Buckle up, everybody. The 2021 Florida-LSU game is only two days away, and there are no limits as to what kind of craziness will transpire at Tiger Stadium.
The Florida-LSU game has been one of the nation’s most intense and bizarre rivalries over the last 15 years or so.
It all started in 2006 when a freshman quarterback named Tim Tebow lofted his first jump pass to a stumbling Tate Casey in the back of the end zone to help lead the Gators to victory.
That’s now like the 10th most memorable thing that’s happened between these two teams in the last 15 years.
In 2007, LSU went 5-for-5 on fourth down conversions and stunned the Gators with Jacob Hester’s game-winning touchdown run with just over a minute left.
In 2009, there was uncertainty as to whether Tebow would play or not following his concussion at Kentucky two weeks earlier.
The Tigers used a controversial bounce pass from their holder on a fake field goal to win in the Swamp in 2010. Many in Gator Nation probably still believe that it should’ve been ruled an incomplete forward pass.
In 2014, the Tigers drilled a 50-yard field goal with three seconds left to win.
The following year, Gator Nation was stunned by the news that quarterback Will Grier would miss the rest of the season after testing positive for a banned substance just five days before the game in Baton Rouge.
Hurricane Matthew forced the postponement of the 2016 game in Gainesville and led to several weeks of bitter arguing and animosity between the two schools and their fans. Eventually, the game was rescheduled for later in the year in Baton Rouge. The Gators pulled out the win in dramatic fashion by making a goal-line stand on the final play. Afterward, then-Florida coach Jim McElwain commented that LSU “got what they deserved.”
The Tigers returned the favor by taking advantage of a missed extra point and winning by a single point in the Swamp in 2017. That game also marked the beginning of UF’s “I Won’t Back Down” tradition.
In 2018, Louisiana native Brad Stewart sealed an upset win for the Gators by intercepting a Joe Burrow pass and returning it for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
And, of course, we didn’t just get one insane Florida-LSU week last year; we got two. The game was originally scheduled for Oct. 17, but more than 30 Florida players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19 the week of the game, forcing a postponement.
The game was made up on the final day of the regular season. LSU won thanks in part to Marco Wilson throwing a shoe after making a third-down stop and Evan McPherson missing a field goal attempt that nobody actually saw because of a thick fog that enveloped the Swamp.
Got all that?
If recent history’s an indication, Saturday’s game in Baton Rouge between No. 20 Florida and LSU will not only be extremely competitive, but there will also be one or two plays that will forever be engrained into the memories of everyone who watches.
“I think it’s a great rivalry,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “Things that go into it: One, we play every year. Two, it’s two great programs that have won as you go back to all those dates. We’ve each won two national championships in that time frame, if I’m right on that. And you look at all the games coming down right to the wire – and not all of them – but a lot of them coming right down to the wire and being these tough battles, I think that’s what makes it a great rivalry game.
“It makes it must-see TV to go watch great players, great teams that are championship-level teams that go in and play a game that comes right down to the wire. It makes it a great rivalry.”
The buildup to this game feels very similar to last year. Florida is favored, LSU (3-3, 1-2 SEC) is dealing with a slew of injuries, and Tigers coach Ed Orgeron is sitting on the proverbial hot seat.
The Gators (4-2, 2-2), of course, hope to avoid a similar outcome.
“It’s been crazy,” UF defensive end Zachary Carter said. “But, I just feel like, as far as game plan, we really just have to go out there and execute, and we can’t make the stage bigger than what it is. It’s a big game – every SEC game is a big game – but we have to go out there and execute. We know we’re on the road, and, last time we were on the road at Kentucky, things didn’t really go well. We had a lot of penalties and mistakes, but those things will hopefully be cleaned up for this week.”
The Tigers will perhaps have more talent standing on the sideline than they will playing in the game. Both of their starting cornerbacks, Derek Stingley (foot) and Eli Ricks (shoulder), will miss the game with injuries. Both of them are considered future first round picks.
Starting defensive end Ali Gaye (undisclosed) will also miss the game. He’s made 2.5 sacks in four games.
Their top offensive playmaker, Kayshon Boutte, suffered a season-ending leg injury in the fourth quarter against Kentucky last week. He made 38 catches for 509 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Their next best receiver, Brian Thomas, has made 14 catches for 188 yards.
Defensive back Major Burns and defensive lineman Joseph Evans will also miss the game with injuries.
Despite all of the key injuries, the Gators say that they won’t overlook LSU like they did last year. The Tigers recruit at an elite level, so the players that will be filling in are enormously talented but just haven’t gained much experience yet. They’ve got to prepare as if this will be the week that those talented young players break out.
“They have guys all around the field,” quarterback Emory Jones said. “Even though [Stingley’s] out, the next man up, he’s a talented guy. That whole defense is talented. They do a lot of different things with the defense. They man up a lot, so we’ll have to win some one-on-one matchups. We’re just going to prepare this week and make sure we’re ready.”
Offensively, LSU is one of the least balanced teams in the country. They’re averaging just 83.3 rushing yards per game, which is the third-worst mark in the FBS. They’re also averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, which is last in the SEC.
Still, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said that dominating the line of scrimmage is a point of emphasis. They’re not just going to assume that they’ll have the advantage there and focus on winning on the perimeter.
“It’s a big man’s rivalry in the sense of they’re going to be really physical,” he said. “They’re going to work to try to control the line of scrimmage. They’ve got really good athletes outside they can get the ball in space to, so we understand we’ve got to play as a unit. We’ve got to be able to be stout up front. We’ve got to be able to set the edges, build the walls in the run game.
“We’ve got to be able to cover them outside, and then we’ve got to be able to squeeze off the space plays and make sure we get guys to the ball so that we don’t give up explosive plays. We know we’ve got a challenge, and they’re a talented team. We’ve just got to play to our ability and execute and do the things that we do well.”
LSU’s passing game, meanwhile, has been pretty good under the direction of left-handed quarterback Max Johnson. They’re averaging 296.2 yards per game, which is 22nd in the country.
“I think that Max has done a really good job of developing himself from year one to year two,” Grantham said. “He kind of understands where to [go with] the ball both in the run game and then the pass game. Got a really strong arm; he can throw it from sideline to sideline. He has enough athletic ability that he can extend plays, or he can get yards if he has to.
“They can run quarterback runs with him to make it an 11-on-11 game. He’s confident in the 50-50 balls of throwing it up and letting guys go make plays. So, he’s done a really good job of developing himself and being a guy that can make the hard throws, can make the throws into tight coverage. So, he’ll be a challenge for us to go play.”
Johnson ranks second in the SEC with 17 touchdown passes. He’s one of the most efficient deep ball throwers in the country, though it remains to be seen if he’ll still be able to enjoy success with the deep balls without Boutte.
“They have a lot of talented players outside,” Grantham said. “Some of them are young, but they’ve got some dynamic guys that can stretch the field vertically. You get them the ball in space, they can make you miss. So, it’s not going to change what they do. They’ll just distribute the ball to different people with him being out. We’re going to have to make sure we do a good job of closing that space off and tackling and getting those guys on the ground because they’re really talented outside at the receiver position.”
Johnson also has a toughness about him that his teammates feed off of. He threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 52 yards against UF in the Swamp last year.
“To me, I think he also has that moxie,” Mullen said. “He makes plays, he scrambles around, he extends plays. He kind of has a great feel for that stuff. You look, and you’re probably not saying this guy’s the scrambling, dynamic, running quarterback. Then you watch him move [and] not many people catch him. He’s hard to get your hands on.”
On the other side, the Tigers are underachieving on defense for the second year in a row. They’re 11th in the league in scoring defense (26.2 points per game), 11th in total defense (385 yards per game), ninth in rushing defense (154.2 yards per game) and 11th in passing defense (230.8 yards per game).
“Lot of four-down primarily,” Gators running back Dameon Pierce said. “Not really extravagant on any pressures; they’re going to show you what they’re bringing for the most part. Overall, it’s an SEC defense. They’re going to have talented guys on that side. They’re going to have talented guys on that side of the ball. They’re going to have athletes who make plays, and we’ve got to scheme accordingly.”
LSU may have terrific athletes, but they haven’t made many plays so far. Their six takeaways are tied with Florida for eighth in the conference.
Kentucky rushed for 330 yards against them last week, and the Gators are the nation’s third-ranked rushing offense, so the Gators should be able to wear LSU’s defense down and control the pace of the game.
If LSU is somehow able to force the Gators into obvious passing situations, they are good at rushing the quarterback. They’re tied with the Gators for second in the league in sacks at 3.33 per game.
BJ Ojulari is tied for second in the SEC with five sacks, while Andre Anthony (3.5) and Maason Smith (three) rank among the top-20.
It’s important that the Gators keep running the ball well and make LSU’s pass rush a nonfactor.
“Playing in this game has always had a history of coming down to who had a better offensive and defensive line,” UF offensive lineman Stewart Reese said. “Playing them in the past at Mississippi State and playing them last year, there were plays that they made on the offensive and defensive [lines], and there were plays that we made on the offensive and defensive line.
“It came down to who wanted it more and who had that hunger to get after it. We were hungry for it, but they made more plays than us last year, so we ended up not winning. But, yeah, this game for me has always had a history of coming down to whose big men were always better and more prepared in the game.”
There’s a cliché in sports that you can throw the records out the window when bitter rivals play. While that expression is probably overused, it’s definitely proven true when it comes to Florida versus LSU.
“First thing that comes to mind is anything can happen with it being a big-time SEC matchup and, on top of that, being a rivalry,” Pierce said. “Guys on both sides [play] harder than they usually play. It’s a mutual dislike between the two teams. That’s going to make it a very competitive game.”
What does the next chapter have in store?
As another SEC head coach might say, get your popcorn ready.