The stakes are high in the SEC and for bowl positioning when Florida heads to Baton Rouge on Saturday to take on LSU. These two teams were originally scheduled to meet on Oct. 8, but Hurricane Matthew postponed LSU’s trip to Gainesville. After a back-and-forth on how this game should be scheduled and played, these two teams had to pay a buyout to South Alabama (LSU) and Presbyterian (Florida) in order for this game to be rescheduled for Nov. 19. There are some hard feelings between the two programs after the back-and-forth on rescheduling and the cancelation from early October. However, none of that matters now, as Florida is chasing a SEC East title and LSU is pushing for a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
With a win on Saturday, Florida will clinch its second consecutive trip to the SEC Championship. The Gators moved into the driver’s seat after Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina, but a defeat on Saturday would put the Volunteers in control once again. Florida has struggled to find the right answers on offense this season, but the defense is once again one of the best in the nation. Coach Jim McElwain’s team suffered defeats at the hands of Arkansas (31-10) and Tennessee (38-28) and closes the year with two tough road trips – at Baton Rouge this Saturday and the finale in Tallahassee against Florida State.
LSU’s season took an interesting turn after the 18-13 loss to Auburn on Sept. 24. Coach Les Miles was dismissed, with assistant Ed Orgeron promoted to interim coach. Orgeron promised changes to the offense, and despite a 10-0 loss against Alabama, the Tigers have played better on that side of the ball since September. Orgeron is building a case for the full-time job and last week’s win over Arkansas certainly helps. Following a loss to Alabama in 2014 and again in 2015, LSU dropped its next game against the Razorbacks and motivation appeared to be an issue for this program. However, Orgeron rallied the team and scored an impressive win in Fayetteville. With Florida and Texas A&M remaining, Orgeron has two more chances to build his resume for the full-time role.
Florida holds a slight 31-28-3 series edge over LSU. The Gators and Tigers have met in every year since 1971, and the overall momentum in this series has shifted in recent years. Florida dominated LSU in the 1990s, while the Tigers have claimed five out of the last six meetings.
Florida at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: LSU -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Defensive Line Against LSU’s Ground Game
It’s a battle of strength versus strength when LSU’s offensive line and ground game takes on Florida’s defensive line. The Gators have limited SEC rushing attacks to just 3.7 yards per carry and opposing offenses have managed only seven scores against this unit in 2016. While coordinator Geoff Collins has one of the nation’s best defensive fronts in place, this unit has taken a few hits in the injury department. Linebacker Alex Anzalone is out for the year due to an arm injury, linebacker Jarrad Davis is out due to ankle injury, and defensive lineman Bryan Cox is not expected to play due to an ankle injury. The losses of Anzalone, Davis and Cox are significant, as all three players were starters. The depth on the defensive line is good enough to absorb the loss of Cox. Tackle Caleb Brantley is a standout on the interior, with Jabari Zuniga (five sacks), Jordan Sherit (3.5 sacks) and CeCe Jefferson (also dealing with an injury but has a good chance to play) anchoring the edges. The losses of Davis and Anzalone prompted freshmen David Reese and Kylan Johnson to step into starting roles in the front seven.
While Florida’s run defense has been stout all year, this unit is going to be tested by one of the nation’s best ground attacks. Leonard Fournette has been dealing with ankle injuries throughout the 2016 campaign, but the junior still has 803 rushing yards and eight scores on 117 attempts. Adding to the impressive totals in limited action is a healthy 6.86 yards per carry for Fournette. Backup and rising star Derrius Guice – 881 yards and nine scores – is only a sophomore and is poised to be one of the SEC’s top players on offense next season. LSU’s offensive line has been dealing with injuries too over the last few weeks but has cleared the way for rushers to record at least 300 yards in two out of the last three games.
The gameplan is pretty simple for LSU. Expect the Tigers to get Fournette and Guice plenty of attempts early on to test the rebuilt front seven for Florida’s defense. Considering the talent in the secondary, the Gators can probably devote an extra defender into the box to stop the run. If Florida can slow down Fournette and Guice, then coach Jim McElwain’s team will have a good shot to pull off the upset.
2. LSU QB Danny Etling Against Florida’s Secondary
In an odd twist surrounding the signal-callers in this game, LSU’s Danny Etling and Florida’s Austin Appleby are both transfers from Purdue. Appleby was promoted to the starting job after an injury to Luke Del Rio, while Etling earned the starting job after Brandon Harris struggled early in the 2016 season. Etling hasn’t been flashy, but he’s doing just enough to keep the offense moving. The junior completed 10 of 16 passes for 157 yards in last week’s win over Arkansas and went 19 of 28 for 204 yards and one touchdown against Ole Miss on Oct. 22. Although Etling passed both of those tests within the SEC, he struggled (11 of 24 for 92 yards) against Alabama. Florida’s secondary represents another tough challenge for Etling. The Gators rank first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only six passing scores all year. Etling doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards or carry the team on his back. However, if Florida finds a way to slow down Fournette and Guice, can the junior make enough throws to keep the defense off balance? Considering the way LSU is running the ball, it may not matter. However, the concerns about the passing game still remain.
3. Florida QB Austin Appleby
With Luke Del Rio sidelined indefinitely due to a shoulder injury, McElwain handed the keys to the offense to Appleby once again. The Purdue transfer started two games earlier this season, completing 23 of 39 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee on Sept. 24. Appleby has a bigger arm and can open up the field for more big-play attempts for the passing game. In just five appearances, Appleby already has the same amount (five) of passes 30 yards or longer completed than Del Rio (five) had in six appearances. Appleby isn’t going to run for 100 yards or confuse a defender for a true dual-threat quarterback, but the senior does have the ability to make plays with his legs – as evidenced by the 34 yards on six carries he recorded against South Carolina last week. Considering Appleby has played in Neyland Stadium and started at Nebraska when he was at Purdue, his experience in a tough road environment should pay off. However, Appleby has a tough matchup against one of the nation’s best defenses.
LSU is limiting opponents to just 4.6 yards per play and is third in scoring defense (13.9 ppg). This unit has allowed only 12 plays of 30 yards or more this fall (the fewest among SEC teams this year). End Arden Key (nine sacks) headlines a standout group in the trenches, while the secondary is anchored by cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams. Appleby doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards, but his play will be critical to the outcome for Florida. The Gators need the senior to play under control and limit the mistakes, while getting the ball in space to playmakers like Antonio Callaway (15.2 ypc).
Which Appleby shows up on Saturday? Is it the quarterback that threw for 296 yards and three scores against Tennessee and completed 17 of 21 passes for 201 yards in last week’s win over South Carolina. Or is Appleby the quarterback that completed only 19 of 28 throws for 144 yards against Vanderbilt on Oct. 1? Appleby doesn’t have to carry this team on his shoulders, but he has to connect on a couple of big plays to help loosen some of the defensive attention on the front seven and running back Jordan Scarlett.
It’s tough to make a case for Florida to win this game. Sure, the defense will keep the Gators close, but the offense is going to struggle against a standout LSU defense. Even if Florida finds a way to slow down Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice early on, doing so for four quarters is going to be a huge challenge with all of the injuries on defense. With the SEC East title at stake, Florida finds a way to keep this one close into the third quarter. However, LSU simply has too much on the ground, and the defense shuts down the Gators in the second half to pull away for a comfortable victory.