Saturday night is shaping up to be quite an epic scene. The 6-0, No. 7 ranked Florida Gators come to Baton Rouge for the first time since 2016 to take on the 5-0, No. 5 ranked LSU Tigers. Gameday will be broadcasting from the Quad and Pelicans rookie forward Zion Williamson might or might not be the guest picker.
1. LSU and Florida. Two teams who plain don’t like each other. No love lost. Game’s been circled on each other’s calendar, things of that nature. The tension between these two has heated up in recent years, will this year be any different?
It should be as fiery of a game as it gets. Florida hasn’t been to Baton Rouge since 2016, so this will be the first time most of the Gator starters have played meaningful snaps there. David Reese, Tyrie Cleveland, and to a lesser extent Lamical Perine are about the only ones left who had appreciable roles in that game. Van Jefferson did have four catches for Ole Miss at Tiger Stadium in 2016 too, if you want to count that.
Things got chippy before the game with Auburn, and that’s a team UF rarely plays now. It didn’t spill over into the game like it did in the opener against Miami, but it’d be out of character for the Gators to sleepwalk into a contest like this one.
2. I think some Tiger fans are a little confident because they know Florida’s playing with their second-string quarterback, and Trask might or might not still be feeling the effects of that knee injury suffered last week. But, assuming Trask’s knee keeps getting healthy, should they be so dismissive of the Gator QB?
Last week was the first real test for Trask. Kentucky played him super soft since they didn’t know what he could do, and then he smoked bad Tennessee and Towson defenses. He came back to Earth some against Auburn, with his 61.3-percent completion rate and 7.5 yards per attempt being the lowest of his time as QB1. Notably for the latter, Dan Mullen used short and quick passes to compensate for the poor rushing game, so that’ll depress that rate.
Trask is a heartwarming story in that he’s starting now for the first time since he was a freshman in high school. The downside to that is that he has poor pocket awareness, and it’s not just players coming at his blind side. Even when someone is bearing down on him straight-on, he thinks he has more time to throw than he does because he has so few live game reps. He fumbled while being sacked once each against Tennessee and Towson and three times against AU.
If he can figure out that timing, it’ll fix his worst trait. He’s better at reading defenses pre and post-snap than Feleipe Franks is, and Mullen does more different things with the passing game with him perhaps because he’s no threat to run. If the knee isn’t bothering him, he will make some plays against LSU’s defense provided he gets the ball out in time.
3. There’s a large enough sample size to show that the LSU offense is indeed improved and modernized. But the Tigers haven’t faced a defense nearly as formidable as Florida’s. This feels like the definition of strength vs. strength, which unit do you think has the edge?
It’s true that LSU hasn’t played a defense as good as Florida’s, but it’s also true that Florida hasn’t played an offense as good as LSU’s. They’ve faced a few good receivers like UK’s Lynn Bowden and Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, but it’s nothing like the combination of Jefferson, Chase, and Marshall with Burrow. The closest thing they’ve gotten to that is defending against their own offense in practice.
A few weeks ago I’d give the clear edge to LSU. Now I think it’s closer to a draw. UF’s defensive backs have been getting better over the season as Marco Wilson shakes off the rust and the safeties like Shawn Davis come into their own. The Auburn game was the best the Gator secondary has played as a unit and it’s not close. Add in them getting Jabari Zuniga back for the first time since early in Week 2, and we’ll finally get to see the defense at full-strength for the first time all season. Even in the opener before some injuries set in, Stewart was suspended.
I might still give a bit of an edge to LSU, since Florida doesn’t have a great third corner. Trey Dean is just not as big a playmaker from the nickel/star spot as Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was last year. But again, this week will be the first time the entire UF starting defense has taken the field together.
4. On the flip side, the LSU defense had arguably its best outing last week against Utah State. Dan Mullen has had success against Dave Aranda defenses though. How will Mullen try to attack Aranda?
A lot of offensive coaches say they’ll take whatever the defense gives them, but Mullen is taking that to an extreme this year. His offensive line is bad and by now there’s no point in pretending otherwise. With Trask in against Auburn they were 1-of-3 on 3rd & 3 or fewer, and the conversion was a trick play where former Arkansas pitcher Lucas Krull threw back to Trask for a four-yard completion. That’s where they’re at now.
Florida just doesn’t have what it takes in the trenches to force a certain style of game, so they’ll take what they can and lean on field position and the defense for the rest. They’ll run about 40 percent of the time to keep the defense honest, but the rest will be trying to poke holes in the defense via the pass.
5. I feel like the game comes down to the LSU offensive line against the Florida defensive line. Can the Tiger offensive line, whom I feel is the LSU weak spot, hold up against this really talented Gator front seven?
It’ll be tough, and they’ll have to go all four quarters. The Gators rotate a ton of guys, so it’s unlikely that LSU will be able to wear them down. That’s a big reason why UF has only allowed 10 points in the third quarter and seven in the fourth quarter all year.
The thing that has boosted them is good play on the interior, especially by Kyree Campbell and Adam Shuler. They’re doing a good job of eating blocks to allow Reese to rack up tackles. Against the two best opponents so far, he had 16 against Kentucky and 13 against Auburn. Todd Grantham hasn’t even been blitzing all that much this year because his line is doing so well.
Florida’s sack numbers are still a bit inflated by abusing Miami’s freshman OTs for ten sacks, but that was also the only time Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard played a whole game together. Greenard has been a monster off the edge, and Zuniga is a top draft prospect from the true defensive end spot. LSU has done a good job of keeping Burrow clean against most opponents, but he did take four sacks against Texas. This weekend should be the least amount of pocket time he’s had yet. Both defensive fronts should win the trench battles.