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Florida vs. LSU, Preview: Are the Gators facing declawed Tigers?

The Tigers come to Gainesville off one of the most baffling losses in program history.

Troy v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Florida Gators are coming off their most comfortable win of 2017 — a two-touchdown triumph over Vanderbilt that was closer than that margin implies.

The LSU Tigers just lost to Troy. At home.

Does that mean Florida will be facing a declawed Tigers team on Saturday? Here’s how we see things.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. LSU rush defense

After hedging on this topic over the last few weeks, it’s time to take a step into the great wide open: Florida’s got a good running game now.

Freshman Malik Davis has emerged as the go-to runner in a three-back rotation that also includes the slightly bigger Lamical Perine and the much bigger Mark Thompson, and Davis is Florida’s brightest spot on offense because of his twin penchants for getting the most out of every carry and showing the burst that will ultimately yield him some big plays. Davis is not on the level Jordan Scarlett reached frequently in 2016, but Scarlett’s continued suspension makes any comparison moot — and Davis is running behind a line that is gelling as a run-blocking unit, and seems far more comfortable pushing up front than hanging back in pass protection.

LSU’s defensive front is copiously talented, but has not made good on its pedigree in 2017. The Tigers are allowing just under four yards per carry this season thanks in large part to a bravura performance against a woeful BYU team that managed to lose five yards against LSU and now ranks No. 122 in rush offense. In losses to Mississippi State and Troy, LSU has given up nearly six and nearly five yards per rock-tote, and five rushing touchdowns.

Florida’s offensive line might be better than those of the Bulldogs and Trojans, both of which bullied the Tigers, and Davis might be the best back LSU has seen this year, given the uncommonly soft opening to the Tigers’ schedule. What I’ve seen so far this fall is enough to have genuine confidence that Florida can run in this game.

Edge: Florida

Florida passing game vs. LSU pass defense

Passing the ball, though, remains an adventure of sorts for the Gators.

Feleipe Franks is back as the unquestioned starter after being benched twice — and not returning to games — as a starter in 2017, thanks at least partly to the injury that knocked Luke Del Rio out against Vanderbilt and allowed Franks to step in as Florida’s thrower. And Franks excelled against the Commodores, completing 10 of 14 passes for 185 yards and moving the Gators through the air when needed while spending much of his appearance stewarding the ground game.

What Franks will lack against LSU is a go-to weapon. Tyrie Cleveland, who memorably sprinted to a full-field touchdown against the Tigers in Death Valley a season ago, is hurt, and Antonio Callaway remains suspended, leaving Florida with Brandon Powell to lead its receiving corps. Powell and DeAndre Goolsby are the only Gators who will suit up on Saturday with more than 20 career catches as Gators — Josh Hammond is at exactly 20 — and so Florida may find electric freshman Kadarius Toney more touches in an effort to establish a threat like the ones that Callaway and Cleveland could have posed.

Fortunately, LSU’s claim to the DBU mantle based solely on in-season evidence from 2017 isn’t exactly solid — though it’s not nearly as shaky as Florida’s. The Tigers started the fall with two excellent showings against overmatched BYU and Chattanooga, but have since allowed three opponents to complete at least 57 percent of their passes, been riddled by Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald in an efficient performance, and given up 308 passing yards to Syracuse — on 55 attempts, in fairness.

If Florida can uncork a deep ball early that unlocks the throws that Franks excels at, it should be fine through the air. But that’s an if dependent on a big play coming from a receiving corps with few candidates to create one.

Slight edge: LSU

When LSU has the ball

LSU running game vs. Florida rush defense

You might think that having Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams, players who ran for 7.5 and 4.5 yards per carry in 2016, would make LSU’s 2017 run game great by default. You would be wrong if you think that.

Williams is over five yards per carry this season, but Guice is below that mark for the first time in his career — and nagging injuries for both players had Ed Orgeron saying they will be “limited” in this Saturday’s game just days ago. Guice did not play against Troy and mustered just 14 yards on eight carries against Syracuse, so it seems likely he’ll be more limited than Williams — 33 carries over those two games — but it could be a significant problem for LSU if both are too banged up to be effective, given that junior Nick Brossette, who has 40 career carries, is the third-stringer.

Of course, Guice and Williams have also been less effective than they were in previous seasons, thanks largely to an offensive line plagued by injuries, instability, and youth. Neither has topped 122 yards in a game this year — Guice needed 27 carries to get there against BYU — and they have combined for two performances of six or more yards per carry, marks that both hit individually over the first five games of 2016 — when they were ostensibly Leonard Fournette’s backups.

Florida doesn’t have an elite rush defense — the Gators’ front is a good one, prone to allowing explosive plays, but not a great one, and the young linebackers Florida deploys don’t always set the edge correctly. But it’s not a glaring weakness, and LSU isn’t exactly ready to exploit it.

Slight edge: LSU

LSU passing game vs. Florida pass defense

If LSU is going to win this game, I suspect it will be through Danny Etling throwing on Florida. The likelihood of that is better than you might expect, based on how it sounds.

Florida’s young defense is still struggling with some of the fundamentals of coverage — like, say, doing it — at times, and LSU has big-play targets beyond senior DJ Chark to utilize, like sophomores Drake Davis and Stephen Sullivan, each of whom is over 25 yards per catch on the season in limited action.

Etling is definitionally good — just over 60 percent of his attempts become completions, he’s averaging nine yards per attempt, and he has thrown for no fewer than 137 or more than 227 yards in five appearances this year. But Etling has also been changed out — benched would be the wrong word — for freshman Myles Brennan, who has been largely ineffective. And it’s not clear how well-oiled LSU’s offensive machinery is, with Orgeron having to explain various quirks of last week’s performance — in which Troy blanked Matt Canada’s attack in the first half — at length.

I would be thoroughly unsurprised to see Etling throw multiple touchdown passes and for huge numbers against Florida’s secondary. But I would also be unsurprised to see Etling throw multiple picks against the most athletic defenders his receivers have seen this season.

Slight edge: LSU

Special teams

LSU ranks No. 118 in Special Teams S&P+. Florida is No. 26. And while those numbers are skewed by the inclusion of past years’ performance, it doesn’t require me explaining a whole lot to say that Florida’s kicking games are better than LSU kickers being 3-for-7 on threes this year and punters averaging about 40 yards per punt combined.

Significant edge: Florida

Other factors

Yeah, uh: I don’t think the Gators forgot last year, I definitely think Florida will want to defend The Swamp against LSU, and I know a Homecoming crowd that will be keyed up to honor Tom Petty and see Florida defeat LSU will be fully behind the Gators on this day.

LSU hasn’t forgotten last year, either, but LSU may have forgotten some important things about play football in the interim.

Edge: Florida