SEC Week 7 Primer: LSU-Florida is so big, the winner should vault to No. 1
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Florida (+13) at LSU
Almost every game that appears in the slot the rest of the season will have major Playoff implications to one degree or another, and this one more than most. Strictly based on résumé, the winner on Saturday night will have a strong case to wake up on Sunday as the No. 1 team in the nation.
They won’t be – LSU is ranked 5th in the AP poll, Florida 7th, too low to vault into the top spot in a single bound – but they will have a case. A win in either direction will be arguably the best of the season to date. And both sides already have wins over top 10 opponents (Texas and Auburn, respectively) with no other losses; adding another will give the winner undeniably the most impressive pair of scalps of any team at midseason. Any voter willing to start from scratch based on what have you done in 2019 shouldn’t have to think too hard.
Beyond the polls, the survivor will be one step closer to the best-case scenario with visions of a championship beginning to dance in its head. It’s not literally a must-win, standings-wise. But drop 100,000 people into Baton Rouge for a full day of pregaming and by kickoff I doubt it will be possible to convince any of them otherwise.
The stat: 245.8
That’s Joe Burrow’s pass efficiency rating on 1st down, easily the best in the nation and arguably the single most important factor in LSU’s evolution into a spread passing juggernaut. No other FBS passer this season has more yards, touchdowns, first downs or completions of 15-plus yards on 1st-down attempts:
Those are eye-opening numbers across the board, but none more so than the one in the far right column: Nearly 3/4 of the Tigers’ total output on 1st down has come via Burrow’s arm, an unthinkable share for any previous LSU quarterback on what has always been a de facto running down. That’s the type of number usually reserved for the Air Raid.
Because LSU’s offense is not the Air Raid, it also puts defenses in a bind: Playing too soft on the back end on 1st-and-10 is an invitation to a paving by the Tigers’ veteran o-line — the starting 5 averages 321 pounds per man and boasts a combined 84 career starts — while leaving DBs isolated against any one of the emerging trio of Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall Jr., or Ja’Marr Chase is a losing proposition.
It’s exactly this catch-22 on standard/run downs that LSU’s revamped, RPO-friendly scheme is designed to exploit, from standard-issue, quick-hitting RPO looks …
LSU's first TD last night: basic RPO. Joe Burrow sees the LB/S (comes from left side of frame, below ref) crash down on the run, so he pulls it out and finds Ja'Marr Chase for the score.
As Tory Carter said last week, with the RPO, the defense is always wrong. pic.twitter.com/ZjwwhxajOQ
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) September 2, 2019
… to safety-baiting route combinations that takes advantage of the quick-hit threat to open up the deep middle of the field …
¡Terrace Marshall Jr!
Recepción de touchdown de 26 yardas. Gran tarde de Joe Burrow.pic.twitter.com/73Porzu1cD
— Football (@LaloFootball) September 8, 2019
… to pro-style play-action routes that probe the soft spots between the second level and the deep safeties …
Love this angle. Texas showing single high safety, but drops back into Cover 2. Joe Burrow reads it perfectly. Corner and nickel jump the flat. All Burrow has to do is float it to space, where Ja'Marr Chase is coming on a deep cross.
Give Burrow time and he'll hurt you. pic.twitter.com/bgMMpNvD99
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) September 9, 2019
… to straight-up our-guy-is-better-than-your-guy challenges against 1-on-1 coverage:
When it's going well, it's going well.
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) October 5, 2019
Marshall and Chase, especially, have broken out as sophomores largely by outrunning, out-leaping, and just plain out-athleting every opposing cornerback who’s had the misfortune of getting stuck on an island against them. (When healthy, anyway; Marshall sat out last week’s win over Utah State and appears doubtful to play Saturday, although he is listed as a starter on the depth chart.) Florida’s C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson are on an entirely different level, even compared to the blue-chip corners at Texas. The man-to-man battles on the outside when LSU has the ball could be the defining matchup of the game — especially if the Gators struggle to pressure Burrow with a standard 4-man rush. In this case, the better guy is ready for Sundays.
The big question: Can Florida’s offense strike quickly?
Inconsistency has been leavened by a penchant for big plays: 6 players have accounted for at least one scrimmage play of 40 yards or more, including the Gators’ 1st touchdown of the season against Miami, the game-clinching score at Kentucky, and 2 of their 3 touchdowns in last week’s win over Auburn, courtesy of WR Freddie Swain (64 yards in the 1st quarter) and RB Lamical Perine (88 yards in the 4th). Otherwise, it’s been a slog. Aside from the 2 long scores and a short-field TD following a turnover, Florida’s other 14 possessions against the Tigers resulted in 7 punts, 4 lost fumbles, 2 turnovers on downs, and a field goal.
QB Kyle Trask has played reasonably well since taking over for the injured Feleipe Franks; no one, least of all Dan Mullen, expects a career backup in his 1st road start to trade salvos with an aspiring Heisman contender if Burrow is in the zone. The Gators are fully committed to winning ugly. That said: LSU’s highly touted secondary has hardly been invulnerable to the occasional breakdown, and Florida has an abundance of skill players capable of flipping the field on any given play. They’ll need a few.
It might as well be written in the conference bylaws that Florida-LSU will go down to the wire. Each of the past 7 games has been decided by a touchdown or less, with a cumulative score in those games of Gators 134, Tigers 134. Florida ruined LSU’s 5-0 start last year in The Swamp by sacking Burrow 5 times and picking him off twice, including Brad Stewart’s pick-6 to ice the game. Nothing about this series is consistent with a 13-point spread, regardless of the venue.
The fact that it has climbed that high is a testament to just how convincing the Tigers’ spread-era makeover has been. All those years LSU fans looked at the abundance of talent on offense and thought “if only we had a quarterback …” well, they were right. They have a quarterback.
Burrow has been a revelation at the helm of an offense — an LSU offense! — that leads the nation in scoring in mid-October and looks fully capable of gunning it out against anyone, specifically Alabama. What an opportunity that would be to waste.
LSU 31, Florida 23
One of the quietly simmering subplots of the 1st half of the season is Alabama’s extreme youth along the defensive front: In addition to full-time true-freshman starters at nose tackle (D.J. Dale) and both inside linebacker slots (Shane Lee, Christian Harris), the Tide will roll into College Station with a 4th rookie (Justin Eboigbe) listed as a starter at defensive end in place of the injured LaBryan Ray and a 5th (Byron Young) slated as his backup. It’s Bama, so yes, they’re all highly rated with bright futures. Still: That’s a lot of freshmen!
The early returns haven’t exactly been business as usual — South Carolina and Ole Miss combined for 54 points and 935 total yards behind a pair of true freshman quarterbacks in their first SEC start. Next up it’s Kellen Mond, who’ll be making his 27th start.
Defensively, A&M figures to fare about as well against Tua Tagovailoa and his blistering wideouts as the Gamecocks and Rebels did, which is to say not well at all. Offensively, the Aggies have a chance to keep it at least vaguely interesting into the 4th quarter. If so, that will make the outlook at the top of the SEC West over the 2nd half of the season a little bit more interesting, too.
Alabama 39, Texas A&M 24
One of Georgia’s top priorities this season was improving its pass rush after finishing next-to-last in the conference last year in sacks per game. So far, so good: Despite a goose egg in that department against Notre Dame, the Bulldogs have averaged 3 sacks per game (up from 1.7 in 2018), tied for 2nd in the SEC behind Florida. South Carolina could be a ripe target for padding that number a little further — freshman QB Ryan Hilinski has been dropped 10 times in the past 3 games, making him the most sacked quarterback in the league.
Georgia 37, South Carolina 16
I’m as intrigued as anyone by the potential of Ole Miss’ speedy freshman QB, John Rhys Plumlee, in Rich Rodriguez’s offense. Even though Plumlee continues to hold off a healthy Matt Corral for the starting job, a trip to Missouri looks less like a proving ground than a reality check: Since its disastrous opening-day loss at Wyoming, Mizzou has recovered to rank 2nd nationally in total defense, 3rd in yards per play allowed, 10th in scoring D, and 7th in Defensive SP+. Losing bellwether LB Cale Garrett for the foreseeable future is a serious blow, but not serious enough for the Rebels to keep the margin to single digits.
Missouri 34, Ole Miss 17
If you need an excuse to tune in to this thoroughly bland matchup in the noon slot, you can do a lot worse than Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill, who is the SEC’s leading rusher this season and possibly the most entertaining this side of D’Andre Swift. Unlike Swift, Hill’s not much of a threat to take it the distance (his long gain for the year is just 22 yards), but in close quarters he’s capable of embarrassing would-be tacklers with the best of them.
Kylin Hill…just vicious!
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 14, 2019
He’s like a more violent version of Benny Snell. After an abbreviated effort in the Bulldogs’ blowout loss at Auburn, Hill should be back on workhorse duty in Knoxville and back in the all-conference conversation.
Mississippi State 30, Tennessee 19
After 3 consecutive losses, this is a must-win game for Kentucky to remain on track for bowl eligibility — not the optimal moment, in other words, to be mulling the possibility of replacing your starting quarterback with a wide receiver. The Wildcats are optimistic this week that Sawyer Smith will be available despite a lingering shoulder injury that’s limited his effectiveness in the past 2 games and prompted the dynamic Lynn Bowden to practice full-time behind center during UK’s bye week. With the flailing Razorbacks coming to town it’s debatable whether the point spread should budge either way.
Kentucky 26, Arkansas 21
Vanderbilt is 0-5 vs. the spread this season, but UNLV is 0-4 vs. FBS opponents with all 4 losses coming by at least 16 points. If the Commodores can’t hit that mark Derek Mason’s fate might already be sealed.
Vanderbilt 33, UNLV 17
Week 6 Record 4-1 straight-up / 3-2 vs. spread
Season Record: 45-9 straight-up / 27-27 vs. spread