The Mark Miller Report: The real games begin

And so it begins. With all of the turmoil over the first five games of the season it was really easy to forget that the REAL schedule begins this Saturday. With all due respect to Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky, the real meat of the schedule begins in Baton Rouge and carries on through UGA, South Carolina and Florida State. Throw in Missouri and Vanderbilt, who for some reason tends to play the Gators tough, and the gauntlet is right ahead of this Florida team.

Gator fans have been on an emotional roller coaster this season. The defense has impressed but even against Toledo worries were surfacing about the offense. When it imploded the next week against Miami with penalties and turnovers some Gator fans were ready to throw in the towel. Then when starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and All-SEC defensive tackle Dominique Easley both went down with season ending injuries, depression began to set in but reports of Florida’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Two games later the defense looks just fine, backup quarterback Tyler Murphy has surprised nearly everyone with his stellar play and Gator fans are feeling pretty good about themselves and their team. Solid wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas have buoyed everyone’s confidence. Confidence can be a fragile thing, however.

Saturday’s trip to LSU could undo a lot of that euphoria. The Tigers are big, strong and talented. Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has played his way into a pretty high draft status. Running back Jeremy Hill is an absolute beast. This will be the best team Florida has played all season and may well be the best team the Gators face the entire regular season. I know that Georgia beat LSU but, as seems to happen quite often, the Bulldogs had a little luck on their side. Without the fumbled punt I doubt Georgia wins that game and it wasn’t a forced error, Odell Beckham just dropped the ball. The good news is that if the Gators can travel to Baton Rouge and beat LSU they should be in good position to face the rest of their schedule. Even a loss on Saturday is not disastrous. It would take the Gators out of any hope for a shot at the national title but Florida would still control its own destiny in the SEC East.

Winning this game is not an insurmountable task. LSU was cruising along pretty good when Florida shut down their offense last season although this year’s team is scoring points in buckets. I believe that Florida will concentrate early on shutting down the running game and then go after the quarterback. If you do not get pressure on Mettenberger he will pick your secondary apart, even one as good as Florida’s. UF’s defensive backs will have to match up with a very talented group of Tiger receivers to allow for safety help up front to stop the running game. This week is the true measuring stick for just how good this Gator team really is this year. After Saturday there will be no need for speculation, because everyone will know whether or not Florida belongs in the title talk. Of course, this makes the lead up to the game both exiting and a little scary for but if there isn’t a little gut wrenching concern for a game or two each season your team isn’t winning enough to raise the stakes. Games like this are why we are college football fans in the first place.

This week will reveal just how big of a hole the loss of Easley really left. If the Gator defense can hold the potent Tiger offense to twenty points or less it will bode very well for the remainder of the season. With the rash of injuries that have struck the Georgia offense, LSU should be the best offense Florida faces until the season ending matchup with Florida State. It will take everything the Gator front seven has to stop the LSU running game and get enough pressure on Mettenberger to keep him from just waiting until one of those receivers is running free, something they did the entire game against Georgia. If Florida allows that to happen it will be a long ride back from the Pelican State.

On offense, Murphy will for the first time face a defense that is both complex and extremely talented. If he doesn’t falter under the pressure he sees Saturday, he probably will not at any point in the season. Murphy put up some pretty impressive stats against Arkansas going 16 of 22 for 240 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That kind of performance Saturday would certainly help. It will be imperative that the running game is more productive than it was against Arkansas to take some of the weight of Murphy’s shoulders. That means better offensive line play and a much better job of finding the holes that are there by the running backs. I am still not completely sold on Matt Jones. I realize that he may still not be completely up to speed after his ailment but he needs to be much more decisive and explosive. It would not surprise me to see more of Mack Brown this week. For those of you chomping at the bit to see more of Kelvin Taylor, I doubt that Muschamp will risk a freshman carrying the ball against that bruising LSU defense on the road. The most important aspect for the offense this week is avoiding turnovers. You cannot expect to be successful against LSU if you give them extra possessions.

LSU has been extremely fortunate as far as the injury bug is concerned. The Tigers have remained mostly intact this season. But then, they certainly needed to be with ten players leaving early after the 2012 season. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a team have that many players decide to leave early in a single offseason. Even the punter left early. The punter! And that ten doesn’t even include the loss of the Ganji Badger. The LSU offense was not hit very hard by the attrition and it certainly shows. LSU is lighting up the scoreboard. The defense was absolutely decimated. That may play right into Florida’s hands. The Gator defense may well be the best in the country and therefore should be able to at least contain the Tiger offense somewhat. The LSU defense has understandably struggled which could be a blessing for a young quarterback and a questionable offensive line. Florida will need good things to happen on offense to win this game. This might be just the defense to orchestrate that against.

I just do not have a good feel for what I expect to see on Saturday. Florida could manage another ugly, clock-eating game and pull out a win or LSU could win this one in a blowout. I haven’t seen the Gators play against this much talent yet this season. I guess that is what makes college football so much fun to watch. By Saturday night the entire Gator Nation will know what this team is capable of accomplishing in 2013. I hope it is a happy Gator Nation.