5 reasons Florida will beat LSU and win the SEC East
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If you’re an LSU fan, or a Tennessee fan, it’s easy to be confident that Florida will lose Saturday in Baton Rouge.
UF enters the game missing their top three tacklers Jarrad Davis (56), Alex Anzalone (53) and Marcus Maye (50) at the worst possible time, going up against an LSU offense with a healthier Leonard Fournette, who will be spelled by Derrius Guice, a ball-carrier averaging 8.7 yards per carry. On top of that, a team that has lost two-of-three road contests has to play what was supposed to be a home game on the road in a hostile environment because of the opponent’s demands.
It’s no surprise to see the Gators are a 13.5-point Vegas underdog, but here’s five reasons they’ll win straight up and clinch the SEC East title:
1. Austin Appleby’s almost done it before: Florida’s best first half this season was when it scored 24 points against Kentucky. It’s most impressive half of play, however, came at Tennessee when Austin Appleby led the Gators to a 21-3 lead at the break in Konxville.
In the first half against Tennessee, Appleby was 10-of-16 for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns. Antonio Callaway’s season-high 134 receiving yards came in those two quarters of catching passes from Appleby.
There’s nothing quite like a big passing play to quiet the Death Valley crowd. The Gators have a better chance of hitting a deep ball with the stronger Appleby at quarterback over the injured Luke Del Rio.
2. The Gators are more focused: The Tigers sure are feeling confident this week. Edge rusher Arden Key said that with so many injuries, the Gators are obviously scared to come to Baton Rouge, something he knows will make the bulletin boards in Gainesville.
One of Florida’s biggest talkers, Teez Tabor, had the opportunity to respond Tuesday. Instead of giving the Tigers any bulletin board material, he pretty much shrugged it off, saying if the Gators are so scared, why is the game being played in Tiger Stadium?
“Not really. I don’t think we’re scared,” Tabor said. “It says something about somebody who is going in someone else’s neighborhood when you’re supposed to come to our neighborhood and fight. I don’t see how that is scared at all. You’re going into the enemy territory. … But we might be, though, if that’s what they think, I guess.”
If you’re wondering why Tabor used “neighborhood” for LSU’s stadium, it’s because he’s listening to his coach.
“You’re getting tested here, all right? You’re getting a chance to go into somebody else’s neighborhood and go take something they want,” McElwain said at Monday’s press conference when discussing the team’s motivation.
The Gators are locked in and on message while LSU seems to be more interested in trash talk.
3. Florida’s receiving corps is the best it has been all season: LSU is obviously well aware of Callaway. But if the Tigers think they can shut down Florida’s passing game by focusing on the sophomore playmaker, they’ll likely be in trouble.
For weeks the Gators have been searching for someone else to step up in the passing game, especially the vertical passing game, and take coverage away from Callaway, who had 3 catches for 100 yards against the Tigers last year in Death Valley. In Week 12, they finally have other options.
Former blue-chip recruit Tyrie Cleveland earned his first start in the Missouri game and made an immediate impact (3 catches, 79 yards, TD). He hurt his ankle against Arkansas, but played last week against South Carolina and was practicing with the first-team offense on Tuesday. With a frame of 6-foot-2, 196 pounds and 4.38 40-yard dash speed, Cleveland is someone LSU has to cover when he’s on the field.
The most positive recent development for Florida could be senior wideout Ahmad Fulwood, who made two big receptions against South Carolina. On a 30-yard jump ball pass, Fulwood took an aggressive approach knowing he had the matchup won purely by his size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds).
It’s something the coaches have been asking him to do since the day he stepped on campus. If he’s finally adopted that approach, he could add to his highlight tape in Baton Rouge.
4. DBU, Callaway can spot the offense two scores: While it’s easy to write off Florida’s chances because of a lack of offense, not all of the team’s points have to come with Appleby and the offense on the field. The Gators have ways of scoring when LSU is throwing or punting the ball.
The Tigers will likely rely on Fournette and Guice against a Florida defense missing its top two linebackers, but they’ll have Danny Etling throw at times to avoid going completely one dimensional. Any time the ball is in the air, it’s a chance for future NFL cornerbacks Tabor and Quincy Wilson to score. The pair have combined for seven interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes.
Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, Tabor and Wilson have had an extra week to watch LSU film and get familiar with the passing routes. Watch for a jumped route to turn into a Gators touchdown.
As LSU certainly remembers, Callaway is a threat in the punt return game, as he took one back for 72 yards a year ago in Death Valley as a freshman. He has yet to notch a punt return for a touchdown this season, but almost had one a week ago against South Carolina if not for a penalty. This week he gets a score with no flags.
5. No one’s giving the Gators a chance: The last time Jim McElwain’s squad entered a game in which no one gave his team a shot at winning was against Alabama in the 2015 SEC Championship Game. The Gators entered the game struggling to score and move the ball through the air, failing to even register a touchdown against FSU, and the Crimson Tide had a dominant defense and future Heisman winner on offense. It was supposed to be ugly.
Florida actually held its own in the early going and trailed only 12-7 at the half, eventually falling 29-15 when the clock showed all zeros. The 2016 Tigers are rightfully the favored team. On paper, they should be able to run at will on a banged-up Florida defense. And LSU’s pass-rushers might be asked to pay rent for the amount of time they spend in UF’s backfield.
But LSU is not quite last year’s national champions, and UF won’t be starting Treon Harris at quarterback. Sure, a million holes can be poked in a transitive property prediction (especially one based on a Florida loss). But the current mix of external disrespect and internal confidence is just right for the Gators to play up to the competition, overachieve and pull off the upset.