3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: LSU -2, Over/Under: 43.5
Traditional Southeastern Conference Powers collide this weekend as the Fifth-Ranked LSU Tigers battle the Twenty-Second-Ranked Florida Gators from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. You would find few teams that have improved as much throughout the first half of the season as LSU (5-0, 2-0 in SEC), who have ascended from Preseason No. 25 all the way to No. 5 on the strength of difficult schedule in which they’ve managed to navigate surprisingly well. Admittedly, expectations were far from high for Ed Orgeron and Co. particularly with the arrival of a new Offensive Coordinator in the form of Steve Ensminger, who has been very busy installing a Pro-Style/Spread Attack, and a new Starting Quarterback, Joe Burrow, a Junior Transfer from Ohio State. Simply put, the Tigers’ Offense was in dire need of renovation, and had been for years, and Orgeron knew that if he were to indeed maintain his at times tenuous grip on his job, then something needed to change on this side of the football. And while it certainly hasn’t happened overnight, Burrow and the Offense have gradually improved along with their team’s climb up the Rankings. On the season, Louisiana State is averaging 33.8 Points per Game (48th Overall) on 396.6 Total Yards, including 204.6 Yards through the air and another 192.0 Yards on the ground, while proving to be very efficient in possession, turning the football over just three times thus far. Offensively, they’ve improved their Total Yardage with each passing contest, from posting a meager 296 against the No. 8 Miami Hurricanes (a 33-17 victory) in the Season Opener, to 370 Yards at No. 7 Auburn (a 22-21 triumph), to most recently 573 Yards in a 45-16 romp over Ole Miss. Though he hasn’t been spectacular, Burrow (53.4%, 204.6 Y/G, 7.8 Y/A, 6 TD, 0 INT) has certainly grown into the position, managing the Offense, while also factoring into the Running Game with 154 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns. In the Backfield, Ensminger has opted to employ a platoon approach with the tandem of Nick Brossette (103 CAR, 481 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 6 TD) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (57 CAR, 275 YDS, 4.8 Y/C, 5 TD) punishing opposing Defenses on the ground. Each of them put forth quite a showing in the aforementioned thrashing of Mississippi, with Burrow completing 18-of-25 Attempts for 292 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while adding another Ninety-Six Rushing Yards and a Score with his legs, as Brossette and Edwards-Helaire combined for 139 Rushing Yards and a Touchdown apiece. As a team, the Tigers rolled up Thirty-Three First Downs and 573 Total Yards of Offense despite turning the football over on two occasions. Fortunately, this unit has been afforded the luxury of developing at a comfortable rate, thanks to a Defense that continues to rank among the country’s elite. There are Defenses, and then there are SEC Defenses, and in that particular league, their are the Alabamas, Georgias, and LSUs; Orgeron’s Defense has relegated the opposition to a meager 15.0 Points per Game (12th Overall) on 333.8 Total Yards, including 230.8 Yards against the Pass and another 103.0 Yards versus the Run, while forcing Ten Turnovers and registering Thirty-Two Tackles for Loss and Thirteen Sacks. The Secondary in particular, has been stellar, led by a pair of Sophomore Defensive Backs in the form of Andreaz “Greedy” Williams (18 TKL, 2 INT, 2 PD) and Grant Delpit (27 TKL, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 INT, 3 PD), with each logging a pair of Interceptions thus far. Louisiana State has won three out of the past four matchups with Florida, and five out of the last eight, with four of those meetings being decided by seven points or less. Furthermore, the Tigers have left Gainesville with a victory in three out of their past four trips, including last year’s 17-16 triumph.
Meanwhile, after a rough start to the beginning of the Dan Mullen Era, Florida (4-1, 2-1 in SEC) is look at their first real test of the campaign, which should provide them with the opportunity to show the world who they really are. As we hinted at earlier, the Gators struggled out of the gate this season, coasting past Charleston-Southern (53-6), before getting shocked at home against unranked Kentucky in 16-27 disappointment. Nothing went right for Mullen’s charges in this one, folks, as the upstart Wildcats gashed them for Three Offensive Touchdowns of Twenty Yards or more, with a 30-Yard Fumble Return for a Score sealing their fate as time expired in the Fourth Quarter. That defeat served as a cold dose of reality for Mullen as to just much work he needed to put in to push this program back to the heights it enjoyed from 2005 to 2008 when he served as their Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach, a period of time in which Florida won a pair of BCS National Championships in three years. And speaking of 2008, Saturday’s affair at Ben-Hill Griffin Stadium will be a special one, for the 2008 National Championship Team will be honored, with the return of Heisman Quarterback Tim Tebow entering the Gators’ Ring of Honor. Fortunately, for Tebow and Co. their successors have shown gradual improvement of late, rallying from the dismal loss to Kentucky, stringing together three consecutive victories over the likes of Colorado State (48-10), and SEC Rivals Tennessee (47-21) and most recently No. 23 Mississippi State (13-10). Last Saturday’s showdown in Starkville wasn’t for the faint of heart, as Mullen led his current troops against his old ones, having served as the Bulldogs Head Coach from 2009 to 2017. In what was certainly a low-scoring affair, the visiting Gators moved the ball well at times, amassing 357 Total Yards, though were bogged down by penalties (11 for 90 YDS) and a Turnover, though managed to score the game’s only Touchdown via a trick play from Kadarius Toney (11 Touches, 126 YDS), who found Moral Stephens (4 REC, 65 YDS, 16.3 Y/R, 2 TD) for a 20-Yard Score. If nothing more, that win proved as a confidence builder for an Offense that has, like their opponent today, been very much a work in progress. With the exception of their Season Opener, Florida has failed to accumulate at least 400 Yards of Total Offense in any single game this season, averaging a disappointing 377.8 thus far, though managing to make up for that with advantageous Field Position afforded to them by an opportunistic Defense that has racked up a nation-best Fourteen Takeaways, nine of which have been recovered Fumbles. However, as staunch as they’ve been on that side of the of the football, the only way that they’ll truly compete in the Southeastern Conference is if Redshirt Sophomore Quarterback Feleipe Franks (57.1%, 192.2 Y/G, 7.6 Y/A, 12 TD, 3 INT) continues to improve. The towering Franks (6-6, 240 lbs) has proven to be able to make plays from the Pocket, provided he’s given enough time, though the Gators’ Offensive Line hasn’t always been up to the task of keeping their Quarterback clean. Coincidentally, as this kid has seen better protection, so has the Offense as a whole improved; a major question mark coming into the season, the Line has allowed just Seven Sacks throughout the first Five Games, allowing Franks to find his targets downfield. Though he didn’t throw a Touchdown, he stood in the Pocket and deftly picked away at the Bulldogs’ Defense, completing 22-of-31 Passes for 219 Yards. Protection will once again come Saturday’s meeting with the Tigers, who play a wealth of Man Coverage, granting Franks the chance to take his shots downfield. In last year’s meeting in Gainesville, he didn’t perform very well at all, connecting on 10-of-16 Attempts for an underwhelming 106 Yards and was sacked twice for a loss of Eighteen Yards.