The storylines surrounding Saturday’s game between No. 20 Florida and LSU feel very similar to last year’s meeting, which has to be frightening to everybody in Gator Nation.
The Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) are still mathematically alive in the SEC East race, while the Tigers’ season is essentially over at this point. They have been all but eliminated from West division contention, they’ll be missing a handful of key starters on both sides of the ball and coach Ed Orgeron’s future with the program is in doubt, to say the least.
But all of those things, save for maybe the Orgeron hot seat talk, were true last Dec. 12. when the Tigers stunned the Gators in the Swamp.
The Gators will look to redeem themselves by dispatching of the undermanned Tigers (3-3, 1-2) in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
Here are my five keys to victory for the Gators this week as well as my score prediction.
1. Handle the road environment better than they did last time
In the Gators’ only other conference road game this season, they committed eight false start penalties and a delay-of-game infraction at Kentucky, which resulted in an atrocious offensive performance.
We’ll probably never know for sure whether that was more of a physical issue of not being able to hear the snap count or a lack of mental focus by multiple members of the offense. It was likely some combination of both.
Whatever the issues were, they’ve had two weeks to get them corrected, and they need to play much cleaner this time around.
The crowd at Tiger Stadium won’t be anywhere near as raucous as it would be at night, as the 11 a.m. start and LSU’s struggles will likely drive a large segment of fans away.
Still, you can reasonably expect there to be at least 80,000 fans in the stands on a bad day, and this is still a big rivalry game, so the fans that do show up will be into it from the opening kickoff.
Florida’s offense cannot beat itself again this week.
2. Aggressive play-calling
This was another issue in the Kentucky game. Emory Jones didn’t attempt a single pass that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, and Dan Mullen didn’t dial up any creative plays. They just tried to beat Kentucky with basic between-the-tackles runs and short passes. Obviously, it didn’t work.
The Gators are playing a bad defense this week, and I hope Mullen looks at that as a reason to open things up instead of as a reason to get overly conservative.
The Tigers rank 11th in the SEC in total defense and passing defense and ninth in rushing defense. They’re tied for eighth in the conference with six takeaways.
They’re going to play without both of their starting cornerbacks in Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks, as well as Ali Gaye, one of their top pass-rushers.
This is a defense that the Gators should be able to do whatever they want against, both on the ground and through the air. And, if Jones makes a mistake, the odds are that LSU won’t capitalize on it.
Mullen needs to call some deep shots, get the speed option game going and maybe dial up a couple of trick plays. They need to demoralize LSU early instead of letting them hang around for a while and get the crowd fired up.
3. Win one-on-one matchups at receiver
LSU’s defensive scheme isn’t very complicated. They’re not going to mix up their coverages a ton or call a bunch of exotic blitzes. For the most part, they’re going to play man-to-man defense and trust that their athletes are better than Florida’s athletes.
That means that Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson, Trent Whittemore and co. are going to have to consistently win their matchups against LSU’s backup cornerbacks and give Jones open targets to throw to.
They’ve done a good job of doing that at times this season, but the consistency hasn’t quite been there.
This game sets up well for Jones. He’s not going to have to diagnose the defense before the snap and throw into tight windows in between zones as much. Playing against man-to-man coverage should allow his natural instincts and abilities to take over, but that only works if his receivers get open for him.
4. Defend the deep ball
The vertical passing game is pretty much the only thing that LSU does well on offense, and that was before Kayshon Boutte suffered a season-ending injury last week.
Quarterback Max Johnson possesses a strong arm, and he has a lot of confidence in it. He’ll throw the ball deep just about every time that he gets an opportunity to do so.
The Tigers rank last in the SEC in yards per carry. They don’t have the proven receivers or, frankly, the offensive scheme to put together a bunch of 10- or 12-play touchdown drives. They’re extremely reliant on explosive passing plays.
The Gators have done a much better job of defending the deep ball over the last two weeks after some early-season struggles, but LSU will present a much bigger challenge than Kentucky or Vanderbilt did.
UF cannot afford to have any busted coverages where they essentially give away seven points. They’ve got to make LSU earn everything it gets because the Tigers haven’t proved that they’re capable of doing much on their own.
5. Harass Johnson
This goes hand in hand with my last point about defending the deep ball. If Johnson doesn’t have time to throw or cannot step into his throws, the coverage won’t have to be as tight in the back end.
LSU’s offensive line has been a train wreck this season. In addition to their poor rushing statistics, they’ve also allowed Johnson to be sacked 13 times, which is tied for the second-most in the conference.
Florida’s defense, meanwhile, is tied for second in the SEC and 11th in the FBS with 3.33 sacks per game. This should be a colossal mismatch.
If they can sack Johnson four or five times and consistently make his life miserable, Florida wins this game easily.
Florida 28, LSU 20
On paper, this game should be a blowout. Florida is far superior to LSU on both offense and defense, and the Gators dodged a bullet by the game being scheduled for 11 a.m. local time instead of under the lights.
However, the Gators have struggled to blow teams out under Mullen, especially on the road and in early games. The recent history of this series also suggests that a close game will be in store.
For those two reasons, I’m going to pick the Gators to only win by one score, but a 20-plus-point win wouldn’t surprise me at all.