First and 10: Florida is starting to look a lot like LSU -- 2019 LSU
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
The unstoppable offense. The unsteady defense that gets big plays and stops when needed.
That’s right, the Florida Gators are beginning to look a lot like the LSU Tigers from 2019.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Florida quarterback Kyle Trask said. “There are so many weapons in this offense.”
Close your eyes and listen closely, and you can hear Joe Burrow saying the same things in 2019. The similarities are striking.
A year before LSU’s remarkable run, before it made a case to be the best team in the modern era of the game, the Tigers’ wide receiving corps was a mess. They had 26 drops in 2018 and finished 96th among FBS schools with a catch percentage of 84.3%.
Before this season began, Florida’s wide receivers were either young or inexperienced or underachievers. Or all three.
The Gators had 4 receivers from 2019 make NFL rosters, and the returning group included a tight end who was underused (Kyle Pitts), 2 underachieving and or injured wideouts (Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney) and underclassmen and transfers.
Not exactly the best way to begin a season sideswiped and truncated by COVID.
LSU in 2019 gave up 38 points to Texas and Vanderbilt in September, and 41 and 37, respectively, to Alabama and Ole Miss in November. The Tigers never really became a dominant defense, but they did enough over the final month of the season to get stops when it had to.
The overwhelming LSU offense did the rest.
Florida gave up 35 points to Ole Miss, and 41 to Texas A&M, and has gotten better each week. Instead of trying to dominate, the defense, one Florida staffer told me, “realizes it just needs a couple of stops and the other guys are chasing points, and their life is a lot easier because the other guy is then predictable.”
LSU finally beat its nemesis, Alabama, by imposing its will on the Tide (33 points in the first half). LSU had lost 8 in a row to Alabama before winning in Tuscaloosa and taking control of the SEC West Division.
Florida had lost 3 in a row to Georgia, before imposing its will on Georgia (38 points in the first half), winning in Jacksonville and taking control of the SEC East Division.
Even the offensive lines are eerily similar. LSU struggled in 2018 to protect Burrow and create consistent production from the run game. By the end of 2019, there was no better offensive line in the nation.
Florida’s offensive line was average at best in 2019, allowing 25 sacks and leading the way for a run game that was 13th in the SEC (129 ypg.). Through 6 games in 2020, Florida quarterbacks have been sacked 6 times, and the unit has become a team strength.
“They’re both brutally tough to defend,” one SEC defensive coordinator told me. “LSU had more deep threats. So many guys that can run under it, and (Burrow) threw an absolutely perfect deep ball. Florida has those big, physical guys on the outside, and two matchup nightmares with Pitts and Toney.”
He paused for a moment to underscore the severity of the problems in coverage.
“Here’s the thing,” he continued, “all of those guys will go get the ball, you know? So Trask puts it where only they can get it, and it’s impossible to defend. You’ve got 6-3, 220-230 pound guys shielding your corners and safeties and catching everything thrown to them. And then there’s Toney, who doesn’t go down. You ask who’s tougher to defend? It’s death by 100 paper cuts with Florida, or by a bullet deep ball with LSU. Either way, you’re in deep (expletive deleted).”
2. The QB shift
Burrow began the 2019 season as a late-round or free-agent NFL prospect. He didn’t show enough arm talent or accuracy in 2018, and it was clear he wasn’t a fit in the run-first LSU offense.
Enter new passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who took the plodding, misfit LSU offense and turned it into a sleek machine with unique run-pass options and deadly play calling.
Burrow skyrocketed all the way to the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, a rise never before seen in the modern era of the draft. Brady, meanwhile, went from his first season as an LSU assistant, to making $2 million a year as the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
Trask finished 2019 as a novelty of sorts. He picked up the Florida offense when Feleipe Franks (more on him later) was injured in Week 3 and played well for much of the season.
But he wasn’t a fit for Mullen’s typical dual-threat offense that relies on a quarterback’s legs and arm. In fact, heading into spring practice (pre-COVID), there were some on staff who believed Emory Jones – a better fit for Mullen’s offense – could win the job.
Spring practice never happened and Jones never had the opportunity to push Trask, and when it was obvious the season would be played, the smart move was to stick with Trask and eliminate more confusion.
Trask took off in the offense from Game 1, and the receivers got hot and Mullen quickly moved from the days of inside isolation runs (see: Florida 2006-2008) setting up play action, to winging it with Trask.
Once Toney hit his stride in Week 2 and became more of a factor in the offense – and gave the receivers a more dynamic option – the offense was complete. A big tight end who runs like a wideout. Three physical, wideouts who can run past the second level and stretch the field and make tough catches over the middle.
This leaves only one comparison remaining: Where does Trask fit in the NFL?
“There were guys all over the place on him before the season,” an NFL scout told me. “I heard a couple of guys say he won’t even be drafted. I got a text from one of them just Saturday, after the throw to (Justin) Shorter. He said, ‘You might be right.’ Look, I’ve said all along that he had the ability to have a Burrow-type jump.
“He’s not the No.1 overall pick. He’s not even a top 10-15. But he’ll go in the 20s, and if he keeps playing like he has and they have a big season, who knows? His arm is much better than people give it credit for, and he knows the game and throws so accurately when he’s moved (from the pocket).”
3. The Repeat, The Epilogue
The big question still left unanswered: What is the immediate future of this Florida team?
LSU put it all together in the final month of the season on both sides of the ball and became a force unlike any other in the history of the game. Burrow had the greatest single season in the history of college football, and the Tigers finally moved forward from the Crawl Ball era of Les Miles and pining away for the days of Nick Saban.
This season is clearly an outlier. Who knows how many regular-season games will be played (more on that later), or for that matter, who will be eligible for the College Football Playoff?
The only thing we truly know is Florida (barring a disaster) will have 1 loss when it plays unbeaten Alabama (also, barring disaster) in the SEC Championship Game with a spot in the CFP on the line – and maybe the Heisman Trophy, too (see: Alabama QB Mac Jones is really, really good).
Here, finally, we see the one difference between the two strikingly similar seasons of LSU and Florida: the Tigers beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, a Georgia team it manhandled in the 2018 regular season.
Florida hasn’t played Alabama since back-to-back emasculations in the 2015-16 SEC Championship Game, and has lost 6 in a row to the Tide. The last Florida victory was in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, when Mullen was offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer – a job that shortly after the 2008 game, led to his first head coaching job at Mississippi State.
The athletic director who hired him at Mississippi State? Current Alabama AD Greg Byrne.
4. SEC scheduling in flux
Four SEC games were postponed last week because of COVID-related issues, but before you think the SEC will get sideways over a tough weekend, I refer you back to this summer.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 panicked, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 stayed the course.
Or as one SEC AD told me, “We put too much work into this season for our student-athletes to just abandon the plan because of one bad week. It’s a process.”
The hope is the added week of the season – SEC presidents last week approved championship week as an additional play week – will allow teams to finish a complete regular season.
Now, the wrench in the process: if Florida — which already has used its bye week and already is scheduled to play in the open week of Dec. 12 (vs. LSU) — misses another game, there will have to be adjustments.
The SEC doesn’t want to change course from the original plan (it already has with the addition of Dec. 19 as a play week, although that was a fallback plan from Day 1), but it’s clear that the league’s two teams playing in the SEC Championship Game must have equal roads to Atlanta.
If that means completely redoing the remaining schedule to make it work for every team, that will happen. But another SEC AD told me, “We’re not close to being there yet. We are not panicking. We are working the problem.”
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread
- Missouri (-4) at South Carolina
- LSU at Arkansas (-2.5)
- Kentucky at Alabama (-30)
- Ole Miss (+12) at Texas A&M
- Tennessee at Auburn (-10)
Last week: 0-1 (4 games postponed).
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible player. This week: Arkansas QB Feleipe Franks:
“He’s not an early-round guy. But he’s one of those guys who could get to the Senior Bowl, play his ass off, and make teams take a second look. He has all the physical tools you want in a starter. A big guy, strong arm, tough guy, athletic ability. He makes those ‘wow’ throws – and he has been making more of them this season.
“Early in his career (at Florida), he had lapses where you wondered if he even understood the concepts (of the passing game). He got better under (Florida coach) Dan (Mullen), and he’s taking another step with (Arkansas QB/OC Kendal) Briles. He has touch on the flat throws and has velocity on the quick stuff.
“He’s figuring out the intermediate throws and he has always had a really nice deep ball. I’m excited to see him in the Senior Bowl and see what he can do when he’s playing for money, for a job. Some guys shrink in that moment, others thrive in it.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Alabama: It has been 2 weeks since we’ve seen the Tide, but don’t expect a letdown. Kentucky’s defense has gotten worse as the season has progressed.
2. Florida: Maybe there will be a snowstorm, or frigid temperatures, or something that will slow down the Gators’ offense at Vanderbilt. Or maybe just another rout.
3. Texas A&M: When Jimbo Fisher had it going in Tallahassee, his FSU teams would eat up these moments against lower-tier conference rivals on a hot streak. This Ole Miss game will be another good barometer of how far the Aggies have come in 2020.
4. Georgia: We haven’t heard about freshman QB Carson Beck all season. Now he’s getting some first-team reps. That shows the uneasiness of the QB room at Georgia.
5. Auburn: An important moment for Auburn, which overlooked Tennessee 2 years ago and lost at home to a clearly inferior team. Can’t let it happen again to another struggling Vols team.
6. Arkansas: Forget about the Florida loss. An anomaly in a difficult week. Barry Odom’s defense must regroup for LSU’s 2 freshman quarterbacks and snap the Tigers’ 4-game winning streak in the rivalry.
7. Ole Miss: The defense is terrible. But if you can score points in bunches, you’re in just about every game – no matter what it looks like. That separates Ole Miss from the rest of the second tier in the SEC.
8. Missouri: The Tigers face South Carolina, 1 of 4 winnable games for Missouri over the final 5 weeks of the season. South Carolina’s defense has giving up 8.1 yards per play in the last 2 weeks vs. Texas A&M and Ole Miss and just fired head coach Will Muschamp.
9. Kentucky: By mid-December, Kentucky will look back at blown opportunities against Ole Miss and Missouri while staring at a 4-win season. Pick a QB – Terry Wilson or Joey Gatewood – and move forward.
10. LSU: Because of the bye week and COVID postponements, the Tigers will have had 3 weeks to get the defense set. If Franks starts throwing deep ball dimes in a Hogs rout, I’m not sure LSU DC Bo Pelini makes it back to Baton Rouge.
11. Tennessee: The fool’s gold of a 6-game win streak to end last season (against the SEC second tier and UAB and Indiana) made a loyal and proud fan base believe Jeremy Pruitt had turned the corner, especially after the Vols started 2-0 this year. An ugly loss to Texas A&M will cement otherwise.
12. South Carolina: I’ll agree with fired coach Will Muschamp: The Gamecocks are playing hard. The problem: They’re just not that good — and they’re dealing with injuries on the lines of scrimmage. And, now, a coaching change.
13. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are 2nd in the SEC in turnovers forced (12) and might need 3+ at Georgia. That and eliminate any turnovers (SEC-high 19) on offense – and you might just be in the game.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores played their 2 best games of the season and still lost to Mississippi State and Kentucky by a combined 10 points. Florida isn’t happening, fellas. Focus on Tennessee in Nashville next week.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I have a deal for you. We’ll just keep winning, and by the end of the season, if you have Florida ranked ahead of Texas A&M, you have to admit you’re wrong. How anyone can rank Florida ahead of Texas A&M is a mystery to me. So we’ll just keep winning, OK?
Lee: While I’m a big believer in head-to-head scores, there’s certainly room for argument – especially considering the way Texas A&M won the game. If Florida doesn’t gift the Aggies a fumble, the Gators run clock, score and the game is over. The Gators had one drive in the game that didn’t end in points.
More pressing: The idea that the Aggies are going to win out is a huge assumption, especially considering the history of the program under coach Jimbo Fisher. Earlier this season against Florida and Alabama, the Aggies’ defense gave up a combined averaged of 8.5 yards per play, and a whopping 12.6 yards per attempt in the passing game.
Now here comes Ole Miss, which has proven it can score on anyone in the SEC – including Alabama and Florida. Rebels QB Matt Corral has 10 TDs and 0 INT in the last 2 games and completed 89.3% of his passes in those games. Texas A&M has a better defense than Vanderbilt and South Carolina, but a hot quarterback with 3 legitimate NFL receivers (WRs Elijah Moore and Jonathan Mingo, TE Kenny Yeboah) will stress any team.
More than anything, Texas A&M’s College Football Playoff hopes – because that’s what this ranking argument is about – depend on winning out (no easy thing), and either of these things happening: Alabama losing twice before the SEC Championship Game (zero chance) or Florida losing to Alabama in the championship game.
Even then, the Aggies’ resume might not be strong enough to give the SEC a second team in the CFP. The SEC’s best hope at getting two teams in the CFP is Florida winning out and beating unbeaten Alabama in a close game in the SEC Championship. That could be enough to get both Alabama and Florida in the CFP.
9. Numbers: 5.03
The collapse of the Tennessee season has many tentacles, but none more glaring than the play of QB Jarrett Guarantano. Since the second half of a blowout loss to Georgia (that UT led 21-17 at halftime), Guarantano has had a miserable stretch of 3 1/2 games.
In those games, he has completed 56.5% of his passes for 383 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs and 4 fumbles (3 lost). More damning: his average per attempt in that span in a measly 5.03 yards.
To put that in perspective, the nation’s leader in average yards per attempt is Mac Jones of Alabama at 12.4. The lowest in the nation is Spencer Petras of Iowa at 5.7.
The ball isn’t going downfield for Tennessee and defenses are sitting on (and defending) short routes. The passing game has been brutal, the offense can’t move the ball and the result has been a 4-game losing streak. It’s not that difficult to decipher.
10. Quote to note
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, on the pass-catch combination of QB Matt Corral and WR Elijah Moore (27 catches, 463 yards, 5 TD) over the last 2 games: “Another ridiculous game. I don’t know if there’s ever been 2 games back-to-back with a quarterback and receiver, when you add these 2 games up, that have ever done that before. So it’s pretty amazing.”