Game 1: Miami Hurricanes
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats
Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers
Game 6: Auburn Tigers
|LSU TIGERS (2018: 10-3, 5-3 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Ed Orgeron||9 offense, 7 defense||402 YPG/32.4 PPG||346 YPG/20.9 PPG|
|4th year (25-9)||82%, 70% of stat production||69th/39th in FBS||30th/22nd in FBS|
All time series: Florida 33, LSU 29 (3 ties)
Introduction: The Florida-LSU rivalry often goes a long way toward determining whether that season is ultimately labeled a success or failure. It’s usually played early enough that there’s still about half a season remaining after the clock hits zero, but take this theory out for a test drive: if not for Hurricane Matthew wiping out a lopsided 2016 win over Presbyterian, Florida’s victories over LSU in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2016 and 2018 would have correctly foreshadowed double digit win seasons. Conversely, losses to LSU in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 exposed those various teams’ weaknesses- and sure enough, in some form or another, things went from bad to worse real quick later on down the road. The rivalry became permanently upgraded from “bitter” to “downright nasty” in 2016, with the scheduling debacle that soon went public. Florida has won two of the three games since, including the Goal Line Stand From Tiger Land, and now they make their first trip back to the Bayou since that all went down.
Joe Burrow returns for year two at the reins, and now we’ll find out if he is indeed an elite quarterback or just a solid one. His numbers last year were respectable: 219-379 with 2,894 passing yards and 16 TD’s. He did throw a game-losing pick six to Brad Stewart in the Swamp last year, but for the most part he was extremely careful with the ball and made the correct decisions. 2019 will also see him taking on new, and different, responsibilities. Ed Orgeron brought in Joe Brady from the Saints to install pieces of their high-flying passing attack, while also planning to implement some run-pass option. If Burrow picks it up quickly, this offense could be terrifying.
Burrow will have a pair of dangerous running backs to hand the ball to as well. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (658 rushing yards and 7 TD’s in 2018) returns, and the Tigers also add five star running back John Emery, Jr. Even better for LSU, the Tigers return four of five offensive lineman from a strong unit in 2018, including center Lloyd Cushenberry III and Damien Lewis at right guard. If Emery can harness his ability right away, LSU could be even better on the ground than a year ago despite the loss of Nick Brosette.
LSU also has the pieces to thrive through the air. All four of the Tigers’ leading receivers are back, including top target Justin Jefferson (54 catches, 875 yards, six touchdowns in 2018). Though not as consistent as Jefferson in terms of the threat they present, Stephen Sullivan, Derrick Dillon and Ja’Marr Chase totaled 983 yards worth of receptions a year ago. The one hole here is that LSU must find a replacement for departed tight end Foster Moreau, but there are a multitude of candidates to do it- and at worst, this is ultimately a survivable weakness given the pieces they have everywhere else.
Offensive grade: A-. This unit is absolutely loaded. Transitioning offensive styles could make for some confusion here and there, and should always be treated as a yellow light in college football, but the talent is there for the Tigers to have the best offense in America- even if Burrow plateaus as a “good, but not great” quarterback.
You can always count on Ed Orgeron coaching up a strong defensive line, and this year’s LSU front is no exception. It’s led by DT Rashard Lawrence, fresh off an MVP performance in the Fiesta Bowl, and end Glen Logan (99 tackles and eight sacks between them in 2018). Losing nose tackle Ed Alexander hurts, but as a result of his frequent injuries last year, his backup Tyler Shelvin saw a fair amount of playing time and should be plugged into his spot seamlessly. And Breiden Fehoko should be back and fully healthy after undergoing surgery on his biceps. That’s a quartet of starters that will be playing in the NFL in the not so distant future, which means even good offensive lines will have their hands full with them.
There’s no replacing do-everything linebacker Devin White, but when you recruit the way LSU has these past few years, you can reduce the drop-off. Second leading tackler Jacob Phillips (87 stops, one sack in 2018) will anchor the unit, teaming up with Patrick Queen (40 tackles, one sack) on the inside.The two hybrid roles are in good hands as well, with former Gator target K’Lavon Chaisson regaining his BUCK spot after missing 2018 with a knee injury and Michael Divinity (54 tackles, five sacks) controlling the F-linebacker slot.
If there’s such a thing as a lock for All-American honors in July, it’s strong safety Grant Delpit- one of many talented DB’s the Tigers have in 2019. Delpit- who recorded five sacks, five interceptions and nine passes defended in 2018, truly does it all. And he’ll have help serving as the defense’s goalie, with free safety JaCoby Stevens coming on strong. The cornerback roles will be occupied by highly rated ex-Gator targets Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley, the latter of whom faces the unenviable task of replacing Greedy Williams.
Defensive grade: A. Losing Alexander, White and Williams will sting. But those departures are the difference between an A+ unit and an A unit. LSU’s defense is stockpiled with talent and should again be among the nation’s best.
Key Matchup: QB battle. Feleipe Franks vs. Joe Burrow, Part I went to Franks, as Burrow’s late pick six to Stewart and ensuing there-is-no-longer-any-doubt-about-this-game’s-outcome interception to Donovan Stiner made all the difference last year in a 27-19 Florida win. These two teams appear to again be fairly evenly matched across the board for the rematch in Tiger Stadium (aside from maybe Florida’s o-line vs. LSU’s front seven) and so this game could very likely come down to which side gets the better quarterback play. That means who makes the better decisions, who takes better care of the football, who takes what the defense gives him, who improvises and extends the play, and yes, who throws for more yards. The quarterback who proves superior in the totality of those metrics will in all likelihood be the winning quarterback.
Florida key to victory: block LSU’s front seven. Dan Mullen is as masterful a “chess player,” so to speak, as you’ll find in football. But not even he can do too much about it if his offensive line is assaulted in the trenches by LSU because the Tigers have speed elsewhere to take away the quick outside passing game that he would likely revert to. The Gators’ big uglies are, in actuality, probably a good deal better than most give them credit for. But they’d better be ready for three and a half hours of war the likes they haven’t yet seen in 2019. If Florida can’t at the very least provide some running lanes for LaMical Perine, Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce, much less pass block for Feleipe Franks, this game is going to be nothing short of an abject nightmare.
LSU key to victory: establish the run pass option. Auburn will probably run some RPO the week before, so it’s not like Florida won’t have seen it heading into this game. But unless Burrow simply can’t do it for whatever reason, LSU will probably be better at it, and thus Florida’s defense needs to be ready to play some of the best assignment football of its collective life. Florida’s secondary (particularly its two corners) won’t be fazed by a pass-heavy attack, but if Burrow proves to be a threat with his legs, the Gators may be faced with a problem they cannot solve.
Fun fact(s): There isn’t a rivalry in college football that has been as dead even as Florida and LSU in recent years. The last five games, seven of the last nine, and ten of the last fifteen games have been decided by a single possession. In fact, over the last seven games, this rivalry literally has been dead even, with the aggregate score between the two teams knotted at 134 points apiece. And over the last fifteen matchups, Florida leads by a meager seven points. But it hasn’t always been that way.
There was a time not too long ago where the Gators absolutely dominated LSU. From 1988 to 2001, Florida won 13 of the 14 games played between the two, and many by ridiculous margins. Blowouts of historic proportions rained down on LSU during the Spurrier days, highlighted by the mother of all beatings: a 58-3 evisceration of the toothless Tigers in Baton Rouge in 1993. That score made some of the other maulings of the Tigers in that stretch look like nail-biters by comparison, with scores like 56-13, 41-9, 44-15, 34-8, 42-18, 31-10, 28-10 and 16-0. Only twice in the twelve Florida-LSU games that Steve Spurrier coached did LSU not lose by two touchdowns or more, when the teams exchanged 28-21 wins on their home field.
Also noteworthy is that home field just doesn’t seem to matter in this series. LSU is actually 5-4 in their last nine trips to the Swamp, and Florida is 12-7 in its last nineteen visits to Death Valley. And that weird level of success for the visiting team extends to situations where the home team is clearly the better team, most notably in 2003, when a 3-3 Gator team traveled to Red Stick to take on the #6 and undefeated Tigers. Florida won, 19-7, in a year in which they would finish 8-5 and lose the Outback Bowl; LSU would bounce back from that loss to run the table and win the national championship.
This is not your grandfather’s LSU team, or even your older brother’s LSU team. The ground and pound offense is gone without a trace and replaced by a currently unknown hybrid of the Drew Brees Saints offense and RPO, and even the Tigers’ blueprint is different. Sure: LSU is going to live and die by its defense, which continues to mold talented youngsters into monsters, and they have a dynamic pair of running backs to lean on offensively if all else fails. But LSU has a real offense now, too- or at least they have the pieces to have one. Telling that to an Alabama fan will probably result in hysterical laughter, but no non-Alabama team other than Florida really stopped it last year, and this year it can be even better.
The million dollar question about this LSU team is: is the RPO something that they can do consistently, or is it just a flash in the pan that any disciplined defense can stop with well executed assignment football? Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson and Trey Dean are really not very likely to be overwhelmed by LSU’s receivers, as good as they are, so if Burrow is forced to throw the ball too many times, the Tigers’ chances start to dip. But if LSU can repeatedly dink and dunk its way up and down the field, the Gators are going to have a real problem.
Ultimately, what I think happens is that we get another classic, back and forth game between two evenly matched, great-but-not-elite teams in Death Valley, and whoever makes the last big play wins. (Or whoever makes the last big mistake loses.) Just like the last time these programs did battle in Red Stick, Florida will hold a late lead and LSU will get the ball back with a chance to win it. This time, though, LSU is one play better in the end. Clyde Edwards-Helaire plows into the end zone in the final minute to give the Tigers a thrilling comeback victory.
Projection: LSU 23, Florida 20