Who has the edge? Florida at LSU
Where does LSU have its biggest advantage over Florida this weekend?
The training room.
While LSU will give you stories about Leonard Fournette’s ailing ankle, Will Clapp’s bum shoulder and how much the secondary misses Rickey Jefferson, Florida can whip out a M*A*S*H unit roster that will impress anybody.
It starts with starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, continues with both starting linebackers and hits just about every nook and cranny of the Florida roster.
So the SEC East might be decided by who’s left. And LSU could go to the Sugar Bowl based on who it didn’t have to play against (and we’re not talking about South Alabama).
But, hey, there hasn’t been a snap played yet, so let’s make no assumptions. Here are the matchups between the Tigers and (what’s left of) Florida.
When Florida has the ball
QB Austin Appleby vs. LSU pass defense: Usually at Florida in recent years, the most popular player among fans is the quarterback who isn’t playing. For now, at least, Florida fans are more than happy with Appleby after his 17-for-21, 201-yard outing in a 20-7 win over South Carolina in his third start this season for the oft-injured Del Rio.
The Gators are sixth in the SEC in passing and eight in pass efficiency. But Appleby’s numbers (61-for-93, 671 yards, 5 TDs, 2 interceptions) have been better than Del Rio’s stats. Appleby takes care of the ball better and has been more likely to make plays.
But he is going against an LSU defense that, despite having faced the SEC’s heavy hitters — Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Arkansas’ Austin Allen, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts — allows just 200 yards passing a game and is third in the league in pass efficiency defense.
LSU also has 24 sacks, led by nine by linebacker Arden Key, and the Tigers have had a penchant for pressuring quarterbacks into quick decisions. Protection could be an issue with Appleby operating behind a banged-up offensive line missing left tackle David Sharpe to an ankle injury.
UF RBs vs. LSU run defense: Florida has largely abandoned its running back committee and now is featuring Jordan Scarlett (118 carries, 617 yards). The Gators are 12th in the SEC in rushing, averaging just 152.7 yards per game. Florida also has the fewest rushing touchdowns (11) in the league.
That’s bad news going up against the Tigers, who are third in the SEC in rush defense (114 yards per game) and tied for second in yards allowed per carry (3.1). It’s especially bad considering Sharpe’s injury, plus some other injuries along the offensive line.
One of LSU’s unsung heroes has been nose tackle Greg Gilmore, who has held his own since taking over for the injured Christian LaCouture in August camp. There were worries that he wouldn’t be stout enough to keep teams from getting an up-the-middle push. Instead, the Tigers win their share of battles at the line of scrimmage and linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley have cleaned up as two of the SEC’s best tacklers.
Florida receivers vs. LSU pass defense: Playing against a better passing offense than Florida’s last week, LSU gave up just one explosive passing play in the 38-10 win over Arkansas.
That tells you how good the Tigers have been at covering receivers this season. With the help of pressure the Tigers generate from a four-man rush (thanks in no small part to Key’s relentless threat off the edge), LSU rarely allows receivers to get open.
LSU’s trio of cover corners — Tre’Davious White, Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson — are arguably as good as any corner group in college football with the possible exception of the team the Tigers are playing, Florida.
That’s the only good news for the Gators’ receivers. Antonio Callaway (35 receptions, 533 yards), Brandon Powell (30-291), and DeAndre Goolsby (28-219) have been fairly productive and prepare against some pretty talented cornerbacks at their own practice.
But that hasn’t stopped Florida’s pass offense from being, at best, average. Callaway had a huge day last year as a freshman at LSU (100 yards on 3 catches, including a 48-yarder), but much better than average pass attacks have struggled against the Tigers this season.
When LSU has the ball
QB Danny Etling vs. Florida pass defense: When Etling has faced top-5 pass defenses in the SEC, he has wilted, going a combined 25-for-46 for just 225 yards with a touchdown, an interception and eight sacks in losses to Auburn and Alabama.
In Florida, the Tigers are facing a pass defense in that same class as the Alabama schools. The Gators lead the SEC in pass defense (155.1 yards per game, third in the nation) and pass efficiency defense (second in the nation). In Jalen “Teez” Tabor (below) and Quincy Wilson, Florida has a cornerback tandem one could argue is better than LSU’s starting duo.
And Florida also generates pressure. While lacking a single dominant rusher — freshman Jabari Zuniga leads the team with 5 sacks — Florida has 27 sacks (three more than LSU) split up among 15 players.
LSU RBs vs. Florida run defense: This is a matchup of who’s left.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette, limited to six games and 117 carries this season by a nagging high ankle sprain, should be able to go despite aggravating the injury against Arkansas.
The news isn’t as good for Florida linebackers Jarrad Davis (ankle) and Alex Anzalone (broken arm), the Gators’ two leading tacklers. Anzalone is out and Davis isn’t expected to play.
So expect LSU to challenge the Florida run defense with Fournette (117-830 yards, 8 TDs) getting plenty of help from Derrius Guice (101-899 and an SEC-best 8.7 yards per carry).
LSU’s offensive line has had its share of injuries and tackles K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby and guard Will Clapp have all been limited at practice.
But make no mistake, while on paper the LSU rush offense (233.6 yards per game, fourth in the SEC) vs. the Florida rush defense (111.7 ypg, second in the league) is an intriguing matchup, in reality, this is an area LSU will try to exploit.
LSU WRs vs. Florida secondary: The big question for LSU is does Etling lack a go-to receiver, or do the receivers not put up bigger numbers because Etling’s predisposition to spreading the ball around?
Whatever the case, the Tigers lack a consistent, go-to guy. Both Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural have 28 catches, but that’s far less production than expected and neither is averaging more than 13.0 yards per catch.
Third receiver D. J. Chark has been a pleasant surprise, but Etling is as likely to dump the ball to a running back or tight end as he is to throw to any receiver other than the big two.
Florida has the DBs to match with Tabor and Wilson, who between them have seven interceptions and four passes broken up. The Gators will be hurting a little on the back end with safety Marcus Maye out, but this is still one of the best secondaries in the country.
Special teams: Florida’s kicking teams give it an advantage as punter Johnny Townsend (47.3 yards per punt) comes in second in the SEC in punting and kicker Eddy Pineiro is a reliable kicker with 13 field goals and plenty of range.
But LSU has also been good at coverage, coming into the week just behind Vanderbilt for having the league’s best kick coverage (44.4 yards net on kickoffs) and punter Josh Growden has been excellent since a shaky first couple of weeks.
Callaway returned a punt for a touchdown at LSU last season, but neither team is much in the return game this season. And, really, LSU’s lack of field goals (Colby Delahoussaye is just 6-for-9) is merely a reflection of LSU’s ability to convert red zone trips to touchdowns (17 TDs in 25 trips, or 68 percent, second best percentage in the SEC).