Posted: 4:00 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, 2013
From my limited viewpoint, it seems like a fair number of people expect Florida to cover the touchdown-sized point spread against LSU. The lineup of picks at CBSSports.com is a representative example of this sentiment. What I haven't seen is a tremendous amount of faith in the idea that the Gators could win this game outright.
I actually see a lot of advantages for Florida in this one, which is why I picked UF to win this game in my picks post this morning.
Let's start with pointing out that LSU's biggest improvement over last year has been in its passing offense. Zach Mettenberger has been sharp, and Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry are a tremendous pass catching duo.
Florida has far and away the SEC's best pass defense so far. No secondary is as well equipped to do battle with those guys, particularly with freshman Vernon Hargreaves III outplaying his considerable hype. One of those LSU receivers will probably have a good day, but not both. As for anyone else, well, they already don't get anything. Furthermore, Florida's pass rush is still great even with Dominique Easley out for the season. Dante Fowler, Jr. and Ronald Powell are possibly the best pass rushing tandem in the country, and Mettenberger is the slowest quarterback west of Christian Hackenberg.
If the pocket doesn't stay rock solid, Mett is going down or throwing it away more often than not. I expect to see some quick hitters early on to try to keep the invaders at bay, but this will be a factor all game long. Can't the vaunted Tiger running game help here? Maybe. Bill Connelly points out that LSU's rushing game hasn't been all that great in non-garbage time situations. It will have to do better than it has done to date to provide a sizable assist. Plus, the Gators have already shut down Miami's Duke Johnson (2.8 YPC on 21 carries, a long of 12 yards), and he's better than any of LSU's backs.
Meanwhile, LSU's defense has definitely taken some steps backwards. I'm not ready yet to say it's as bad as the 2008 Tiger D, but it's the weakest since that season for sure. Florida was able wear down last year's superior unit with its ball control style, so I expect the Gators to try to do that again. Neither Matt Jones nor Mack Brown has performed up to Mike Gillislee's 2012 level just yet, but a rotation of them to keep both somewhat fresh might do the trick.
Should I be concerned about Tyler Murphy making his second road start ever? Possibly. However, the words that coaches and teammates use to describe him—calm, even-keeled, cerebral—are the same that coaches and teammates used to describe Chris Leak. He, as you may recall, won in Tiger Stadium as a true freshman.
Murphy could very well be the key to the whole game. Since everyone knows that the Gators will probably try to do what they did last year, I expect LSU to load up against the run. Doing so will force Murphy to beat them through the air. That basically was the game plan that Arkansas used last week, and Murphy did beat them. LSU's just a smidge better than Arkansas, of course, but he actually has some workable targets this year. Having a good receivers coach for the first time in years has done wonders for Quinton Dunbar and especially Solomon Patton, and together with Trey Burton, they make for a pretty good set of pass catchers.
Murphy also figures to make a difference with his legs. LSU had considerable trouble with Dak Prescott carrying the ball last week, and though Murphy isn't as big as Prescott is, he's a bit faster and shiftier. He also is more of a surprise when he runs it, and that fact makes him all the more dangerous. If he's not hitting his favorite third down target Burton, he'll be extending some drives by scrambling.
This is not to say that Florida has the game in the bag. The Gators have gotten off to slow starts far more often than not in the Muschamp era, and LSU certainly has the fire power to put the visitors in a hole with a quickness. The Gators simply aren't built to come from behind, and getting a two-score lead and forcing the Bulldogs' offense to pass was what opened up the floodgates last week in Starkville.
With that said, LSU simply has not faced a defense as good as Florida's is yet. TCU's is pretty good, but it's not close to parity with what the Gators have. By S&P;+ however, Florida did face an offense in LSU's league when it played on the road at Miami. The Hurricanes' offense had easily their worst showing of the year, with a busted coverage by the Florida D providing the sole big highlight and a four-yard drive giving the team its third touchdown. Turnovers are what cost UF that game, and Murphy has taken better care of the ball than Jeff Driskel did then.
I expect this to be a pretty great game between the two, and you can see it in the 23-20 final score I predicted. It probably won't reach the heights of the 2007 game between them, because almost no games in history have ever been that good, but these two tend to have more good battles than stinkers. While it would not be anywhere near a surprise to see LSU win this one at home, I am picking Florida to win.