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Florida vs. LSU, Preview: Can the Gators tame the other Tigers?

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The Gators face their newest toughest challenge yet.

Auburn v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Are the Florida Gators on a path toward championship contention? Are the LSU Tigers truly among the nation’s elite? Do these questions seem familiar to you?

Well, whatever. We’ll get our answers this evening (8 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN).

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. LSU rush defense

Does that one long Lamical Perine do anything to change opinions on Florida’s running game? I’d argue that it shouldn’t, not really.

Perine deserves a ton of credit for breaking that run, which required a broken tackle in the hole and another down the sideline, and which all but staked Auburn in the heart. It was as good an offensive play as Florida has run this year, and he made it.

But the other 32 Florida carries on the day netted 44 yards. And we don’t know whether Dameon Pierce will even play in this game, much less whether he’ll be effective; we also basically have to write off Kyle Trask as a runner unless he’s magically recovered from the knee sprain that made him a less mobile QB against Auburn than the already pocket-preferring one he had been coming in.

Do I think Florida will continue to try to find creative solutions to a lack of blocking up front, and that Emory Jones — quietly, if sparingly, quite effective as a runner (three carries, 13 yards) against Auburn — being a bigger part of the gameplan this week is likely? Sure.

Do I think LSU, which has given up 2.6 yards per carry this year and has only really been dented on the ground by Texas and Vanderbilt, is going to get run over in this game? No. The Tigers being tied for first nationally with just nine rushes of 10-plus yards allowed also points to the likely rarity of explosive plays.

Edge: LSU

Florida passing game vs. LSU pass defense

I think Florida’s best chance to move the ball in this game — or any game this fall, barring some miraculous and unforeseen improvement by this offensive line — is going to be by throwing the ball.

But this is the rare LSU defense that might actually have some give to it when it comes to defending the pass.

Texas threw for 400 yards on this LSU team. Northwestern State and Vanderbilt both cracked 200 yards. All five of the Tigers’ picks came against Vandy and Utah State. And unless you think Sam Ehlinger is a top-flight quarterback — which, hey, reasonable minds can differ — or that Texas as currently constructed is as deep at the skill positions as Florida is, it’s really not hard to believe that the Gators will be LSU’s greatest challenge thus far.

Of course, a healthy Trask — and a slightly better line — would bolster Florida’s chances in that regard. Trask fumbling away drives that could produce points or making bad throws is something likely to be punished more harshly in this game than any one prior; Grant Delpit, Derek Stingley, Jr., and Kristian Fulton can and will make sure of that. Florida should have some success through the air, but its margin for error isn’t going to be large.

And if Trask gets reinjured or has his injury aggravated, Jones is just barely this side of a question mark at the position.

In what should be a game-long chess match between Dan Mullen and Dave Aranda, I think both sides will make their fair share of fine moves.

Edge: Even

When LSU has the ball

LSU running game vs. Florida rush defense

How weird it is to see an LSU that isn’t scariest on the ground.

That’s no disrespect to Clyde Edwards-Helaire — or his wonderfully LSU name — or to Joe Burrow’s skills as a scrambler, but running the ball successfully simply isn’t these Tigers’ forte — nor, in fairness, their modus operandi. Only against Utah State did LSU top 200 rushing yards this year; only against Vandy and Utah State did the Tigers top 150. That’s not a reflection of a lack of success in their first three games, all of which included 100+ yards on the ground; it’s simply a reflection of the new pass-first reality for the Bayou Bengals.

That said, I really wouldn’t expect big runs out of LSU in this game. The Tigers have just 19 of 10 or more yards this year, which has them ranked in the triple digits nationally; just six totes of 20-plus and just one of 30-plus, too. And while Florida’s allowed 19 carries of 10-plus yards, it’s only given up two of 30-plus, and was stellar a week ago against Auburn.

Slight edge: Florida

LSU passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Once again, the whole game is likely to hinge on what Florida’s foe does on passing downs against the Gators.

Joe Burrow is very good. So are his wideouts, especially his superb top three of Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall. Marshall seems unlikely to go tonight after a foot surgery last month, but also hasn’t been ruled out, which should tell you something about the level of cyborg Burrow is throwing to — and even without Marshall, Derrick Dillon (like Chase, a former Florida commit) is no slouch as a third option.

Oh, and Randy Moss’s son Thaddeus is LSU’s top tight end. He only has Dillon’s exact stat line on the year plus a touchdown, which pales in comparison to the top three’s combined 20 touchdowns (!!!) and 15-plus yards per catch.

This passing attack, which is largely credited to former Saints assistant Joe Brady — the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach under offensive coordinator Steve Emsminger — has minted Burrow as a Heisman candidate, churned out five games of 350 or more passing yards, and produced a Cajun-seasoned twin of the similarly thrilling passing game possessed by the SEC’s preeminent team. It is very, very good.

Florida’s defense is, too. The Gators rank ninth in pass efficiency defense and have made up for their very good-but-not-elite 6.3 yards per attempt allowed by coming down with a nation-leading 12 picks. And when QBs aren’t throwing picks, they’re being harassed by a defensive front that has gotten pressure with four even without the skills of Jabari Zuniga, who hasn’t been fully healthy for a full game since a 10-sack siege of Miami in Florida’s opener.

Zuniga will be healthy for this game, and players forced into bigger roles while he was sidelined — Jeremiah Moon, maybe most specifically — have improved because of it. And Todd Grantham, known as a blitz-happy chap, hasn’t had to deploy his five- and six-man pressures for much of the year ... but probably hasn’t forgotten them.

If Florida can pressure Burrow and/or prey on any mistakes, it could gum up the great and fearsome LSU passing game in a hurry. If it can’t, though, the Gators may be in for a long night.

Slight edge: LSU

Special teams

Florida’s special teams are often retroactively put under a microscope for their performance against LSU because of this or that fake that works on the Gators. But this game shapes up as a fairly even on when kicks are happening: LSU has allowed just five total returns on the year to Florida’s 12, though the Gators — as against Auburn and Miami — seem a bit more predatory than most coverage teams; Cade York and Evan McPherson have each been fully competent kickers, and Tommy Townsend and Zach Von Rosenberg similarly good as punters.

And normally, that would get me to give a push in this section. But, well, that LSU history of executing fakes looms large.

Slight edge: LSU

Other factors

And if the special teams section requires some squinting and furrowing of a brow, this section especially does.

I don’t like to give too much credit to the intangible — better players mostly best worse ones in football, time has told me — but I can’t help but feel like LSU is a uniquely emotion-steeped team, or that Death Valley is an especially deep cauldron. And Ed Orgeron and his players seem intent on it being an absolute storm of desire and rage for three hours this Saturday night; that’s been Orgeron’s motivational tactic since time immemorial, and it’s reflected in players not being shy to let their feelings about Florida be known this week.

But on a different side of a similar coin, Florida’s players are coming off a big win as a home underdog and will now play as a bigger underdog against a team that much of the country has tabbed as both exciting and elite. If you believe that players are especially motivated by no one believing in them, two-touchdown underdog Florida should theoretically be one of your most motivated teams ever this week.

The problem with believing that both teams will play with an edge, though, is that it’s more likely that the edge will be eroded by (or for) one or both before long — and the problem for Florida fans is that this team is mistake-prone, especially with Trask’s penchant for being strip-sacked, in a way that could allow 90,000 fans to drown it in sound.

If Florida can play a clean game and keep the crowd to a dull roar, then the Gators have enough talent and coaches smart enough at deploying it to make this a nail-biter at minimum. If the Gators spend any stretch of time shooting themselves in the feet like they did a week ago, they may find their night to be a long and frustrating one.

Slight edge: LSU