IMPORTANT MESSAGE: before I start this preview, I wanted to say something unrelated. A shooting has been reported at UF early this morning. The details are very unclear, except for the fact that they apparently caught the shooter. Please take a minute to think about everybody at UF, and to pray for their safety.
Game One: New Mexico State Aggies
Game Two: East Carolina Pirates
Game Three: @ Kentucky Wildcats
Game Four: Tennessee Volunteers
GAME SEVEN: @ LOUISIANA STATE TIGERS
Coach: Les Miles, 12th year (103-29)
2014 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC), lost to Notre Dame in Music City Bowl
Last meeting: LSU 30, Florida 27 (2014)
All time series: Florida, 31-27-3
Streak: LSU 2
The skinny: LSU hasn’t been quite the same program ever since they got trucked by Alabama in the national championship of the 2011 season (saying 2012 BCS Championship Game just gives off an odd feel to me). After appearing in three of the previous nine national championship games, the Tigers lost 11 games over the next three seasons and haven’t been to the SEC Championship Game since. That isn’t horrible- it’s certainly better than Florida since then- but not exactly a championship contending team, either. And the fans are growing restless.
LSU is still a year or two away from competing for a national championship, but they’ve got a few of the pieces needed in order to do so now. Running back Leonard Fournette is the kind of player you can build a team around, and that’s exactly what Les Miles will do. The Tigers also boast a talented secondary for new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to tinker with. But LSU is far from invincible. Unfortunately, Florida has to play them on their home turf, where they usually are.
Rivalry tone: LSU is what you might call a “secondary rival” for Florida. The Gators’ top three rivalries are with Georgia, FSU and Tennessee, and that will never change. But after those three, there’s a secondary layer of rivals: Auburn, Miami and LSU. Unfortunately, the Bayou Bengals are the only one of those three teams the Gators play every year. But just because Florida and LSU are in opposite divisions doesn’t mean the teams don’t get after each other a little more than most do.
The drama really began in 2003, when a 3-3 and unranked Florida team limped into Death Valley- and proceeded to pull one of the biggest upsets in college football history. But apparently, the 19-7 win over the eventual national champions wasn’t enough for the Gators, who all sprinted to midfield en masse and started stomping on the “eye of the Tiger” logo at midfield to punctuate the stunning victory. Four years later, LSU fans managed to put down their corndogs long enough to hijack Tim Tebow’s cell phone and leave thousands- yes thousands- of threatening and obscene voicemails. If you’re curious, think of what Jameis Winston said at the FSU student union center, but in a threatening context. To ensure that they’d made whatever immature point they were trying to make, they did it again two years later to Florida receiver Riley Cooper and backup QB John Brantley.
The rivalry added a bit of additional spice this offseason with the DBU debate that picked up on social media between the schools’ players and fan bases. This debate was silly, childish, and most importantly, very easy to end. Regardless of how foolish it was, it’s certainly going to be a point of emphasis in the week leading up to the game for both teams, which could carry into on field trash talking. But I’m forecasting a pretty miniscule chance for an on field brawl, for those who are curious.
Returning starters: 8
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a big decision to make. Does he go with experienced but inconsistent incumbent Anthony Jennings at QB? Or does he give backup Brandon Harris a shot? Harris has struggled with maturity issues- and has publicly admitted as such- which makes Jennings the obvious leader heading into summer ball. Or at least it did until Jennings got arrested last month. So your guess as to who starts is as good as mine. But neither Harris nor Jennings particularly frighten me as a passer.
But whoever the QB is will get a big helping hand by simply handing the ball off. The aforementioned Leonard Fournette just might be the best running back in the country. He combines speed and power with an insane set of video game type moves that make him nearly impossible to bring down in the open field. And when he gets tired, Darrel Williams is more than capable of picking up where he left off. LSU also has a solid offensive line to block for them. Jerald Hawkins, Ethan Pocic and Vadal Alexander give LSU a trio of returning upperclassmen starters.
The wide receivers will be counted on heavily in order for this offense to tick, and I really don’t know if they’re up to the task. Travin Dural made some big plays for LSU last year, but he was the only Tiger to catch more than 17 passes in 2014. Malachi Dupree is extremely talented, but injuries hampered him last year. Behind them, Trey Quinn and John Diarse will be relied on to step up and make plays.
Offensive Grade: B. This offense has its fair share of question marks. But Leonard Fournette makes this offense a decent one all by himself. Now, if the talented group of receivers can step up and make the QB’s life easier, the offense will thrive.
Returning starters: 8
The defensive line will be an issue that LSU needs to fix right away. Christian LaCouture and Devon Godchaux give Steele a solid interior presence, but the Tigers are in desperate need of finding defensive ends. Steele will run a 3-4 base defense, so the Tigers figure to highlight their strength on the inside of the line while trying to hide their lack of playmaking ends.
The middle level of the defense is in considerably better shape, which is a good thing because the 3-4 defense makes having dependable linebackers a must. All-SEC LB Kwon Alexander will need to be replaced, but Kendell Beckwith (a Nagurski Trophy Watch List member) and Lamar Louis give LSU two dependable linebackers. Look for Duke Riley and Deion Jones to step into considerably larger roles in the linebacker friendly defense.
Then there’s the secondary, the source of LSU’s DBU claims. Jalen Mills (another Nagurski Trophy Watch List member) slides over from corner to safety, where he’ll team up with fellow safety Jamal Adams to patrol the backfield. The cornerbacks are pretty good, too. Tre’Davious White is one of the more underrated corners in the SEC, and he’ll get help from similarly talented (but young) corners Ed Paris and Kevin Tolliver.
Defensive Grade: B-. LSU has talent and experience in spots of their defensive lineup. But in others, there are some serious questions. The Tigers always employ a good defense, and this year shouldn’t be an exception, but I don’t think this will be a great one.
LSU wins if… The Tigers are productive through the air. Fournette is going to do his damage; that’s almost a given. But Florida’s defense knows the ground game is LSU’s only real threat, and figures to sell out to stop the run by loading the box. LSU’s QB will have to make some plays to keep Geoff Collins guessing, or else they’ll be in trouble. This also means that Harris or Jennings has to play a smart, turnover free game.
Florida wins if… They’re able to run the ball effectively throughout the game. Florida’s offensive line is going to be a young one, but they’ll have gained some experience by this point in the season. LSU’s defensive line has almost as many question marks as Florida’s offensive line, so when the Florida has the ball, the line of scrimmage is pretty much a push on paper. If the Gators can win the trenches on offense and gain some yards on the ground, and negate their biggest weakness, you have to like their chances to pull the upset.
Three things to watch for:
1) Will Grier (or Treon Harris, if he wins the job) will have been through a couple of road tests before, but nothing quite like this. Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium and Missouri’s Faurot Field simply can’t compare to the rowdiness that resides in Death Valley. I’m extremely curious to see how he will handle what’s sure to be a raucous environment. Some young QB’s get rattled and make mistakes in situations like this. But Grier can’t afford to if Florida is to have any realistic chance to win.
2) A surefire way for the Gators to lose this game is to blow assignments in the secondary and make things easy for LSU’s QB. I trust Geoff Collins and Kirk Callahan to not let this happen, but then again, I trusted Muschamp to not let this happen last year and it happened on a consistent basis, including once late in the game against LSU. The Gators cannot make anything easy for Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris; doing so will be fatal.
3) Who’s going to step up in the passing game for Florida? Demarcus Robinson is the Gators’ lone proven receiving threat, but LSU is sure to watch him closely. Somebody else is going to have to make some plays to force LSU to back off of Robinson. Or maybe somebody will in an earlier game, and LSU won’t be able to focus solely on Robinson to start with. But I’m extremely anxious to see who Grier will be throwing to against such a solid LSU secondary.
LSU overall grade: A-. This may be the year LSU finally breaks through and returns to the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers have some weaknesses like any other team, but with Fournette leading the way, LSU should be a ten win team.
Overview: As much of a house of horrors as Death Valley is, the Gators actually have a pretty good history there. Florida has won 11 of the last 17 matchups in Baton Rouge. But the flip side of that is that LSU has won four of the last five over the Gators on their home turf. Equally daunting of a stat is that before Mississippi State beat them in Death Valley last year, they hadn’t lost to an unranked team since 2008, to Ole Miss. And that Mississippi State team quickly shot up the rankings and reached the Orange Bowl, while the 2008 Ole Miss team destroyed a top ten Texas Tech team in the Cotton Bowl.
So asking what figures to be an unranked Florida team to go into Baton Rouge and come away with a win is asking a lot, especially with a first year starting QB. The Gators figure to improve and get better each week under McElwain, and having lost two straight games in my hypothetical projections, the Gators will come into this game desperate to get back on the right track. Unfortunately, playing in Death Valley isn’t the easiest way to do it.
Then again: stranger things have happened in Death Valley, particularly when this Florida Gator squad is involved. I expect Will Grier to have a surprisingly big day, and the offensive line will surprise some people and really start to gel, allowing Kelvin Taylor to get going. And Florida’s defense is always one to fear. All that will keep Florida in the game longer than some may expect, but in the end, Fournette will save the day, and LSU will send the Gators to their third straight defeat.
Projection: LSU 24, Florida 17