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Florida vs. LSU, Monday Afternoon Post: How good are the Tigers — and Kyle Trask?

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Florida came up against a national championship contender on Saturday. Its “backup” quarterback wasn’t phased in the slightest.

NCAA Football: Florida at Louisiana State Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators took their first loss on Saturday.

But the fallout of the 42-28 defeat at the hands of the LSU Tigers has included a lot of optimism — and not without reason.

Here are our Sunday morning Monday afternoon takeaways from this game, which come without having given it or its highlights a second viewing.

LSU is a national title contender

I know I usually write about Florida here, and maybe write some thing about the other team if it is merited (hi, Tennessee) later in the post.

But the thing I couldn’t stop thinking about after this game was how great LSU was.

A sampling of the eye-popping numbers:

  • 42 points on 10 drives spanning 21:41 of play clock
  • 511 yards on 48 plays (tied for the ninth-fewest run against Florida since 1980), for a staggering 10.6 yards per play
  • 218 rushing yards on 24 rushing attempts, for 9.1 yards per carry
  • 293 passing yards on 24 passing attempts, for 12.2 yards per attempt
  • No sacks
  • No turnovers
  • Four third downs
  • Two punts

LSU had six touchdown drives; one took more than five plays. On the other five touchdown drives, the Tigers accumulated enough points to win the game — and covered 355 yards in 19 plays, an average of 18.7 yards per play.

And Florida’s defense is good, even if its pass rush evaporated without healthy versions of Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga around on Saturday.

I wasn’t entirely impressed with LSU’s defense, and I think that a missed field goal on the opening drive by a freshman kicker says all that needs saying about the special teams — how do you make this team punt, exactly? But LSU’s offense is so good that its warp drive — which I think is what we saw on Saturday night in Death Valley — makes this team nearly invincible.

Will LSU play that well against every other team on its schedule? Of course not. But LSU did this to the best defense it will face in SEC play outside of a hypothetical SEC Championship Game, and I have no problems believing it could do so to any defense in America.

The Tigers have the nation’s best assortment of wins right now, and an offense that is utterly fearsome. If they hosted Alabama, I would consider them favorites to make the College Football Playoff; as is, with a trip to Tuscaloosa on deck, they have an inside track to a spot, and it would not surprise me at all to see them play for a national title in January.

Florida almost measured up to the measuring stick

Just imagine Kyle Trask throwing in the direction of Tyrie Cleveland on that play that produced his only pick. Imagine Florida not wiping out a huge gain with a holding penalty with the game tied at 28. Imagine that Emory Jones-only drive while down seven working out, or being replaced by a Trask-and-Jones drive to tie the score. Imagine Florida managing to punch in a touchdown on that final drive and make the margin of victory one score rather than getting stoned at the goal line.

LSU played an almost perfect offensive game — and Florida almost kept pace.

This is, for reasons I don’t totally understand, being seized on by Florida fans as evidence that this program and this moment is different from losing 35-28 to LSU in very similar circumstances in 2015, or falling 17-9 to Georgia in 2012. While those games suggested not being good enough, this one seemingly suggests being almost good enough.

I think that’s because optimism comes easiest for Florida fans when we see offensive competence that doesn’t seem fluky, because it’s what we’re used to seeing and embracing as Florida rises. And this was, to be fair, a different game from the others mentioned, with Florida playing clean and efficient offense and moving the ball against a supposedly very good defense on the road. Even the beleaguered offensive line was mostly a strength on this night, though it would ultimately play a significant role in Florida’s undoing.

But I also think this speaks to Florida fans generally being happier with the idea of winning 45-42 shootouts than 24-14 defensive games. Setting the unique joy of beating Florida State for a national title and the novelty of a first natty aside, fans who weren’t there seem to me to have better memories of the 1996 and 2006 national title games than the 2008 one — mostly because there were larger margin of victory in the first two, even if shutting down Oklahoma, winning a second title in three years, and winning a title in the state of Florida was arguably the most impressive and sweetest of the three feats.

Oh, and being able to accept a historically poor defensive night — the yards per play, pass, and rush might all be the worst marks in program history, or at least modern program history, but Florida does not keep those stats in its media guide and they are hard to manually research — because, like, Trask threw for marginally more yards than Joe Burrow and hit the 300-yard plateau? That’s in keeping with my understanding of the Florida fan ethos.

But even if all of the above is fair and accurate, I get hanging on how close Florida was and how good Florida’s offense was after this game. LSU being this brilliant might have been aberrational; Florida generating offense with its (technical!) backup QB and no straight-ahead running game to speak of has happened enough this year that it’s a trend.

And we sure do love a positive offensive trend.

Kyle Trask isn’t QB1 — except that he is

I quipped on Twitter during the game that Florida doing what it was doing “without QB1” was impressive — and almost immediately got corrected by a few smartasses loyal followers insisting that Trask is now QB1 for these Gators.

And you know what? He is — for now, at least, and maybe for good.

The debate over whether Feleipe Franks or Trask is better is literally unsolvable. We don’t know how Franks would have played in these games he’s missed, and we don’t know if Trask would have been better or worse for Florida if inserted when and where Franks was. We are dealing with conjecture and projection, and we ought to acknowledge that.

But if Franks is your horse, you’re not going to win many arguments at present.

Trask has assumed the role of starter so effortlessly and played it so successfully for long enough that his predecessor is becoming a memory, and that a return to the pre-injury status quo is almost certainly impossible. Trask looks poised to the point of being unflappable more often than not, and he passed as tough a test as there is on this schedule by not wilting or turning back into a pumpkin in Death Valley. Never mind that Franks was impressive in the second half against LSU a year ago (remember that dime to Josh Hammond?); Trask was impressive in both halves just days ago.

This stretch of good play by Trask has also gone on long enough to distinguish it from brief spans of success for Tyler Murphy, Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby in past years, and it being overseen by Mullen — and not, uh, Brent Pease, or Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier — has instilled a lot of confidence in the fan base that this is not Trask’s high-water mark but water finding its level. And I have to admit that while I’m still somewhat skeptical of that, and I think Trask will be seeing a few more excellent and creative defenses this fall, even I’m beginning to think that Trask was exactly what this team needed.

And though that opens a whole other can of worms when it comes to Florida’s self-scouting and evaluation of its own options at QB, and is liable to produce a sticky situation or two down the road, we can deal with those later.

For now, enjoying the magic of the career backup turned star seems like the smartest and most fun idea. So I’ll do that, and rather happily.

Florida’s margins for error are thin

Coming into this game, most thought that Florida’s best chances of making LSU sweat would come from harassing Burrow and/or slowing down the LSU running game. Florida did neither — thanks at least in part to missing Greenard and Zuniga, massive helps in both regards — and got char-broiled.

Florida’s offense kept it in this game, though, and the score-for-score portion of the contest was truly thrilling in a way that recalled the best tennis. But LSU broke the Gators — who double-faulted on that holding call — and basically held serve for the rest of the night. And it felt all night like Florida was just fighting to keep pace, while the Tigers alternated between pushing the gas normally and flooring the pedal.

That might be true in future Florida games, too. South Carolina may have throttled Georgia’s offense, but Mullen gets to watch and learn from that tape, and the Gamecocks playing a banged-up Ryan Hilinski sounds like trouble to me; the bigger worries are Georgia, sure to be angry after that dumbfounding defeat, and Missouri, which has quietly been rampaging through its schedule after opening with a loss at Wyoming.

And on a macro scale, Florida’s margin for error in pursuit of trophies is gone. Florida could lose to LSU and stay in every race because the Tigers are an SEC West team and Florida could still go undefeated in the East and make a run through Atlanta to the College Football Playoff.

Florida now has to go undefeated in the East, I think, to get to Atlanta. (Either Georgia or Missouri’s gonna finish with one SEC loss, I bet.) And it will need to win in Atlanta — almost assuredly against either this LSU team or Alabama — to make the College Football Playoff, without the possible backstop available to a previously undefeated SEC runner-up.

Such is life when you’re not the top dog in the SEC. Florida had to know that status was on the line in Baton Rouge, and has to be smarting about not being able to obtain it.

But now begins the fun (“fun”) of must-win, high-pressure college football. And it’s going to either crack these Gators or reveal them as diamonds.

I’m excited to see which outcome awaits us.