The Gators’ first appearance in the 2018 college football rankings didn’t last very long.
Their second one probably will.
On a night in which Florida inducted Tim Tebow into the Ring of Honor and held a celebration for its 2008 national championship team, the Gators used just enough offense, five sacks of Joe Burrow and a game sealing pick six from Brad Stewart to knock off #5 LSU, 27-19 in the Swamp. In doing so, the Gators notched their first win over a top five opponent since blasting #3 Mississippi 38-10 in 2015, and launched themselves back into the discussion for not only the SEC East race but the College Football Playoff, too.
Maybe most impressive was that they did it after digging themselves an immediate hole.
Florida appeared to be in major trouble early as LSU took the opening kickoff and went flying right down the field for a ten play, 75 yard touchdown drive- half of which they gained on the first play of the game on a bomb from Burrow to Justin Jefferson. The Tigers then forced a punt, and seemed to be in good position to score on its next drive as they quickly worked their way inside the Florida 30. But Jachai Polite then strip sacked Burrow from the blindside. Kyree Campbell recovered the fumble, and the defensive struggle was on.
The Gators got the better of the field position battle the two sides waged, and two booming Tommy Townsend punts for Florida and two weak Zach Van Rosenberg punts for LSU later, the Gators found themselves with only 43 yards separating them from a tie game. Nine plays later, LaMical Perine plowed into the end zone to knot the game at 7. LSU then replied to that with a field goal to go up 10-7.
But then came a seven play, 75 yard touchdown drive that the inconsistent Feleipe Franks looked great on, finding Josh Hammond for a 35 yard gain down to the LSU 3 before lofting a pass to Moral Stephens for the score and the 14-10 halftime lead. LSU would chip the lead down to 14-13 before taking the lead again on a Nick Brossette run with 11:14 to go. However, the two point conversion attempt failed, leaving LSU with a 19-14 lead.
From there, Florida took the momentum and ran away with it.
Franks began the ensuing drive with a 26 yard strike to Van Jefferson and Florida drove down to the LSU 17 when Mullen got creative. Franks handed the ball off to former Arkansas and JUCO baseball pitcher Lucas Krull, who stopped and lobbed the ball back to Franks for a fifteen yard gain. That set the stage for Perine, who punched it in and out Florida back on top 20-19 with 8:48 to go. But when the Gators’ two point conversion attempt failed as well, it left the door open for LSU to drive down the field for a game winning field goal, as they did against Auburn last month.
But Brad Stewart had other ideas. The New Orleans native stepped in front of Burrows’ pass and took it 25 yards to the house, capping his run back with a flying somersault over the pylon. Linebacker VoSean Joseph then tracked down the football and punted it into the stands as a tribute to fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, who ten years ago in this very game picked off LSU’s Jarrett Lee and ran it back down the same sideline toward the same end zone to punctuate a 51-21 win. Spikes then famously sent the ball on an adventure into the stands, drawing a fifteen yard penalty.
Nobody cared. Not that time, and not in the sequel.
Because as he did a week ago, Donovan Stiner put the game away on the ensuing fourth down. Now down eight, LSU went into desperation mode and Burrow started flinging the ball. But Stiner soared into the twilight sky and intercepted his last gasp fourth down heave to preserve the victory.
Florida still has issues, yes. Franks threw an ugly interception in the end zone early in the second half, missed several easy reads and only sometimes got help from his offensive line. And Florida’s defense still disappears for a drive or two at a time. But Florida’s defense has also grown tremendously since the return of its star, David Reese, turning into a nasty street fighter of a unit that bounced back exceptionally after looking weak on LSU’s scripted first drive, and Franks is starting to show some real growth for the first time in his career.
And now, everything is ahead of Florida, just the way it was in August. The SEC East, the New Year’s Six, and even the College Football Playoff are now very much within the realm of possibility again. If this team can find ways to keep pulling out close games like this, they figure to just keep climbing closer and closer to making those goals a reality.