Game One, Massachusetts Minutemen
Game Two, Kentucky Wildcats
Game Three, North Texas Mean Green
Game Four, Tennessee Volunteers
Game Five, Vanderbilt Commodores
|GAME 6: LOUISIANA STATE TIGERS (2015: 9-3, 5-3)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2015 offense||2015 defense|
|Les Miles||9 offense, 8 defense||437 YPG/32.8 PPG||342 YPG/24.0 PPG|
|112-32, 12th year||96%, 89% of stat production||39th/44th in FBS||25th/44th in FBS|
Series history: Florida 31, LSU 28, 3 ties
Last meeting: LSU 35, Florida 28 (2015)
Synopsis: Despite the fact that Florida and LSU are in opposite divisions, the stakes are usually quite high whenever these two teams meet. In eight of the last eleven year, both teams entered the game ranked in the top fifteen. Barring something strange, this year should add to that trend. The talented but young Gators benefit from a relatively easy first five game stretch and could easily come into this game 5-0, not to mention a world of confidence. Meanwhile, LSU returns a truckload of starters from a very good 2015 team, one of which is Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette. Get ready for a good one.
The skinny: It feels like if Les Miles is ever going to win another national title, this is his last shot. Alabama is down, the West is up for grabs and LSU gets practically everybody who contributed a year ago back for 2016. So while Florida is sniffing Atlanta, LSU is thinking even bigger. But we’ve witnessed this song and dance routine before, too, most notably in 2011. Can the Tigers finally live up to their lofty preseason expectations?
Offensive breakdown: If offensive coordinator Cam Cameron does just one thing this year, it has to be getting quarterback Brandon Harris to step up. This team needs him. The Tigers have the pieces to win it all across their roster, but Harris has to play like a national championship caliber QB for that to happen. His 53.8 completion percentage a year ago wasn’t enough, nor were his 13 touchdown passes. Even though the offense won’t completely revolve around him with a guy like Fournette to carry the ball, he has to be able to do enough to force defenses to respect his arm.
Leonard Fournette is the name you usually hear when discussing LSU running backs, and there’s certainly good reason for that. He followed up a solid 1,034 yard freshman campaign with an incredible 1,953 yard season a year ago- in just 12 games. The blend of speed and power he brings is a rarity in college football, and Florida got a taste of both a year ago in Baton Rouge. But his linemen deserve a lot of credit, too, for blocking for him. Three of those five linemen return in 2016, including center Ethan Pocic, so it’s no stretch to think he could replicate that success this year. And in the event that Fournette gets tired, the Tigers will send out a pair of fresh legs and a truck of a body belonging to Derrius Guice to keep pounding away.
The wide receivers have proven their worth, at least as much as they possibly could with such an inconsistent quarterback. The Tigers get top receivers Malachi Dupree and Travin Dural back (Gator fans may remember Dural for inexplicably getting free on a 3rd and 23 two years ago in the Swamp). Those two guys accounted for well over half of Harris’ passing production in 2015, though, so the question becomes who steps up behind them? Tight end Colin Jeter could be one target in an increased role, but new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig knows he needs to find at least one more.
Offensive overview: With a proven quarterback, this LSU offense could be the best in the country. Without one, at least to date, this LSU offense is one of the nation’s best with a major weakness- and therefore is susceptible to imploding. Grade: B+
Defensive breakdown: Dave Aranda doesn’t quite know what he’s got here. For all his faults as a quarterback, Treon Harris made LSU’s defense look awfully average a year ago- and then three of the Tigers’ November opponents did the same thing. But there’s no denying the talent here, particularly up front. The entire defensive line (Arden Key, Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal) is back, who combined for 18 sacks a year ago. They should fit nicely in Aranda’s new 3-4 defense.
The problem could be at linebacker. Standout middle linebacker Kendall Beckwith is back, but both outside linebackers have to be replaced. Now the Tigers need to find another inside linebacker to fit the 3-4 scheme, so LSU figures to be a bit inexperienced here. Aranda will have to immediately wring some production out of Duke Riley, a senior who’s played sparingly in his time at LSU, and out of some of the younger faces in order for the middle level of the defense to not be a weakness.
LSU’s secondary, on the other hand, figures to be spectacular. Jim Thorpe Award Watch List members and all-SEC selections Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams return to their cornerback and strong safety positions, respectively. Alongside them, Rickey Jefferson also returns to his free safety spot. Those three upperclassmen leaders will be joined by Kevin Toliver at corner opposite White, and assuming he stays out of trouble from here on out, nickel back Dwayne Thomas will be back as well. It’s not just an experienced unit, it’s a highly aggressive one, too, and so Aranda has to be ecstatic with the defensive back unit he’s inheriting.
Defensive overview: LSU is in the same boat as Florida: a very good defensive line and secondary, but a lot of questions in the middle level of the defense. All things considered, though, this has to be looked at as one of the nation’s top ten defenses. Grade: A-
Key matchup: Florida’s secondary vs. LSU’s pass offense. This Gator secondary had its DBU card unceremoniously lit on fire a year ago against LSU. Brandon Harris may be one of the weaker quarterbacks Florida will face this year, but has a history of burning this secondary deep. If Jim McElwain wants to pick up his first win over LSU, that can’t happen. Florida has the personnel to shut the Tigers down: figure Jalen Tabor takes care of Malachi Dupree and Quincy Wilson handles Travis Dural. Time for the paper matchup to play out in Florida’s favor on the field.
The good news: Les Miles seems to lose one game per year that he shouldn’t, like Arkansas in 2007, Arkansas again in 2008, Mississippi in 2009, Tennessee in 2010 (oh wait…), Clemson in 2012, Mississippi again in 2013, Arkansas yet again in 2014, and pretty much everybody in November in 2015. His masterful trickery is indiscriminate, as he often tricks his fans into thinking his team is a national title contender. Even though he actually has a decent record in the Swamp, this feels like the type of game his team could blow: a good team on the road that’s taking the first baby steps back toward national prominence.
The bad news: Leonard Fournette could have a big game. By big game, I mean “200 yards with three touchdowns.” Again, the Gators’ linebacker depth- or lack of it- is a huge concern. Jarrad Davis, Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone are all solid players, but they’re almost certainly going to tire before Fournette does. If the Tigers stick with Fournette on the ground long enough, he’s almost guaranteed to break off a big one.
LSU wins if… Harris throws for over 250 yards. I’m factoring in Fournette having the aforementioned “big game” into my analysis, but that may not be enough if the Tigers can’t get any production out of the passing game. Harris just has to do enough to make Florida back out of the box to clear some room for Fournette; if he can’t, the Gators will know that the running game is the only way they can lose, so that’s what they’ll defend.
Florida wins if… they win the rushing battle (or if Antonio Callaway can break a big one on a punt return again). As much of a problem as they’re likely to have stopping Fournette, LSU is similarly ill equipped to stop the Gators’ ground game. Even if Mark Thompson isn’t half the runner Fournette is, the Tigers are relatively thin and weak at linebacker. All you need is a solid runner, not necessarily a tremendous one, to pound away and wear out this defense. Plus, the longer the Gators are able to maintain drives, the longer Fournette has to sit on the sideline and watch- and the longer the Gators’ defense gets to rest.
Overview: Very hard game to call. The two teams appear to be mirror images of each other: questions at quarterback, better rushing attacks than passing attacks, some but not a lot of proven ability at wide receiver, great defensive lines and secondaries but questions about linebacker depth. The Gators are the home team, so I suppose that helps.
But I’m just not sure Florida is going to be able to stop LSU offensively. They should be able to shut down their passing game, but they failed to do so in both 2014 and 2015 when they needed to most. The Gators’ defense has been stockpiled with NFL talent the past two years, yet have given up 320 yards on the ground to Fournette alone in two games. Can they stop the Tigers’ seemingly one dimensional offense? Sure. Will they? The personnel says yes, but history says no.
So I can’t convince myself to pick Florida in this game, despite the fact that they get the Tigers at home and despite the fact that this secondary will certainly use last year as motivation. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Gators pull it off, but I’m leaning with LSU in this game. The latest instant classic between these teams goes to the Tigers as Brandon Harris does just enough to keep them in the game and Leonard Fournette punches it in at the end to win it.
Projection: LSU 27, Florida 24