I did this in conjunction with the LSU Football Community Leader on Bleacher Report, Justin Goar, and you can read his side of this here.
This game is far more critical for Florida at this juncture of the season than it is for LSU. The unexpected loss to Ole Miss has made it so another conference loss prevents the Gators from controlling their own destiny in the East. Granted, Vandy won’t run the table and a loss for the Commodores will give UF that control back even with a loss to LSU, but the margin for error becomes razor thin with a defeat on Saturday.
It could have some significance in the court of public opinion as well. Some people, including Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, have begun beating the “Urban Meyer’s shine is wearing off” drum. A win here would definitely help boost his image, even though it shouldn’t need it after producing a national championship and a Heisman winner in his first three years.
LSU on the other hand, has very little to lose in my opinion. A loss only jeopardizes the Tigers’ national title chances, and given how seldom teams win two in a row, a repeat was always doubtful in my mind. A loss on the road at night with a freshman starting quarterback falls squarely in the “understandable” category, and even then running the table from here would keep LSU right in the race for the crystal football.
The one catch is that LSU hasn’t looked all that great so far. The blowouts over Appalachian State and North Texas were nice. However they needed a dramatic comeback to beat Auburn, something that sounds less appetizing every day now. The win over Mississippi State was not overly impressive either given that the Bulldogs scored 24 on them whereas they didn’t manage a single point against those same Auburn Tigers.
Florida will win if: the Gators play “Florida football.” I put that in quotes because I mean it how Meyer defines it: winning the field position battle, playing great on special teams, and beating the other guy on the lines. Outside of the Ole Miss game, Florida has done well with the first two. The third part has been more troublesome.
The offensive line has been hit hard by injuries at left guard, which has thrown off the play of senior left tackle Phil Trautwein too. It also had some shuffling going on before the season. Sophomore center Maurkice Pouncey was a guard last year, and his twin brother Mike, the starting right guard, was an emergency defensive lineman after practicing at center for most of the year. The defensive line has been better that last year, though it’s hard to be worse, but it has not been consistent with getting pressure.
It’s unlikely the offense will click back into “destroy” mode, as it had been in 2007, against LSU’s defense, so the special teams will have to have another great game. Brandon James will be the man of interest in that respect, and he will help with the field position battle too. Punter Chas Henry has been quietly outstanding as well, so the same thing applies. Kicker Jonathan Phillips has been perfect so far, but don’t expect him to be attempting anything beyond 40-43 yards.
Florida will lose if: they can’t stop the run. Charles Scott has been stellar this year, and an inability to stop the run played a huge part in LSU’s comeback win last season.
Florida’s defensive line has been improved as I mentioned, and relatively unknown guys to the national stage like Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders, and Justin Trattou will need to step up alongside the more known quantities, Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap.
They will also need help from the linebackers. Brandon Spikes has been fantastic, but Dustin Doe is out recovering from surgery for a double hernia. The Gators get backup Ryan Stamper, who was out hurt against Arkansas, a utility guy who is able to play all of the linebacker positions. He excels in run coverage, so that’s a good thing. The third ‘backer is A.J. Jones, who has yet to really distinguish himself but is making more plays this year.
Even after Jarrett Lee’s performance in the comeback over Auburn, I’d rather force LSU’s inexperienced quarterbacks, both of whom will see the field on Saturday, to win the game instead of Scott. Good memories of JaMarcus Russell turning the ball over and bad memories of Jacob Hester picking up fourth down conversions probably drive that as much as anything.
The X factor: Kestahn Moore.
He is widely seen as the goat of the 2007 game thanks to his fumble, but he rushed for more than five yards a carry and was very effective. Once he got benched, UF could no longer control the ball or the clock, opening the door for LSU’s win.
This season his role has been diminished thanks to the emergences of Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps, and he missed the Arkansas game with a pulled hamstring. He will be healthy for this weekend though.
I don’t expect him to get many carries, despite his success last season, but he can play a big role anyway. He is Florida’s best blocker among the backs and receivers, and if given the chance he can be the guy to have Tebow’s back. Blitzes have caused problems for Florida thus far, but Moore can pick them up with enough regularity to buy time and avoid sacks.
This is a pure speculative pick; I can easily see Meyer not even putting him on the field but for five or six plays. What I am saying is that if he is used to get those extra rushers and provide backup when someone on LSU’s defensive line inevitably beats one of UF’s offensive linemen, Florida’s offense could have one of its best days.
Tebow needs time to throw, and Moore can provide him with that.
Prediction: Florida 23 – LSU 20
I am an incurable optimist when it comes to the Gators, so you can take that forecast with however much salt you want. However I saw the offense starting to form a real identity for the first time this season against Arkansas, and it was not solely a function of the Razorbacks having a questionable defense.
The absence of Bo Pelini, the inexperience under center, and environment in the Swamp at night are all negatives for the Tigers. I am by no means counting the Bayou Bengals out as you can see by the score prediction, but I think with Florida needing this one more than LSU does, the Gators will find a way to get it done.