LSU heads to the Swamp in Gainesville to take on Florida in one of the top matchups on Saturday’s Week 6 slate. The Tigers have already earned two marquee victories by defeating Miami and Auburn, and a win in Gainesville would only provide more confidence for coach Ed Orgeron’s team going into next week’s showdown with Georgia. On the other sideline, the Gators are improving under new coach Dan Mullen. How far has this team progressed since losing to Kentucky? This matchup is a good barometer for Florida.
LSU has been one of college football’s biggest surprises through the first month of the season. With a tough schedule and an offense filled with question marks in the preseason, most projections had the Tigers fighting to just get bowl eligible in 2018. Instead, LSU is 5-0 with marquee wins over Miami and Auburn, and Orgeron has this team ranked comfortably inside of the top 10 entering Week 7. The addition of Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow has stabilized the quarterback position, and the Tigers are once again one of the best in the SEC on defense.
Florida opened its 2018 season with an easy victory over Charleston Southern (53-6) but had its 31-game winning streak over Kentucky snapped in Week 2. Since then, the Gators have reeled off three wins in a row and posted dominant wins over Colorado State and Tennessee. Last week, new coach Dan Mullen returned to his old stomping grounds in Starkville and guided Florida to a 13-6 victory over Mississippi State.
Florida leads the all-time series 32-29-3 over LSU. However, the Tigers have won four out of the last five in this series. LSU also has a two-game winning streak in Gainesville.
LSU at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: LSU -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Offense Against LSU’s Defense
New coach Dan Mullen was hired to improve this side of the ball, and there have been signs of progress through Florida’s first five games. However, the new staff still has a lot of work to do. Since 2010, the Gators have not finished higher than eighth in the SEC in scoring offense. Additionally, this program has struggled to get consistent quarterback and offensive line play in recent years.
Through five games, Florida is averaging 35.4 points a game and 6.4 yards a play. That’s a significant increase from last year’s totals, as the Gators averaged 5.2 yards a play and 22.1 points a contest. Of course, the sample size is small, and Florida is going to see its level of competition rise now that the bulk of the remaining schedule is SEC matchups.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks is making better decisions under Mullen (57.1 percent and 12 touchdowns to just three picks) but isn’t connecting on many big plays in the passing game. Mullen has a good stable of running backs and playmakers to utilize at receiver at his disposal. Florida ranks 11th in the SEC in third-down offense, so it’s critical for Mullen to keep this Franks in manageable down-and-distance situations against one of the SEC’s top defenses.
LSU’s defense is only giving up 15 points a game and has yet to allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in a single contest in 2018. Coordinator Dave Aranda’s group is headlined by shutdown cornerback Greedy Williams and standout linebacker Devin White, which have held opposing offenses in two SEC contests to average just 4.9 yards a play.
It’s no secret LSU wants to stop Florida’s rushing attack and force Franks into long-yardage situations. If the Tigers succeed in that area, Aranda’s defense can turn up the pressure on Franks and create opportunities for takeaways. How will Mullen counter the LSU defense? Can Franks get enough short (and safe) throws to keep the offense moving? And how will Florida’s offensive line match up in the trenches? Franks has tossed only three picks this year and will need another mistake-free performance for the Gators to knock off the Tigers.
2. LSU’s Offensive Line and Ground Attack
Injuries have taken a toll on the depth and starting five for LSU's offensive line all season. And going into Saturday’s matchup, the Tigers have yet to have the same combination start back-to-back games. It’s a mixed bag of news for coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger going into Saturday’s matchup. Tackle Saahdiq Charles is slated to return, and center Lloyd Cushenberry should start after leaving the Ole Miss game due to injury. However, guard Garrett Brumfield is out indefinitely due to an injury suffered against Louisiana Tech.
Despite the injuries and rotating cast up front, LSU’s offensive line has allowed only eight sacks and is clearing the way for rushers to average 4.4 yards a carry through two SEC contests. Senior Nick Brossette paces the offense with 481 rushing yards, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire checking in with 275. The Brossette-Edwards-Helaire duo has been an effective one this season and will test a Florida rush defense that is surrendering 171 rushing yards a game. The Gators have allowed at least 100 yards on the ground in four out of their five contests. However, the numbers are a bit skewed by the 303 rushing yards Kentucky posted in Week 2. Since that game, Florida has allowed only 330 yards (2.6 a carry) over its last three contests. Was the game against Kentucky a one-week blip or will the Gators struggle up front against some of the better fronts in the SEC? Additionally, how will LSU’s pass protection hold up against a Florida pass rush that is tied for second in the SEC with 15 sacks. The matchup of Jachai Polite (4.0 sacks), Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson off the edge is a battle to watch off the edge on passing downs.
3. LSU QB Joe Burrow
This game is expected to be a low-scoring affair and a matchup controlled by the two defenses. If that plays out as expected, whichever team is going to get more out of its offense is likely to win.
While LSU’s offense isn’t going to score 40 points every week, this unit has been more than effective so far under new coordinator Steve Ensminger. The Tigers average 5.7 yards a play and 33.8 points a game. Additionally, this unit has only lost three turnovers and generated six plays of 40 yards or more.
The numbers aren’t necessarily overwhelming, but LSU has delivered when it mattered on offense. And a big reason for that was the arrival of Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow at quarterback. When the Tigers needed big plays in the fourth quarter to beat Auburn, Burrow stepped up and delivered in the clutch. The junior is coming off his best performance at LSU, as he torched Ole Miss for 292 yards and three passing scores and added 96 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Burrow’s favorite target has been Justin Jefferson (18 catches), but the junior is doing a good job of spreading the ball to all of his targets.
Florida will counter Burrow with a secondary that ranks third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only three passing scores in 2018. The Gators have allowed three plays of 40 yards or more this season, so there could be opportunities for Burrow to connect with Jefferson downfield.
Burrow won’t need to throw for 300 yards in order for LSU to win on Saturday afternoon. However, he has to continue playing mistake-free ball and hit on a couple of plays downfield. So far, Burrow has pushed all of the right buttons in directing the Tigers’ offense. Will that continue in a hostile environment in Gainesville this Saturday?
Each of the last four meetings in this series have been decided by seven points or less, so another close game should be expected on Saturday. Florida coach Dan Mullen has the offense on the right track, but can this unit generate enough points against a stingy LSU defense? It’s tough to read too much into last season, but Mullen’s offense at Mississippi State gashed the Tigers for 37 points. Can Mullen find a few areas to exploit once again? In a tight game with two standout defenses, turnover margin and quarterback play are the two areas likely to decide this matchup. Oddly enough, Florida and LSU rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the SEC in turnover margin this season. However, the Tigers have an edge under center with Burrow’s performance in 2018, and that’s likely to be deciding factor in this game.