|LOUISIANA STATE TIGERS (2016: 9-3)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2016 offense||2016 defense|
|Ed Orgeron||6 offense, 6 defense||423 YPG/28.3 PPG||323 YPG/16.4 PPG|
|6-2, 1st full year||64%, 58% of stat production||59th/69th in FBS||13th/6th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 32, LSU 28 (3 ties)
Last meeting: Florida 16, LSU 10
Synopsis: For years now, LSU has been known for a tenacious defense, and an offense that relies heavily on a deep stable of running backs. With the two years LSU had Jarvis Landry and O’Dell Beckham catching passes from Zach Mettenberger as the exception, this has been the Tigers’ identity ever since the departure of Matt Flynn following the 2007 season, and it doesn’t look like it will change in 2017. Thanks to some brilliant tactical decisions by their school’s AD, LSU has to bring their squad to the Swamp this year, where although they’ve won two out of the last three, Jim McElwain is 11-1 as head coach.
Offensive breakdown: Every offense has to start with the quarterback, regardless of how much the running game is featured. The controls appear to be Danny Etling’s for now, and he has proven able to keep the offense afloat. But only against Texas A&M did he throw for over 280 yards, and improving this figures to be the first order of business for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. How reliable Etling can be throwing the football will go a long way toward determining the Tigers’ success offensively.
LSU’s loss of Leonard Fournette looks like a crippling one… for about five seconds, or however long it takes you to realize how dangerous Derrius Guice is. You’d always rather not lose a top ten draft pick as a junior if you can help it, but Fournette was banged up for much of 2017 and Guice more than filled his shoes. The question now becomes, who backs up Guice? Darrel Williams, Nick Brosette and Leonard’s little brother Lanard will compete for carries, and if at least one of them proves a dependable backup, the Tigers may again have one of the nation’s best backfields with the help of a solid offensive line.
The wide receiver position is the big question. Gone are Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, with DJ Chark the only returning contributor of note. There’s plenty of raw talent behind Chark, including Russell Gage and Derrick Dillon in the slot and Dee Anderson, Stephen Sullivan and Drake Davis out wide. But those five receivers have a grand total of ten career receptions between them, so it’s difficult to assume very much of them without much to go by.
Offensive Grade: B+. The Tigers again boast a dangerous running game, and have the potential to be dangerous in the passing game. But too many unknowns leave me hesitant to fully trust this unit.
Defensive breakdown: LSU should again have a nasty defensive line despite losing two starters. Christian LaCouture and Rashard Lawrence appear to have nailed down the two end spots pending the status of Arden Key, while Ed Alexander and Greg Gilmore seem destined to start on the interior. Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme works best with monsters in the middle, and that’s what Alexander gives them with his 333 pound frame. And if the Tigers can get Key back to full health, their line will be a nightmare.
If there’s a weakness on this defense, it’s at linebacker. LSU has to replace stalwarts Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley, and at least on the surface, it looks like they should be able to with Donnie Alexander and Devin White. But behind them, there might be a problem; exactly one half of a tackle of career experience sits beneath them on the depth chart. Then again, LSU has a history of simply throwing the next guy in to replace a star at linebacker, and it’s worked pretty well. And the young guys- namely Jacob Phillips and Tyler Taylor- were extremely highly sought after on the recruiting trail.
The secondary also has high potential despite losing safety Jamal Adams. Donte Jackson, who was last seen getting lit on fire by Tyrie Cleveland, will move into the CB1 slot. Laugh at that play all you want to, because it will remain hilarious until the end of time, but Jackson is nonetheless one of the top corners in the country who was beaten for just one other touchdown all of last year. Beside him, Kevin Toliver will move into the CB2 role, and Kristian Fulton and Dwayne Thomas will likely see larger roles as well. Safeties Ed Paris and John Battle round out the Tigers’ stout secondary.
Defensive grade: A. Shame on Dave Aranda if he can’t turn this squad into a top ten ranked unit by season’s end. The pure talent on this defense is as plentiful as they come, and if even half of the young guys blossom into the stars they’re hyped up to become, LSU may be even better defensively than they were a year ago.
Key matchup: Derrius Guice vs. Florida front seven. Had Guice not had to share carries with an obviously injured Fournette in last year’s game, he was easily on pace for 150 yards. As it was, the Gators survived Guice’s 83 yards on 19 carries, but they won’t survive another 4.5 yards per carry average from Guice this time around, not with Guice as the clear cut number one tailback who figures to get the ball at least 30 times in the game. David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson have flashed enormous potential, but they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them in this matchup.
Florida wins if… they can win the turnover battle. There’s very little evidence to suggest the Gators will out gain LSU, but that can be compensated for with short fields. If Florida can set themselves up with great field position and/or kill promising LSU drives with turnovers, they’ll be in great shape.
LSU wins if… The Tigers can put together long, slow, methodical drives that chew up a lot of clock and finish in the end zone. Florida doesn’t appear to be as deep defensively this year, and the more the Tigers can keep that defense on the field, the better off they’ll be. And bonus points for LSU if they can do it with four running backs.
Overview: Truth be told, Florida was not the better team in 2016, and had no business winning the game on paper. The Gators were banged up defensively and playing a road game that rightfully belonged in Gainesville, while LSU suited up far more pure talent that day, if you believe the recruiting rankings, and were projected almost universally to win. And sure enough, LSU marched right down the field for a touchdown on their first drive and out gained Florida 423 to 270 by day’s end.
But then, for lack of a better way to phrase this, things happened. LSU lost a fumble in the shadow of the Florida goal line, a botched hold on an easy field goal resulted in a turnover on downs, Florida subsequently struck gold on a 98 yard touchdown pass, LSU fumbled a kickoff, and the Gators buckled down on fourth and goal to stop Guice to seal the game. Which all goes to show a measure of proof to the adage that any team can win on any given day.
However, the more you look at the circumstances of that game, the more the result looks like an aberration and not the norm. I’d love to believe that Tyrie Cleveland could make toast of Donte Jackson on a regular basis, or that LaMical Perine could carry a top ten draft pick for a piggy ride back on command, or that LSU could waste three separate trips inside the Florida red zone and get exactly zero points out of them again. It’s just not realistic. I believe the Gators are destined for an excellent season, but not since 1911 has a Florida team gone undefeated, and LSU’s violent running game and excellent defense are the perfect recipe to thwart this team.
Projection: LSU 27, Florida 14