Florida at LSU: 3 matchups that will define Top 10 showdown
Tiger Stadium at night.
College GameDay in town.
No. 5 LSU and No. 7 Florida — 2 of the 5 programs in the country with multiple national championships this century.
In terms of pageantry and product on the field, it really doesn’t get much better than that in this sport.
Florida and LSU played rarely until the 1970s, but have met annually since and have played as each other’s designated cross-divisional opponent since the SEC went to divisions in 1992. The series has produced some compelling games but has blossomed into a rivalry over the past decade and a half, with both teams frequently in the national spotlight. Since 2014, every game between them has been decided by a touchdown or fewer, with Florida’s 8-point victory in The Swamp last season the largest margin of victory in that span.
Close games, coupled with a fair share of strange off-field drama has helped stoke the embers of discord in what for a long while was a relatively friendly rivalry. (Anyone want Tim Tebow’s cell phone number? Anyone want to re-litigate whether former LSU AD and general jackwagon Joe Alleva stole a home game over a hurricane again? Or whether the schools should stop scheduling each other for Homecoming? I know I don’t.)
Saturday’s game has all the makings of another special contest, even if Vegas overwhelmingly favors LSU (first game where a team was favored by double digits since LSU routed Florida 41-11 in 2011).
Here are 3 matchups that will define the football game.
LSU’s reshuffled offensive line against Florida’s dominant front
The Gators front 7 has been ferocious this season and in SEC play, they’ve done it without All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga.
Florida is No. 3 nationally in sacks, 8th in tackles for loss and 10th in havoc rate (percentage of plays resulting in sack, tackle for loss, pass defended or broken up). Auburn felt pretty great about its offense after it poured out 56 points and 578 yards on Mississippi State the week before it arrived in Gainesville. Florida absolutely suffocated the Tigers, limiting them to fewer than 300 yards, forcing 3 Bo Nix interceptions and holding the Tigers to just 2-of-14 on 3rd down. Zuniga is expected back for the LSU game, which would give Florida a completely healthy (and eligible to play) defense for the first time in 2019 — a scary proposition for opposing offenses.
The Gators will be by far the best defense LSU has played. How soft have the defenses LSU has played been?
How about this fact — LSU has yet to play a defense that ranks above 68th nationally in total defense (Georgia Southern). If you use the smarter, more informed metric (yards allowed per play) — LSU has yet to play a defense that ranks higher than 52nd (Utah State). And Joe Burrow’s signature game so far? That came against a Texas team that has battled injuries defensively but, given how good Florida has done despite injuries — appears to be just bad at getting stops (104th in total defense and 85th in yards allowed per play).
Florida enters Baton Rouge ranked 10th in total defense, 18th in yards allowed per play, 8th in pass efficiency defense, 16th in rushing defense and No. 1 in interceptions. Per Stats Solutions, Florida also ranks 5th in stop rate (percentage of defensive possessions where they force a turnover, turnover on downs or punt).
The Gators’ defense, suffice to say, will be a huge test for LSU.
LSU’s offense, of course, will be the best unit the Gators have faced by miles. The Tigers have electric talent on the perimeter, a bell-cow running back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire and a bona fide Heisman candidate at quarterback in Joe Burrow. It will be a stout test for Florida, especially without the juice of The Swamp to urge them forward.
So how do you break down strength on strength?
Usually, in big boy football, it starts and ends up front.
LSU’s offensive line returned 4 starters to begin the year but has been shuffled a bit of late, with Ed Ingram returning to the starting lineup after being cleared of a sexual assault accusation and Adrian McGee, who usually plays guard, moved to tackle for former All-SEC All-Freshman team selection Saahdiq Charles, who has been in Ed Orgeron’s doghouse.
The Tigers have actually pass protected decently in 2019, limiting opponents to just 9 sacks in 5 games. That’s still a bit more leaky than Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger would like, but it’s a vast improvement from a unit that gave up more sacks than any offensive line in the SEC a season ago. Some of that is schematic, with new passing game coordinator Joe Brady designing plays to utilize LSU’s elite athleticism in space and get the ball out quickly, rather than have Burrow sit in the pocket. But Florida’s talented secondary, led by All-American CJ Henderson and former All-SEC freshman team corner Marco Wilson will make life a bit more difficult on the Tigers from that vantage point.
The other issue for LSU will be balance. The Tigers’ run blocking has also improved, ranking in the top 40 nationally in success rate (how often a run play goes for a successful number of yards given down and distance) a year after finishing near 100th in that category. But the Tigers have faced only 1 rushing defense in the top 50 (Utah State) — and grinding out 5 yards per carry against a Group of 5 defensive front is hardly like playing Florida’s front 7.
If LSU gives Burrow time, he’s going to make plays. Heck, he’s going to make plenty of plays even when he doesn’t have time. But LSU has to win its fair share of battles up front to make sure Laissez les bons temps rouler on the Bayou Saturday night.
LSU’s version of DBU vs. Florida’s elite wide receivers
The Gators have loads of blue-chip talent in the passing game, led by the senior quartet of Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain and Joshua Hammond.
It seems like a different one steps up from week to week. Against Miami’s talented secondary, it was Hammond. Against Kentucky, Jefferson led the way. Against Auburn, Swain collected 6 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown. The Gators have elite route runners (Jefferson, Swain), vertical threats (Cleveland and NFL prototype 6-4, 215-pound junior Trevon Grimes), and guys with golden hands (Hammond). And all that is before you meet Kyle Pitts, a 6-6, 245-pound wrecking ball of a tight end who with 4.6 speed is entirely too fast for most teams to cover with linebackers and much too big to cover with a nickel or corner (see below).
The good news for LSU?
They have Grant Delpit, the nation’s most versatile DB, who is a tight-end eraser with his size and speed. His battles with Pitts on Saturday night are the stuff NFL scouts dream about. Delpit’s ability to disrupt quarterback timing with his speed in coverage but still lower the boom in run support is a big reason LSU is less susceptible to other team’s mismatch problems. Delpit is good enough to not just provide help — but handle the mismatch himself.
Just an ABSURD INT!🔥https://t.co/jAEbUkuPUD
— PointsBet Sportsbook (@PointsBetUSA) October 5, 2019
Delpit was monitored via concussion protocol this weekend but should play Saturday night.
Joining him to handle the rest of the Gators WR core is freshman sensation Derek Stingley, who leads the SEC in passes defended and opponent completion rate against (a paltry 42% per Stats Solutions). He’s an electric football player and already might be LSU’s second-best defensive back. Much maligned corner Kary Vincent Jr. is also coming off his best game — a big reason a pass defense that was uncharacteristically leaky is back in the top 50 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
The X-factor, of course, is Florida’s offensive line against LSU’s front — but the Tigers usually rely on pressure to get to the quarterback, which means LSU’s backend has to hold up its end of the bargain against the most talented group of wide receivers it will face all season, save the Alabama game.
Florida’s version of DBU vs. LSU’s elite wide receivers
There’s a whole lot of strength on strength in this Florida-LSU matchup and that’s what will intrigue football junkies, scouts and fans alike.
LSU’s receivers are pure difference makers — with 3 guys who already have 20 or more receptions on the young season in Justin Jefferson, the marvelous Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall. Marshall is coming off an injury but returned to practice for LSU Monday, giving the Tigers their full complement of weapons ahead of the Florida showdown.
Of the 3, Chase, a former Florida commit, is the most difficult to defend. He’s fast enough to beat you handily over the top, he runs precise routes, and he’s physical and strong.
— Josh Lemoine (@LsuFBallTruth) September 29, 2019
That’s precisely the type of guy Florida’s secondary has struggled with at times this season — and his production is worth monitoring.
Of course, Florida just played its first SEC game of the Mullen era with Henderson and Wilson on the field together. The returns — 3 interceptions and only 11 completions against — were decent. Joe Burrow is tremendous — but so are Florida’s defensive backs.
Burrow knows this — as does anyone who watched Florida-LSU a season ago.
The team that wins the Battle of the self-proclaimed DBU’s might win the football game Saturday — and remain undefeated.