3 matchups that will define the Florida-LSU game
No. 20 Florida and LSU meet Saturday in Baton Rouge (Noon ET, ESPN) in the 68th meeting of what has become one of the SEC’s most unpredictable, dramatic annual battles.
It isn’t just shoe tosses, cell phone touchdown celebrations and Joe Burrow Heisman moments that have made the series memorable. It’s hard-fought, nip and tuck football games. Seven of the past 10 meetings have been decided by a possession, and in 10 of the past 12 games the teams were separated by a possession or less entering the 4th quarter.
Saturday’s game has Florida listed as a double-digit road favorite, but the Gators were double-digit home favorites a season ago and lost, so Vegas doesn’t always peg this game properly.
Given the stakes for Saturday, with Ed Orgeron perhaps coaching for his job and Dan Mullen coaching what is quietly the biggest regular-season game his program has played in his tenure, you can expect another fiercely contested, close football game.
Here are 3 matchups that will define the Florida-LSU game.
Florida’s slow 2021 starts vs. LSU’s slow and late-arriving crowd for an 11 a.m. local kickoff
Slow starts have been an issue for the Gators in conference play. Florida has been outscored 35-34 in the first quarter through 4 conference games, but that includes Florida’s fast 14-0 start against Vanderbilt.
LSU, on the other hand, has surrendered only 7 first-quarter points in 4 games against Power 5 competition. LSU’s issues tend to come later in the football game.
Florida needs to buck that trend Saturday. Playing at 11 a.m. Baton Rouge time on Saturday, the Gators won’t get the raucous, “where dreams go to die” night game in Death Valley they’ve grown accustomed to in this series. A late-arriving crowd is likely and with LSU scuffling, there are empty seats to be had for as low as $50. The Gators struggled mightily with the crowd noise at Kroger Field and need to take advantage of the empty seats and early start before the Tigers fans shake off the cobwebs from a Friday night on the Bayou.
LSU is coming off back-to-back losses and is missing a number of All-American and All-SEC caliber players. But as last season demonstrated, if you let a team full of talent hang around long enough, they will start to believe. The Gators need a fast start to eliminate any sense of belief from LSU, and to make sure a late-arriving crowd never fully impacts the football game.
Can Florida’s defense pressure Max Johnson and keep the LSU passing game in front of them?
Kentucky harangued and harassed LSU quarterback Max Johnson all evening, collecting 4 sacks and 9 quarterback pressures in limiting Johnson to just 6.9 yards per attempt, a low for the Tigers starter in SEC play this season. Florida needs to replicate Kentucky’s pressure — albeit in Tiger Stadium.
LSU ranks a respectable 50th in sack percentage against this season, but Florida, who ranks 18th nationally in sack percentage and 20th in defensive havoc created, will be by far the best pass rush LSU has faced this season. The Gators feature the SEC’s co-leaders in sacks in Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox (6 each). Defensive tackle Gervon Dexter has 2 sacks of his own and 7 quarterback pressures. That’s a formidable group.
If the Gators get after Johnson, they can limit the exposure of their secondary, which has struggled at times this season and could once again be without All-American Kaiir Elam.
Pressuring Johnson consistently is just one piece of a two-prong approach to slowing LSU’s prolific pass game. The other big key for the Gators? Keeping things in front of them and tackling.
Tackling has been an issue for Florida, which ranks 12th in the SEC in tackle success rate. LSU’s explosive plays tend to come on intermediate routes that turn into long runs — and even without Boutte, who was having an All-American type campaign before suffering a season-ending injury against Kentucky, this LSU pass offense can hurt you with the big play. The Tigers have 7 receivers who have a catch of 40 yards or more, a number that leads the SEC. Those big plays are a huge reason the Tigers average 31.1 points per game, a number that if hit, will put pressure on a Florida team that has bested that figure only twice in SEC play.
LSU’s path to a win is straightforward: Keep the crowd in the game by hitting explosive plays and then slow the Florida run game. We focus on that issue, and whether Florida can continue to hit big plays of its own, in the final section.
Does the Florida run game open the door for explosive plays in the pass game?
For all the complaints from social media offensive coordinators about the Florida offense under Emory Jones, the Gators rank 3rd in the country and 1st in the SEC in yards per play (7.1). Florida also ranks 3rd in the country in rushing offense at 273.7 yards per contest, a number that is the best among Power 5 teams. Florida leads the country in yards per rush attempt as well, and figures to gain yards on the ground against an LSU run defense that ranks 77th in the nation in slowing the run and has been shredded by UCLA (210 yards) and Kentucky (330).
The formula for the Bruins and Wildcats in beating LSU was simple but brutally effective: pound the rock again and again until the safeties moved up and then beat the Tigers over the top. Both Kentucky and UCLA averaged well over 10 yards per attempt passing the football — both those numbers were largely a byproduct of hitting shots down the field after establishing the run. Even Derek Stingley Jr. was human after UCLA established the run game (and he, of course, is injured and won’t play against Florida):
Dorian Thompson-Robinson led UCLA to an upset win over LSU in the Rose Bowl yesterday.
He commanded the offense and used his dual threat ability to manage the game and the LSU defense led by Derek Stingley Jr.
?9/16 260 Passing Yards
?3 TDs to 1 INT pic.twitter.com/th0ksPtwcs
— Andrew Harbaugh (@MandrewNFL) September 5, 2021
In Florida’s loss to Kentucky, the Wildcats made Florida drive the length of the field and convert in the red zone. That’s a terrific strategy against a Florida team that ranks 79th nationally in red zone offense — a season after finishing first in the category.
But I’m not sure LSU has the horses to do that, and if they can’t slow the Gators run game, shots over the top may be the key to a Florida upset. If Florida can take advantage of an LSU secondary playing without Eli Ricks and Stingley Jr., the Gators should be in business to collect a rare win in Baton Rouge.