The Gators are 4-1 in my 2014 season projections, and probably ranked somewhere in the high teens. They’ll put both those numbers to the test against a depleted, but still talented LSU squad that’s lost three out of their last four games in Gainesville. The question is: can Florida make it four out of five- and simultaneously launch themselves into the national title talk? Or will LSU walk into the Swamp and walk out with a win that breaks the Gators’ hearts? Time to find out…
LOUISIANA STATE TIGERS
2013: 10-3 (5-3 SEC), Outback Bowl Champions
Last Meeting (2013): LSU 17, Florida 6
All Time Series: Florida 31, LSU 26 (3 ties)
Coach: Les Miles, 10th year (95-24)
Who Are You?
The LSU Tigers are the Gators’ permanent SEC West opponent…
WE INTERRUPT THIS STANDARD PREVIEW TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL RIVALRY SECTION RESERVED FOR FLORIDA’S THREE BIGGEST RIVALS
Why Does This Game Matter So Much?
Florida and LSU have quietly built one of the biggest rivalries in all of college football over the last few decades. Other than the occasional Spurrier-ite beatdown (58-3 in 1993, 56-13 in 1996, 40-9 in 2000 and 44-15 in 2001), this game has been known for some of the most exciting games in college football history, particularly recently: six of the last ten games between these teams have been decided by one possession. That’s quite a rarity in college football, where most rivalries feature the two teams swapping turns obliterating the other team, sometimes for decades at a time (see Florida-Georgia, for example).
But aside from the consistent close games, this rivalry has been marked by two other unique things- unparalleled luck and major upsets.
In 2007, Les Miles elected to go for it on fourth down five times- and LSU converted all five. The last one was a 4th and 1 on Florida’s 3 yard line with a minute to go, and the Gators’ failure to stop it directly led to their defeat.
Then there was 2010. Down three with a few seconds left, Miles ordered a fake field goal. The holder, Derek Helton, blindly flung the ball over his head- woefully short of kicker-turned-receiver Josh Jasper. But the ball took a perfect bounce right into Jasper’s arms, who got the first down. That’s right, Helton threw a perfect bounce pass- over his head, without looking- with a football, to a kicker who scooped it up and got the first down. Three plays later, Jarrett Lee tossed the game winner to Terrance Toliver.
Not all the games in this rivalry are decided by luck. Two of college football’s biggest upsets were pulled off in this rivalry, and neither involved any sort of flukiness. However, they had the same effect on the losing side- their hearts were shattered.
In 1997, Steve Spurrier’s Gators entered Death Valley with an aura of invincibility that even present day Alabama can’t match- they were not only ranked #1 in the country, but they were also riding a 25 game winning streak against SEC teams, and 19 straight against SEC teams on the road. Oh, and they were coming off of a national championship the year before. But LSU made Doug Johnson’s life hell for 60 minutes and stole a 28-21 win that prompted the fans to rush the field.
Six years later, it was Nick Saban’s LSU squad who entered the game as the heavy favorite (and ranked #5). Skylar Green opened the game by taking a punt back for a touchdown, sending the purple and gold clad LSU fans into a frenzy. But the joy was short lived. Florida absolutely dominated the Tigers from that point on, as freshman QB Chris Leak guided the Gators to a convincing 19-7 win. Less than three months later, LSU celebrated a national championship while Florida could do nothing but stare in disbelief.
So to sum up the rivalry as it stands now in one sentence: LSU appears to be the slight favorite in this year’s game, but being favored means nothing. Ask Nick Saban.
Returning Starters: 5
Don’t let anybody tell you different: LSU will miss Zach Mettenberger dearly. For once, LSU is going to have a legitimate battle for the starting quarterback job. In one corner is true freshman Brandon Harris, who has had a great spring according to his coaches. In the other corner is sophomore Anthony Jennings, who played a toned down version of the “2006 Tim Tebow” role in the LSU offense, and rescued LSU against Arkansas with a game winning touchdown pass to Travin Dural. Jennings appears to be the favorite to get the starting nod right now, but there’s still a whole summer practice to go before that decision is made.
In any case, the LSU QB will have a lot of help. It starts with the always strong offensive line. The Tigers return two of their best linemen in La’El Collins and Vadal Alexander (though they do lose Trai Turner), and in addition to that, Les Miles doesn’t let running backs play unless they can block. But LSU’s offense will rely on their running backs for more than just blocking. True freshman Leonard Fournette may win the starting job by the third week, and almost definitely will be getting the majority of the carries come the Florida game. As always, though, LSU has more than just one running back who can do damage, and this year, those change of pace backs will be seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee. They may only get six or seven carries a game, but they’ll be fresh and full of energy on each of their carries, and opposing defenses may not be on any given play.
The question for this offense is the receiving corps. LSU has to replace 2,345 receiving yards worth of production with the departures of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The new group of receivers is talented, no doubt, but there’s very little experience here. Dural finally broke through with the aforementioned game winning touchdown against rival Arkansas, but that’s about all the mileage this unit has. Highly touted true freshmen Malachi Dupree, John Diarse and Trey Quinn will have to step up and help out.
Offensive Grade: B-
The talent is never an issue with LSU. Les Miles again has a promising offensive line that can win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and Fournette may be the best freshman running back in the country. But a lack of experience on both ends of the passing game could be a problem against a defense like Florida.
Returning Starters: 7
As usual, LSU’s defense will have to replace several pieces from last year. And as usual, Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis recruit (and then coach) well enough for that not to be a problem. Gone are DT Ego Ferguson, LB Lamin Barrow and S Craig Loston- the leaders of their respective units. But there’s still plenty of reasons to fear this defense.
Defensive end Jermauria Rasco returns to anchor this front seven. He’s joined by fellow DE Daniel Hunter, and they may form the best one-two edge rushing combinations in the entire country. In the next level, linebacker Kwon Alexander figures to play a leadership role for a position that was, for the most part, a huge disappointment last year. The key here is Kendall Beckwith. He arrived in LSU with enormous expectations, and so far, hasn’t done a whole lot on the field. If he grows up this year- watch out.
LSU returns its entire secondary aside from Loston, and this unit could turn out to be the strength of a very strong defense. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White, Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills and Rashard Robinson figure to put on some show for the defensive coaches who will be trying to select their top two corners. All of them have great speed and ball skills, which could more than compensate for not having a ball hawking safety this year.
Defensive Grade: A-
The lack of a really good safety is probably the only weakness for this defense. There’s a lot of talent and experience in this unit, and even if Kurt Roper’s new offense turns out to be the best thing since sliced bread, Florida could struggle offensively.
Florida Key: Offense
Here’s the real test for Chris Leak’s receiving corps. There’s not a true weakness for LSU defensively, so his pass catchers are going to have to chip in and make some plays (that falls on Jeff Driskel too, needless to say). But think back to 2012. Remember how tired LSU said they were after the game? That was with perhaps the most boring offense not run by Steve Addazio in recent memory. If that wore LSU down, imagine how much more worn down they’d get with an up tempo offense that goes flying down the field time and again. You want a key? Here: don’t turn the ball over, and don’t go three and out. The repetitiveness of this will run LSU into the ground, as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi showed last year.
Florida Key: Defense
As far as physicality goes, very few teams in the country can match the nasty street fighters Will Muschamp has bred in Gainesville. Even in defeat, the Gators beat up Zach Mettenberger last year. If they can beat LSU at the point of attack- and that’s a big if- and make LSU’s QB run for his life, LSU’s offense will struggle. The Gators have to at least slow down the running game, which is LSU’s strength on offense, and dare Jennings or Harris to beat them through the air- Florida’s strength on defense. If DJ Durkin’s defense can do that, this game could get very interesting.
Key Matchup: Florida’s linebackers and secondary vs. LSU’s Leonard Fournette
As good as Florida’s defense is, the Gators’ line is going to get beat in the trenches here and there. The fact is, LSU’s offensive line will open up a hole for Fournette (or Magee or Hilliard) at some point(s) in the game. The question is: can the second level of Florida’s defense make the tackle and limit it to a six yard run? Or does Fournette break it off for the type of long touchdown run that LSU’s stable of backs broke off last year? Actually, this goes for anybody with the ball: if the Gators can’t wrap up in the open field, and thus let a nine yard gain become a 50+ yard touchdown, they’re going to lose. LSU has to earn every point with a tough, laborious drive.
What Does This Game Mean?
Not very much, but then at the same time, a lot.
Georgia and South Carolina have to play Auburn from the West and Florida draws Alabama. So each of the three main favorites in the division figure to have one loss right there. But given the way the SEC East tends to cannibalize itself even without help from the stronger West division, it’s a pretty sure bet that the East’s representative in Atlanta will have two losses.
What that means is this: if Georgia and South Carolina both lose to Auburn… OR if one of those two teams loses to Auburn, and then the team that lost to Auburn then beats the team that beat them, Florida can lose to Alabama and LSU, win all six games against SEC East Opponents, and they will be in Atlanta because then Georgia and South Carolina would have, at a minimum, two losses: one to Auburn or one to the other of those two teams, and one to Florida. Florida would own the head to head tiebreaker and then win the SEC East. So in that situation, a loss to LSU doesn’t really hurt at all.
But here’s the deal in the SEC: you can’t ever assume anything. Even though Auburn figures to be favored against both Georgia and South Carolina, that doesn’t mean Florida can sit back, bank on them losing and lose then lose to LSU. In the SEC, you’re always permitted one loss to a team from the other division and be guaranteed to win your division. Not two. Because if Florida loses to, say, Alabama, but then win their other seven games, they will have, at worst, the same record as the next best team in the East, and will have the tiebreaker by virtue of beating them head to head. Lose a second game, though, even to a team from the other division, and you’re playing with fire, because now you’re relying on help from other teams, even if I believe Auburn will sweep Georgia and South Carolina.
So with that line of thinking, this game suddenly means everything for Florida. I have the Gators at 2-1 in the SEC entering this game, and that loss is to Alabama, so Florida would control its own destiny in the SEC East before this game. A win, and the Gators would retain control of its own destiny; a loss, and Florida cedes that control, and we then have to become Auburn fans.
In terms of Muschamp’s job security, this game doesn’t mean a whole lot. Unless LSU walks into the Swamp winless or wins by 50 points, or something of that extreme nature, a loss to the Bayou Bengals doesn’t have the power to ignite the flames on the torches of those who want him fired, though it may flick the lighter. Losses for Florida football are never met with approval, and most fans like losses in Gainesville even less, but this would be about as understandable of a home loss as there could be.
Oh, and I’m also getting tired of LSU fans running around with toy Gators. A win would, needless to say, end that for another year.
For once, I’m stumped. Home field means a lot in this rivalry (the home team has won seven out of the last nine), but you have to understand my hesitation to pick a team coming off a 4-8 season beating a team that’s coming off a 10-3 season. Then again, Florida was a bit banged up in last year’s game, while LSU was at full strength. So I’m really going back and forth.
I have to say, I think Florida will play much better against LSU than they will against Tennessee. It’s a big game, and that usually brings out the best in players. So it’ll be exciting to watch for 60 minutes, even if the offenses are stuck in the mud. These two teams have combined for 43 points in the last two games, and I’m predicting another low scoring game this time around.
Florida will grab an early lead and hold onto it. But late in the fourth quarter, LSU’s offense will finally come to life, and drive down the field for the go ahead touchdown. The Gators will get one last chance on offense, though, and will drive down into LSU territory. But a late turnover will seal the win for LSU. In a fashion very similar to 2010, Florida will leave the stadium dejected, and feeling like they had this game in the bag. The bright side: the Gators will play well enough to give fans hope for the rest of the season. If Florida can compete with LSU, they certainly should have a shot at beating Georgia and South Carolina.
Projection: LSU 14, Florida 10