|LSU TIGERS (2017: 9-4, 6-2 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2017 offense||2017 defense|
|Ed Orgeron||3 offense, 6 defense||411 YPG/27.2 PPG||312 YPG/18.8 PPG|
|3rd year, 15-6||28%, 58% of stat production||54th/76th in FBS||13th/16th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 32, LSU 29, 3 ties
Last meeting: LSU 17, Florida 16 (2017)
Synopsis: Time will tell the true validity of this statement, but LSU might have actually done Florida a favor by beating them in the Swamp last year. Following the Gators’ loss to the Tigers- which came one week after an LSU loss to Troy of all teams, at home, at night– things unraveled for Jim McElwain and Florida. Regardless: last year was LSU’s turn for a feel good win on the road in this rivalry, a game that was supposed to be played in Death Valley but wasn’t because the Tigers insisted on playing the 2016 game after Hurricane Matthew postponed the game that was scheduled for Gainesville. Now, at long last, things are finally back to normal in this rivalry. At least in terms of the location, anyway, with even years being played in Gainesville and odd years in Baton Rouge. What’s not normal is that the Gators have a chance to send LSU and Ed Orgeron on an epic downward spiral of their own. This is an inexperienced LSU team, and it has to face Miami and Auburn in the first three weeks- almost guaranteed losses. A third loss to Florida in their sixth game would absolutely bury LSU with Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi State and new-look Texas A&M all still to play.
Offensive breakdown: Ed Orgeron spent a lot of money on offensive coordinator Matt Canada to try to create one of the nation’s best offenses. He didn’t get one. And the two of them staged some impressive bitch fests to boot. Making matters worse, that mediocre 2017 offense was with Derrius Guice, who pounded out 1,251 yards on the ground and caught 124 more, modestly talented but veteran game managing leader Danny Etling, and top receiver DJ Chark. All three of those guys are gone now, plus two starting offensive linemen, so this is going to be an interesting rebuilding job.
Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow will battle Myles Brennan for the starting job. Burrow gives LSU the bigger arm, but Brennan has sat for a year and learned the LSU system. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger is going to try to guide the Tigers back toward a more pro-style offense and away from the frequent shifts and misdirections that Canada tried to incorporate into the LSU system, and that might help Brennan.
Speaking of helping the quarterback, that’s something the Tigers’ running backs will have to do a lot of. With Guice gone, the next in line is senior Nick Brossette, who’s totaled 306 yards in three years. Behind him is Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who’s never registered a single meaningful carry, nine in all. And behind him, there’s Lanard Fournette (yes, Leonard’s little brother,) but he too has little significant experience. Your guess is as good as mine. LSU has always had exceptional running backs, so this might qualify as the least exciting corps of runners the Tigers have had since before Nick Saban’s days on the Bayou.
LSU does have some options to go to through the air. The Tigers landed Texas Tech wideout Jonathan Giles on the resale market, and after he sat out his transfer year in 2017, is ready to go in 2018. Giles hauled in 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns in Lubbock in 2016, and should provide an immediate boost to make up for the loss of Chark. The Tigers also have a dependable tight end to go to in senior Foster Moreau (278 yards last year). In addition, coaches are extremely high on five star wide receiver Terrace Marshall, who, with the lack of depth at the wide receiver position, figures to play immediately. And then there’s former Florida commit Ja’Marr Chase, (see, this is why recruiting rankings don’t matter in July and August) who figures to grab an invaluable role right away as a freshman.
Offensive Grade: C+. There’s talent there, although experience is sprinkled in pinches. And in the rugged SEC, that’s often not good enough. Somebody who is not currently known as a star will have to break out and become one, or the offense will struggle.
Defensive breakdown: Luckily for Ed Orgeron and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the Tigers remain stacked on this side of the ball. LSU does say goodbye to Arden Key, Kevin Tolliver and Donte Jackson, but this will nevertheless be a difficult unit to move the ball against. And that might just be enough to save Orgeron’s job.
As usual, let’s start on the line. Rashard Lawrence, Tyler Shelvin and Ed Alexander give LSU four above-average front line presences (the latter two on the interior), and K’Lavon Chaisson provides the Tigers with one of the nation’s most underrated young edge rushers. Chaisson, who was reported to be extremely high on Florida at one point in his recruitment process, is an athletic freak of nature with track speed and is explosive off the snap. He’ll be a handful for Martez Ivey or Jawaan Taylor to handle- and keep in mind, those are two of the better offensive tackles in the SEC. Any offensive game plan has to start with containing him. For depth, the Tigers can also use Breiden Fehoko to give Chaisson a breather on the edge.
The Tigers are just as formidable in the middle level- or at least they appeared to be before this week. Leading tackler Devin White is back to reclaim his spot at linebacker, and he’ll be joined there by inexperienced but promising sophomore Jacob Phillips. Losing Tyler Taylor to his off field stupidity was a big blow, though. How Taylor’s pending legal case plays out- and assuming he’s a ghost, as the preliminary indications are he will be, how well Aranda can replace him- will essentially determine how successful LSU’s linebacker corps is. White, who excels at both rushing the QB and covering tight ends on pass plays, is already an all-SEC talent, but he needs help.
But the real strength of this defense is its secondary, which- sorry Gator fans- is making a real case for the “DBU” claim. The Bayou Bengals just might have the nation’s top cornerback in Andraez “Greedy” Williams, who picked off a half dozen passes last year en route to earning All-American honors. He’ll need a cornerback to emerge to help him out, as one top notch corner isn’t enough. But the Tigers definitely have an abundance of options. Look for sophomores Jontre Kirklin, Kary Vincent, Kelvin Joseph, Terrence Alexander, Mannie Netherly and junior Kristian Fulton to battle for that role, and for those who don’t win that role to see plenty of playing time anyway. But if LSU can shore up that CB2 slot, the Tigers are in business. Safeties John Battle (fifth year senior) and Grant Delpit (2017 freshman All-American) both return to their respective SS and FS roles, meaning increased air security against opposing passers.
Defensive grade: B+. LSU might actually have the best defense Florida faces this season if not for the lack of a dependable second cornerback and if they somehow get Taylor back in time for this game. But this is still a ferocious defense that’s capable of shutting you down if you don’t adequately prepare for Chaisson and White attacking your backfield.
Key matchup: the line of scrimmage. Yes, I’ve used the line of scrimmage as the key matchup before. Yes, I’m using it again. No, that’s not lazy. That’s knowing how to preview SEC football games. It’s absolutely critical that Florida control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but particularly when they have the ball. If the Gators are able to block Chaisson and White, they can set up the running game, which will keep LSU’s defense on and Florida’s defense off the field. That’s how you make an opponent melt in the Florida heat. And that’s how the Gators got their last win over the Tigers in the Swamp.
Florida key to victory: Rush for over 200 yards as a team. Easier said than done, sure, but if Florida can establish the ground game and keep their friends on the other side of the ball fresh and well-rested, it increases the chances of the Gator defense making the critical plays and stops it needs to make to win the game.
LSU key to victory: Jonathan Giles must have a big day. Brossette is a solid ball carrier, but if there’s a bona fide weapon on this LSU offense, it’s Giles. He has to not only be involved, but have the game of his life catching passes from Brennan or Burrow if the Tigers are to get the win in Gainesville.
Fun fact: The last fourteen games between Florida and LSU have been eerily close. LSU holds a 9-5 advantage since 2004, but the teams are dead even with 296 points scored against each other in those last fourteen games. The teams have traded 30 point blowouts (51-21 Florida in 2008, 41-11 LSU in 2011) and two score wins (23-10 Florida in 2006, 13-3 Florida in 2009, 17-6 LSU in 2013). The other nine games since 2014 have been decided by one possession: 24-21 LSU in 2004, 21-17 LSU in 2005, 28-24 LSU in 2007, 33-29 LSU in 2010, 14-6 Florida in 2012, 30-27 LSU in 2014, 35-28 LSU in 2015, 16-10 Florida in 2016, and 17-16 LSU in 2017.
Summary: LSU appears to be coming into 2018 with a lot on their minds and a lot to prove. First and foremost, the Tigers appear to be fighting for Ed Orgeron’s job. Coach O was teetering on the hot seat following a home loss to Troy before somehow righting the ship with a late season second wind. But the Tigers have a difficult road to navigate through in 2018, one that certainly isn’t ideal for a team hoping to remain at the nine win plateau that Les Miles parked them at.
Yes, the Cajun Cats have always had a habit of pulling out close games, a habit that dates back to the Mike Archer days but was never as luminous nor frequently relied upon to salvage a season as it was under Miles. Go back and look at the fun fact two paragraphs above for all the numbers on how many times Florida has been on the wrong end of this recently. And on the surface, Orgeron appears to have the ingredients needed to keep this habit alive: the Tigers have a ferocious defense, and continue to sign top-level recruiting classes.
But LSU is slipping as a program. They’re no longer the perennial national championship contender they were under Nick Saban and in Miles’ early days, because they simply aren’t winning the games on the field. They had to struggle tooth and nail to beat a horrendous 4-7 Florida team last year, and only did so because of a botched extra point. Florida, meanwhile, is on the rise. Although the Gators are by no means a national title contender themselves in 2018, they’re about to meet up with the falling LSU program on the proverbial elevator somewhere around the mediocre level. And with everything in mind- the hurricane disaster of 2016, the mock Gator chomps and LSU band playing over Tom Petty last year, and most importantly, desperately seeking a statement win to announce their return to college football relevance- they’ll announce their passage of LSU on the field. There’s just too much in the sense of motivation not to, especially when you tack on the fact that this is the game Florida is choosing to honor its 2008 national championship team.
We’ll get the hard fought, ultra-truculent warfare we’ve come to expect in this rivalry in the first half, but it will segue into a fourth quarter Gator stampede. Florida gets good enough QB play from Kyle Trask and turns it on in the money quarter to avenge its 2017 loss to LSU with a signature victory.
Projection: Florida 31, LSU 10