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Florida vs. LSU, Preview: Gators return home, looking for an upset

Can Florida continue its surprising season by upending a top-five team?

Florida v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

You know what? I don’t think the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers like each other very much.

Florida-LSU is a series that has become a rivalry because of regularity in the form of annual meetings and irregularity in the form of, uh, just about everything else. The latest installment happens this Saturday in Gainesville, with a top-five Tigers team taking on a newly-ranked Florida team before a sellout crowd in The Swamp.

And while LSU comes in undefeated, Florida, too, is riding high, off a road rout of Tennessee and a gritty victory over Mississippi State in Starkville — and both Bill Connelly’s S&P+ and ESPN’s Football Power Index favor the Gators narrowly in this game, despite the No. 5 that will appear next to the Tigers’ name on a chyron.

The Gators and Tigers haven’t needed to be good to stage good-to-great games in recent years. But it couldn’t hurt, right?

When Florida has the ball

Florida’s offensive identity is seemingly mutable from week to week, anchored only by Dan Mullen molding his game plans to what the situations call for that Saturday. Florida looked downfield often against Tennessee despite several short fields, but spent most of its energy at Mississippi State on spreading the Bulldogs out horizontally with smoke screens and counters and then jabbing inside with slants and skinny posts. And though the Gators scored 47 points against the Vols, their 13-point performance against a significantly more talented Mississippi State defense may honestly have been more impressive.

Consider: The Gators had to effective neutralize two likely first-rounders, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, in Starkville — and still got Feleipe Franks a career-high 22 completions and 219 yards through the air and tallied 118 yards on the ground. Mississippi State’s defense still ranks No. 12 in S&P+ after last weekend, and Florida, despite scoring just 13 points to Kentucky’s 28, performed about as well by other metrics as the Wildcats did.

That may be the story of this Florida offense, which has plenty of perimeter-threatening skill position talent and a glaring weakness — a leaky offensive line still transitioning to John Hevesy’s blockings schemes — that has led Mullen to mostly scheme around that weakness rather than playing to any particular strengths.

Florida is also spreading the ball around, maybe to a fault. It has four runners over 100 yards on the season — Franks included — but none over 300 yards, and the closest any one has come to the century mark in a game was Dameon Pierce’s 87-yard effort against Colorado State. The Gators also have just three receivers over 100 yards on the season, and just four with nine or more catches, but only Freddie Swain has topped 200 yards on the year, and his 88-yard night against Tennessee is the nearest a Gator has gotten to 100 receiving yards.

That is good, probably, for the purposes of keeping players fresh and developing depth. No Florida player has more than 40 carries yet, nor has any Gator registered more than 11 carries in a game (Franks, including sacks, has done this, as has Scarlett); similarly, no Gator has more than the four catches Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes have each recorded in a single game, but a stunning 12 have at least three catches through just five games.

But the Florida-LSU game has long been about getting it to stars and reliable performers, like Mike Gillislee, Antonio Callaway, Leonard Fournette, and Odell Beckham Jr., and Florida has not established any single player as a standout threat save maybe Kadarius Toney, whose effectiveness relies on a specific package of plays being executed well.

And that may be a problem against an LSU defense with a ton of speed. Devin White and Greedy Williams are future first-rounders, and are the leaders of the Tigers’ linebacking corps and secondary, respectively, but they have help, like linebacker Jacob Phillips and safety Grant Delpit, and they’ve made up for a relatively pedestrian front four — by LSU’s towering standards, anyway — by cleaning up in the run game and preying on quarterbacks. The Tigers are allowing just inches more than three yards a carry on the year, and have seven interceptions, tied for 12th nationally.

And LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is also esteemed as one of the nation’s best because he puts his players in unorthodox situations that confuse even good quarterbacks. While Franks has shown legitimate and significant growth as a redshirt sophomore, he’s still susceptible to poor stretches of play, and Aranda will do his level best to coax those out of him — and flummox Florida’s offensive line — with unusual blitzes and pressures.

Slight edge: LSU

When LSU has the ball

Of course, Florida’s defensive coordinator has some schemes of his own.

The legendarily pressure-happy Todd Grantham’s rarely been celebrated as much as he has this week, in the wake of a risky blitz paying off with a game-sealing sack at Mississippi State — but Florida’s defense has thrived this year less because of its aggressiveness than its soundness. The Gators rank 10th in Defensive Success Rate in 2018 — a measure of how often Florida allows opposing offenses to make good progress toward getting a first down — and are second in Points Per Scoring Opportunity, giving up a miserly 2.91 points per chance, thanks largely to topping the nation in red zone touchdown percentage, having allowed just two six-pointers in eight opposing drives inside the 20.

Florida’s been pretty good at not giving up big plays, too. The Gators have given up 53 plays of 10 or more yards through five games, and while that sounds like a lot, it’s tied for 30th nationally, third among SEC programs that have played five games — and nine fewer than Alabama has yielded.

So there’s a lot to like about Grantham’s guys and their performance this year, especially since getting pushed around by Kentucky, and reason to believe they will be the better unit when faced with LSU’s offense.

To be fair, though, the Tigers have some talent of their own.

Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow hasn’t been devastatingly accurate — he’s completed under 54 percent of his passes this year — but he averages nearly 15 yards per completion, and has several big-play threats in his receiving corps, including Justin Jefferson and former Florida commit Ja’Marr Chase. LSU also has a diverse and dangerous running game — the diversity is a shock, the danger less so — that is led by the quick and shifty Nick Broussard, aided the faster Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and rounded out by Burrow himself, who is averaging nearly seven yards a carry after subtracting sacks.

But while the Tigers would much rather run than throw — they have recorded 216 carries against 132 pass attempts so far this year — they’re not great at either, just decent to good, and that offense needed help to score 33 points on Miami and had to scrape things together to put 22 on Auburn.

In a game that could be very close, the Tigers might be saved by their excellent care for the ball. LSU has committed just three turnovers this year, which means Florida’s turnover-happy defense may find getting the ball to be difficult.

Slight edge: Florida

When both teams are kicking

Florida’s special teams continue to be maybe the most pleasant surprise of the Dan Mullen era, with great Tommy Townsend punts burying Mississippi State last weekend and a pair of Evan McPherson field goals — which should have made him one of just two kickers in the country with nine makes and no misses on the year, if not for a questionable (or, you know, wrong) call against Kentucky — providing the difference on the scoreboard.

But LSU’s special teams are very good, too, with kicker Cole Tracy having made 10 of 12 field goals and all 19 of his PATs, kickoff specialist Avery Atkins — an odd name to think about on a weekend steeped in nostalgia for Gators — allowing just four returns on 33 kickoffs, punt returner Jonathan Giles averaging better than 15 yards a runback on his few attempts, and punter and/or Hapsburg heir Zach Von Rosenberg averaging nearly 48 yards a boot.

And we’ve all watched enough of this series to be expecting something unusual on special teams — and, as Florida fans, been scarred often enough by Tigers trickery to expect it from them and not the Gators.

Edge: Even

Does Florida have a home-field advantage?

I would put LSU second (behind Florida State) on the list of teams Florida fans want to beat most this year, and those fans will get to root on the Gators in their efforts to do so in The Swamp this Saturday.

Oh, and Tim Tebow’s in town to be inducted into Florida’s Ring of Honor.

Oh, and the 2008 team’s being celebrated as part of the 10-year anniversary of its national championship.

Oh, and Florida fans are going to get to sing along to Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” as an established tradition, rather than as a largely new and surprising tribute being drowned out by LSU’s insouciant band.

Oh, and the game’s a sellout.

If ever there were a game in which the denizens of The Swamp wanted to make themselves a hazard to the opponents — within reason and the bounds of decorum — this would be it.