After four non-conference victories by an average of 32.5 points sandwiched around an uninspired, 12-10, win at Auburn, LSU will finish the season with a brutal seven-game, eight-week stretch of SEC football beginning this Saturday at Florida.
Much of the vibe around the LSU program is negative, as negative as it can be after a 5-0 start. On the other hand, Florida enters the game 3-0 in league play including a pair of wins on the road in environments ignited by ESPN’s College Gameday. Second year head coach Will Muschamp has sparked the Gator Nation in Gainesville, and the atmosphere Saturday afternoon promises to be electric.
The feeling headed into the matchup is that the programs are drifting in opposite directions. Of course, the result Saturday evening will ultimately be the deciding factor.
First-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease has handed the keys to his offense to sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel. The once-heralded recruit is completing just under 70 percent of his throws and has tossed four touchdowns against just once interception. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a major improvement for a team that averaged an interception per game last season en route to a 7-6 record.
The other glaring difference from last season to this one is the Florida rushing attack. Last season the Gators finished eighth in the SEC in conference games. This time around senior Mike Gillislee and the Florida ground game average 224.5 yards per game, good for third best in the conference.
An efficient passing game, a power rushing attack and a stingy defense generally dictate success in the country’s top football conference.
Even after facing high-octane offenses like Texas A&M and Tennessee, both of whom have rolled up 50-plus points in a conference game this year, the Gators rank fourth in the SEC in total defense, a trademark of a Muschamp defense.
Those traits belonged to the Tigers throughout 2011, but troubles of late have allowed doubt to creep into the LSU locker room. A win in The Swamp would likely do a great deal to quell the anxiety.
At Auburn a couple of weeks ago, LSU struggled to deal with the speed pass rushers, namely Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford. Both disrupted a handful of plays and made Tiger quarterback Zach Mettenberger uncomfortable.
In response to that, Les Miles flipped senior right tackle Alex Hurst to the left side and slid true freshman Vadal Alexander in at right tackle, forcing sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk to the bench against Towson.
Mettenberger still went down four times and was called for grounding on another occasion.
Florida is tied for last in the league with just five sacks in four games. However, Muschamp does come from the Nick Saban coaching tree. He may dial up the pressure a notch in front of his home crowd Saturday.
Of course, pressure on opposing quarterbacks becomes less important when a pair of cornerbacks rank in the top three in the conference in passes defended like Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins do. Add in safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, and you’ve got one of the top secondaries in all of college football.
Muschamp hopes injured senior linebacker Jelani Jenkins returns to action this week. Jenkins has practiced and may play with a cast on his hand to protect a surgically repaired thumb.
The contest could easily come down to a kick, an area both should feel comfortable with.
Floirda’s Caleb Sturgis has connected on eight of 10 kicks this season and has been steady for four years in orange and blue. Though Drew Alleman has missed three times this year, one was rushed and another came from 51 yards out on wet turf.
When the dust settles Saturday evening, one team will feel very good about the direction of the season. Should Florida come up short, questions will rise about the level the once proud program actually sit on. Should LSU drop its first regular season game since 2010, weeks of doubt and shaky performances will be validated.