throws down the field. Reports late this week indicate that Cordale Flott will be healthier for the Tigers’ sub-packages, but hopefully this secondary can build on the success we saw last week with Grant Delpit spending more time near the line of scrimmage.
Todd Grantham is still running the Florida defense, and in a funny quirk of how scheduling has worked out, will be making his first ever visit to Tiger Stadium as a DC, despite facing LSU in each of the last three seasons at Louisville and Mississippi State before following Mullen to Florida.
And despite his rep as college football’s most emotional of blitzers, Grantham’s dialed the pressure back to date this season. Frankly, he hasn’t had to rush more than four very often, mostly due to edge pass-rusher Jonathan Greenard, who currently sits tied for the SEC sack lead with four. He’s the classic end/linebacker tweener type with a great first-step off the ball, and he has another strong rush threat on the other side of him in Jabari Zuniga. He sat out the Auburn game but he’ll be a full-go on Saturday.
Greenard and Zuniga have also allowed Grantham to play more four-man lines, and with seven in coverage quarterbacks have had a tough time finding throwing lanes before the rush gets home. And while the play-calling hasn’t been as aggressive, this unit still bears that signature. The linebackers and safeties get downhill quickly, especially against slow-developing lateral plays.
I do question whether Grantham will be able to resist his blitzing ways against an LSU offense that loves to empty the backfield and throw quickly.
The strength-on-strength match-up here of LSU’s offense and the Gator defense will be telling in a lot of ways. Florida sits at third in the nation with 26 sacks, but 10 of those came in the season-opener with Miami and another 9 against FCS opponents Towson and Tennessee-Martin. Likewise, the very opportunistic secondary (a nation-leading 12 picks) has yet to see any quarterback resembling what Joe Burrow has been doing to date. Both Miami and Tennessee have since benched the quarterbacks they started against Florida, while Kentucky was already playing its backup. And of course Auburn had true freshman Bo Nix.
Advance stats do love this defense, and while I understand opponent-adjustments, there’s still a theory-versus-practice element in play there once things level up. Making bad quarterbacks look worse isn’t the same as making a good quarterback look bad.
Much like on offense, I think you’ll see the Gators try to gum up the works for LSU’s receivers. Tight, physical coverage at the line of scrimmage and on the break. As physical as the officiating will allow. Florida will try and force incompletions and swarm to the ball on early downs to force third-and-long, where they’ll be able to turn the rush loose. Or give in to that pressure itch.
LSU will get Saahdiq Charles back at left tackle, and if he and Austin Deculus want to show they can be NFL-level tackles, they’ll have to win match-ups with players like Greenard and Zuniga.
The offense needs to do what’s worked for it all year; start fast, use tempo and be aggressive. At the same time, Burrow has to be smart with his decisions and try to keep the offense on schedule. Grantham will try to disguise and mix his coverages on those early downs. Mix in the running game as needed.
Cornerbacks Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are very good, and they won’t blink against Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. However, Florida’s linebackers and safeties are a little more suspect, so Thaddeus Moss or Clyde Edwards-Helaire may get some targets early on to loosen things up.
We’ve seen this LSU team take a punch and respond on the road. But a home, night game against a top-10 conference rival will bring a different level of adrenaline. And Florida will bring a different type of match-up. These two teams don’t like each other, and there’s likely to be a lot of chippiness. If not worse.
LSU can be the better team if they just do the things that have brought them to this moment. Maintain composure, avoid committing the big mistake, and let talent take over.