Before we get to looking at the LSU game, let's run through my predictions so far:
Now onto week six, and the...
Louisiana State Tigers
2012 season: 10-3, 6-2 SEC
Coach: Les Miles, ninth season (85-21)
Last result vs. Florida: Florida 14, LSU 6 (2012)
Series record vs. Florida: Florida 31, LSU 25, 2 ties
Game date: Saturday, October 12, 2013
Game location: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
Who Are You?
The LSU Tigers, the Gators' permanent cross division rival as determined in 2003...
WE INTERRUPT THIS STANDARD PREVIEW TO BRING YOU A SPECIAL SECTION RESERVED FOR FOUR OF THE GATORS' TWELVE OPPONENTS.
Why Does This Rivalry Matter?
The Gators and the Tigers, along with Alabama, have run college football for the past seven years. (I left Auburn out for a reason: Save for 2010, the War Eagle version of the Tigers have been god-awful). This isn't a hate-filled rivalry, though it has had its moments. It's more of a respect-based rivalry. The Florida-LSU rivalry, on its own, will not damage a team's championship hopes in the slightest, because a team can lose one non-divisional game but win all the rest of its games and be guaranteed its division crown; winning all its other games means they beat every opponent in its division and own any tiebreaker.
While it doesn't matter in the standings, it is a great test for both teams- since the arrival of Les Miles in 2005, both teams have been ranked in the top 20 each year. That's not to say this rivalry hasn't had its moments of less than stellar sportsmanship. In fact, when it comes to sheer naughtiness, this rivalry has actually produced a couple of the most comically embarrassing moments.
It all started in 1960. The Tigers held a 10-7 lead, but halfway through the second quarter, Gator defenders swarmed LSU QB Jimmy Field, gang tackled him, and after pinning him down underneath two Gator players' bodies, the rest of the defenders ripped off his play-calling wristband. At halftime, the Gators studied the wristband and used it to learn which plays LSU would run out of certain formations, which substantially narrowed the number of possible plays to be ready to defend. Florida used the stolen information to shut out LSU in the second half, and won 13-10. It wasn't until the game was over that Florida returned the stolen wristband. A Gator coach played the "Look what I just found!" card and gave it to an official, saying that one of his players "found it".
It wasn't for almost 40 years before the rivalry became relevant on the national stage, because for awhile after that incident, one or both teams was really bad, taking away the fun of the rivalry. This was highlighted by Steve Spurrier's Gator squads. Blowouts rained down on the Tigers at the hands of the Gators- 58-3, 56-13, 42-18, 44-15, 41-9, 34-8, and 31-10 were just some of the examples. Mixed in there was one flukish LSU win on a perfect storm type of night in 1997, but the Gators just owned the Tigers for the duration of Spurrier's reign. Then the Head Ball Coach left, and the real fun of this rivalry that we know today started.
First, LSU blew Florida out in Gainesville in 2002 to officially let the Gators know that the rivalry was back on. Florida responded by stunning the eventual national champion Tigers in their own home the ensuing year. LSU came back and dealt Florida two heartbreaking losses in a row in 2004 and 2005, and Florida paid the Tigers back in 2006. Then came 2007, and one of the most classless displays of "fandom" the world has ever seen. The LSU fans took it upon themselves to make Tim Tebow feel welcome in Cajun country by threatening him and his parents with hundreds of thousands of voice mails and text messages. LSU won that game, but Florida showed LSU how they felt about it by mauling the Tigers the following year. LSU must not have gotten the message because they did the same thing again in 2009 to wide receiver Riley Cooper and backup QB John Brantley. Florida won that game, LSU won the next two, and Florida won in 2012, which brings us to 2013.
It's a crime the LSU bigwigs want this rivalry torn apart. Their reasoning? Florida is too good. Never mind the fact that Florida barely had a winning record just two years ago; the fact that Les Miles wants out of this game is utterly hilarious. His argument reads straight from the everyday dialogue of a 12-year-old: It's not fair. As Andy pointed out a while back, nothing in the SEC is fair. It's a big-boy league. Grow up. Aside from that, the rivalry today is generally warm and friendly. Take two of college football's brashest (and when drunk, nastiest) fan bases, stick them in the same stadium, and you'd be stunned how well they get along. I guess it's because of all the passions they share, such as hot, swampy climate, alcohol, most of the Southern culture, and, of course, football. In any case, these are two teams get great practice against a great team with (relatively) low stakes. LSU showed in 2003 that a loss in this game, when not combined with additional losses, has no effect on a team's run to a national championship. So, bad apples aside (each team has them), when it's all said and done, it's all for fun.
Why Is This Year's Game So Important?
As was mentioned earlier, both teams are usually very highly ranked. This year will be no exception. But there's another reason this game matters more than most others: Florida got beaten down in its last trip to Baton Rouge, and it's time for the Gators to step up and do something about it. The visiting team has been frighteningly successful in this rivalry, with both teams going just 3-3 at home since 2001. Considering that The Swamp and Death Valley are generally ranked among the top 10 toughest places to play in the nation, that's really saying something.
It doesn't have a simple explanation, either. Florida was unranked in 2003, yet, aside from a Skylar Green punt return touchdown, pitched a shutout in the house of the eventual BCS champions. Will Muschamp's team has to remember what happened the last time they went to Baton Rouge. LSU beat the Gators in the first quarter, scoring 14 points. They increased their lead exponentially, and capped off the humiliation with a jump pass. You know, the kind that made Tim Tebow famous in this same game. Now we're going to find out just how good of a coach Muschamp is: We know he can win on the road, but can he continue this rivalry's trend of visiting teams' success and avenge the 41-11 insult against his former school?
LSU returns a ton of talent on offense, including QB Zach Mettenberger, who will be asked to carry a little more of the load this year. With top receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry returning, LSU could have an effective passing game. But that doesn't mean the Tigers won't run the ball a lot, not with Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard all returning. One major area of concern for the Tigers on offense is that of the four starters gone from last year, three are on the offensive line. If LSU is going to have any success on offense, they'd better fill those holes.
LSU Offensive Strategy
Beginning with the Alabama game, LSU's offense quickly grew up before our eyes. The Tigers had always been able to run the ball effectively, but in that game, Mettenberger threw the ball about as well as any LSU QB since Matt Mauck. Now, the Tigers will look to keep improving that balance to their offense, whereas before that Alabama game, they were just known as a running team. So they're going to look to do the same thing against Florida. They will probably try to establish the run first, since it is their strength, but then new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might try to jump start his team with a heavy mix of play action passes to see if he can fool Florida.
Florida Defensive Strategy
The Tigers' offense was shut down a year ago by the Gators mostly because of the amount of pressure Florida's front seven put on Mettenberger. Muschamp will reason that since it worked once, it should work again. So we're going to see him stack the box and block the running lanes, like usual, but unlike the five previous teams Florida will have played to this point, the Gators really have to be careful with it. Mettenberger has made some big pressure throws in his career at LSU, so Muschamp has to be sure that he's always got safeties back deep to limit the damage. This is going to mean sending fewer guys to stack the box, and pray that they can have the same success they did last year against a weakened LSU offensive line.
LSU Offensive Grade: B+
LSU returns just three defensive starters, but if anybody can replace heavy personnel losses, it's Les Miles. He's churned out so many big time defensive players that nobody is surprised when LSU simply reloads on defense. But in 2013, it's time to test that theory; LSU has to replace its entire defensive line (starters and key reserves) aside from Anthony Johnson and most of its linebacker group. Lamin Barrow figures to replace Kevin Minter, and while he's a solid replacement, the rest of the spots that need to be filled will not be filled with players of Barrow's experience. The bright side: LSU should have another great secondary. The two Jalens, Mills and Collins, make up an excellent tandem at corner.
LSU's Defensive Strategy
The Tigers' defensive players have always been synonymous with aggressive, and just because they lose eight starters doesn't mean they're going to change that. They're coming after Jeff Driskel with their ears pinned back, not because they have the ability to sack him twelve times, but because that's just who they are. John Chavis will dial up the blitzes with confidence because he knows he has a very good ball hawking secondary to pick off errant passes thrown under pressure. I don't expect the two Jalens to have much help with their receivers, except for maybe a roving safety; LSU is coming with seven or eight on the majority of plays.
Florida's Offensive Strategy
Just like the Gators are going to ride the same defensive strategy because it worked last year, expect Brent Pease to do the same with his offense. Florida absolutely wore the Tigers out last year. Mike Gillislee rushed for well over 100 yards and had LSU on its heels all day. Throw in Matt Jones to replace Gillislee, and you've got an otherwise identical game plan. There was a special package Florida used to really gas LSU last year: a jumbo set featuring seven offensive linemen (two of them replacing tight ends), and it worked to perfection. It's called "God's play", maybe because God himself couldn't provide any better blocking than the seven offensive linemen did. The best perk to it is that it creates two D-gaps, if you will, for Gator tailbacks to run through. It's already hard to plug six gaps (two A-gaps, two B-gaps and two C-gaps) against a team as physical as Florida; it's going to be even harder, naturally, to try to plug two more. Expect to see Florida exploit that again, and even more often as Florida tries to run the Tigers ragged again.
LSU Defensive Grade: C+
LSU Overall Grade: B
LSU's front seven vs. Florida's offensive line. The Tigers have always been a blitz heavy team, but with most of its starters on the front seven gone, can they have the same success against Florida's offensive line in 2013? It's still too early to call Jeff Driskel a veteran, and if LSU can get to him, maybe they can really fluster him.
Florida is better than LSU this year, hands down. Offensively, defensively, and on special teams, Florida is simply more talented and more experienced. But as we know in college football, the better team doesn't always win.
The Gators have not gone undefeated in over a hundred years, and for it to happen in today's college football, they have to play perfect football in every game of the season. There's always that one game in which Florida just doesn't execute, and gives the game away. See Auburn, 2006, Ole Miss in 2008, and Georgia last year.
A trip to Tiger Stadium increases the chances of not playing well, and despite the road team's success in this series, it just seems to have all the ingredients of a Gator defeat. Mettenberger can be really good at times, and when he is, it creates a surprisingly nasty offense when it's combined with the already stalwart running game. The defense doesn't appear to be that good, but it is talented... just like Georgia's a year ago. Florida's never going to be out of this one, but they'll do something stupid to blow it, like they always do at least once a year. Picking which game the Gators will give away is never an exact science, but this one appears to be most likely to be that game.
LSU 27, Florida 14.