Florida football: 5 reasons the Gators can beat LSU
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the undefeated Florida Gators head to Tiger Stadium this Saturday night to take on undefeated LSU in a battle of top 10 teams and storied programs.
College GameDay will be in Baton Rouge to honor the occasion, marking the 2nd consecutive weekend the Gators have played a top 10 opponent in a location hosting College GameDay.
If consecutive top 10 matchups with an undefeated opponent on the national stage doesn’t convince you Dan Mullen has the Florida program back on the march to national prominence, it’s tough to imagine what would. Maybe a win in Tiger Stadium against an outstanding LSU team would convince you?
It’s going to be a difficult challenge for Florida, unlike any it has faced this season. But there is a path to victory.
Here are 5 reasons the Gators can beat LSU.
1. The Respect Card: No one is giving Florida a chance to win
What do the Gators have to do to earn respect?
A week ago, Auburn was the darling of the college football world. It had an elite defense and appeared to finally have the offense to support it. Auburn dropped a breathless 56 points on Mississippi State and with a blossoming star at QB in Bo Nix and Gus Malzahn calling the plays again, happy times had returned to The Plains.
Then Auburn went to Gainesville.
Playing as a home underdog, the Gators bullied Auburn. Bo Nix tossed 3 interceptions, was constantly under pressure and the Tigers managed only 3 first downs for the first 40 minutes of the game, finishing with less than half the yards (269) they had gained against Mississippi State (578) the week before. It’s wild what playing a great defense can do.
You’d think that would have earned the Gators respect, but it didn’t. Most of the postgame stories nationally revolved around Auburn being a fraud, or Florida being sloppy (they were and won by 11 anyway) and erratic on offense.
Would a win at Tiger Stadium earn the Gators respect?
At SDS, Connor O’Gara wrote it not only would give Florida the respect they deserve, it would be a justification to elevate Florida to the top of the October polls. From a résumé standpoint, that’s tough to argue. Florida would settle for respect, which would — or at least should =- come with a win Saturday night.
Most oddsmakers don’t see it happening. The Gators are about a 2-touchdown underdog and national analysts are universally picking the Tigers. CBS’s Brady Quinn picked LSU to “win handily.” Fox Sports’ George Wrighster doesn’t think the Gators are a top 10 team and he expects LSU to roll (disclaimer: Wrightster said Auburn would roll Florida last week — so he might not be a great source). Every college football writer at Sports Illustrated has picked LSU, with Ross Dellenger saying the Gators just “can’t keep up.”
Florida has been down the “no one thinks you can win” road before this season. They found a way to deliver. There’s no reason they can’t do it again Saturday night, especially because …
2. Championship defense travels
One reason “defense wins championships” is that championships are a journey. They aren’t won in one game in Atlanta or 2 games in the College Football Playoff. In this sport, where the beauty of the regular season is there’s so little margin for error, championships are built on the backs of road wins in October. To win the games that build championships, you better play salty defense.
Not many teams in America have played defense like Gators. Florida ranks 11th nationally in total defense, 9th in pass efficiency defense, 18th in yards allowed per play, 3rd in sacks, 1st in red-zone defense, 7th in defensive havoc rate (number of plays resulting in sack, tackle for loss, pass deflection or breakup) and 5th overall in S & P+ defensive efficiency. This is, as I wrote after the Auburn game, a mean congregation of ornery alligators, precisely the type of swarming, suffocating defense that wins championships.
Defense tends to travel. It’s not bothered much by crowd noise, relying on assignments, athletes and discipline. Florida’s defense will show up Saturday night, and being competitive kids, they’ll be juiced for the opportunity to play the best offense in the SEC.
3. Florida’s defensive line vs. LSU’s offensive line is still, “Advantage, Gators”
Even without All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga, the Gators’ pass rush has been ferocious. The Gators are top 5 nationally in sacks and top 10 in sack rate and defensive havoc rate, which makes them, to no one’s surprise, easily the best front LSU has faced.
Last season, the Gators gave LSU fits, particularly their tackles , who were overwhelmed by Florida’s speedy rush ends and exotic blitz schemes. The Tigers allowed 11 tackles for loss, 8 pressures and 5 sacks against Florida, a key reason Florida won the game.
The Tigers have been waiting for vengeance, and have improved a bit, moving from 101st last season in opponent sack rate to 59th entering the Florida game, but with a reshuffled offensive line that leaves it open who will start on Burrow’s blindside (where Florida All-American candidate Jon Greenard eats), this matchup still favors Florida on paper.
LSU’s new scheme under passing coordinator Joe Brady should scheme out some relief for the Tigers as well — forcing Florida to tackle in space — but at some point, LSU will be off-schedule this game and will have to throw from a clean pocket.
Florida can win those battles.
4. Florida’s depth at wide receiver and tight end can stress LSU’s defense
One fascinating narrative to emerge from Florida’s win over Auburn was the idea that the Gators aren’t particularly good offensively.
On the contrary, Florida gained 399 yards of offense against Auburn’s tremendous defense, easily the most the Tigers have surrendered all season, and chalked up 5.5 yards per play, also a season high.
If Derrick Brown didn’t exist, Florida likely scores on 2 other red-zone possessions where Brown took the ball away from Kyle Trask. LSU is good up front, but Derrick Brown isn’t walking through the door for Dave Aranda’s defense.
Florida does most of its damage in the passing game, where LSU has been weakest defensively.
The Gators rank a respectable 32nd in S & P+ offensive efficiency and an impressive 22nd nationally in yards per pass attempt. The biggest reason Florida is successful in the passing game isn’t just Kyle Trask’s accuracy, it’s an elite group of wide receivers and tight ends that features 6 players with 12 receptions or more on the season. (That doesn’t include RB Lamical Perine, who has 18 catches.) Contrast that with LSU’s talented group, which has only 3 such players, and you get an idea of how good Florida is at spreading the wealth.
Florida’s best receiver changes from game to game, mostly based on who a defense decides to negate. But the Gators are especially lethal on slants and deep crosses, where they average 9.7 yards per attempt, per Stats Solutions. Where is the LSU defense weakest? You guessed it — on slants and deep crosses in the middle of the field, where the Tigers have allowed opponents to complete 72% of throws (13th in the SEC ahead of only Vanderbilt) and 10.1 yards per attempt (3rd-worst in Power 5) on throws over the middle.
Florida’s wide receiver and tight end depth give Mullen the formational flexibility to attack in many ways in the passing game — and that could give the Gators an edge Saturday night.
5. Joe Burrow and LSU might be overconfident, too
Did you hear all the chirping out of the LSU camp this week?
Grant Delpit talking about how much the teams don’t like each other was fine but was that Joe “wave on the sidelines” Burrow giving a lecture on celebrating? Was that LSU players saying they don’t know the name of Feleipe Franks, who in addition to being a longtime LSU commit, led Florida to a victory over LSU last season and put up better numbers — and won more games — in 2018 than Burrow? That’s a lot of saltiness on the LSU side of things and while Burrow said he “knows (Florida) doesn’t like them much,” the Florida sideline has been very quiet this week, mostly praising their opponent and, as Van Jefferson said, “looking forward to a tremendous opportunity.”
Sometimes you can be too fired up, commit silly penalties and make mistakes when you are overamped. Maybe that helps the Gators. Maybe not.
The thing is, LSU should be confident.
The Tigers are putting up video game numbers on offense. How’s this for a fun stat: since losing 29-0 to Alabama in their last big night game at Tiger Stadium, the Tigers have scored 40 points or more in 8 of their past 9 games — and 8 straight! LSU is No. 1 nationally in scoring offense, No. 2 in total offense and passing offense, 6th in yards per play and 7th in yards per pass attempt. Talk about elite.
Of course, here are the rankings of the 4 FBS defenses they’ve faced, both in total defense and in yards allowed per play: Georgia Southern (60th/89th); Texas (104th/85th); Vanderbilt (125th/129th); Utah State (95th/52nd). That’s … not good.
Florida won’t just be the first great defense LSU has played; they’ll be the first top 100 Power 5 defense LSU has played period.
Maybe LSU’s swagger is a bit of an over-inflated balloon. We’ll find out soon.