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Game of the Week Preview: Florida at LSU

By BJ Bennett
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Beyond just potentially impacting the SEC's divisional races, the winner Saturday emerges as one of the major players for a spot in the College Football Playoff entering the stretch run of the season.

Overview -- The implications, for a mid-October showdown, simply couldn't be much higher. Beyond just potentially impacting the SEC's divisional races, the winner Saturday emerges as one of the major players for a spot in the College Football Playoff entering the stretch run of the season. Furthermore, the winner, adding in this weekend's outcome, might have the best resume in the entire country. In a sport where the full season is a tournament format of sorts, this could prove to be one of the elimination or advancement games. All eyes will be on Baton Rouge as ESPN College GameDay will be on the campus and Florida and LSU is set for a primetime showcase. The Gators and Tigers have developed a competitive, dramatic rivalry in recent years as five straight games have been decided by one score. A pairing of strength versus strength, Florida-LSU will feature the nation's 5th-ranked defense and the nation's top-ranked offense.      

Why to Watch -- Both teams are excellent at what they do. Florida's defense is the top playmaking unit in all of college football. Remarkably, the Gators have the most interceptions in the country with 12 and are tied for third nationally with 26 sacks. The end result has been a defense that is allowing just 9.5 points per game and 276.3 yards per game. LSU has the most productive scoring offense in the game, currently averaging 54.6 points per game. Led by quarterback Joe Burrow, who has emerged as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, the Tigers are compiling 571 yards of total offense each week. The contrast of styles, here, with an elite defense trying to slow down an elite offense, is fascinating. Something has to give. Additionally, next-level talent will be all over the field on both sides of the line of scrimmage. A night game in Death Valley will be a fitting stage for a showdown that, on paper, may be college football's game of the year to date.

Keys for Florida

1. Establish a Running Game -- The benefits of Florida committing to a consistent rushing attack would be many. First and foremost, success on the ground would help the Gators stabilize the tempo in a contest where high-flying LSU will undoubtedly look to create an up-and-down game. If Florida can dictate and control tempo, the chances for victory increase dramatically. Up front, the Gators have struggled to settle into a rhthym at times, slotting 10th in the SEC with 12 sacks allowed; running the football early could help Florida's offensive line find some initial traction as the aggressor playing physical in the trenches. In addition to such a gameplan helping those on the line of scrimmage, production between the tackles would also decrease the pressure, both literally and figuratively, on quarterback Kyle Trask. Running the football even modestly-well would result in 3rd-and-manageable situations, decreasing the liklihood for sacks and turnovers. Tough the Gators have an elite defense, Florida's offense can also help the other side of the line with long, time-consuming drives. Should the Gators work the clock, it would limit the opportunities Joe Burrow's Tigers have on the field. Finally, Florida has momentum on the ground; Lamical Perine played a key role in Florida's win over Auburn last weekend as he rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown, including a game-sealing 88-yard touchdown run.  

2. Win in the Redzone -- The matchup inside the 20s will go a long way towards determining who wins. LSU leads the nation in redzone scoring with a 100% success rate, while Florida ranks number one in the country in redzone defense, by a wide margin, with a 35.7% margin. Needless to say, this is the game-within-the-game to watch. Defensively, the Gators will need to implement a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. Even if Florida gives up some yardage, the Gators will need to force the Tigers into field goal attempts; that approach is a realistic way to slow down the one of the nation's hottest offenses. The depth of Florida's cornerback rotation will be tested as the Tigers have three wide receivers, Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase and Terrance Marshall, with at least six touchdown receptions. Standouts C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean will need to be at their absolute best with their backs against the wall. Also, the Gators must maxmize their offensive possessions. Trips into the redzone need to result in seven points, not three. Tight end Kyle Pitts, who already has three scores, is a name to watch there.  

3. Play with Poise -- Florida has been really good under Dan Mullen, in part, because the Gators have been great in key moments. In one of the most hostile environments in all of college football, current trends must continue. Death Valley can rattle even the most-experienced teams; Florida, when it comes to the possibility of penalties and turnovers and miscommunications and miscues, will have to be especially focused. In last weekend's top ten pairing with then-unbeaten Auburn, the Gators proved more ready for the moment than their counterparts. Mullen's teams are normally well-prepared for both high-profile opponents and the spotlight that they often bring. In terms of a regular season game, the stage won't get much bigger than this. Florida must handle all of the emotion and energy that LSU will undoubtedly play with Saturday night in Baton Rouge.

Keys for LSU

1. Set the Tone -- Stylistically, in some ways, this is a new LSU. The Tigers, with play-callers Steve Emsinger and Joe Brady, are spreading the field, implementing tempo and throwing the football downfield as well as any team in the country. LSU has run 372 offensive plays in five games; Florida has run 389 in six. Furthermore, the Tigers are currently averaging over 140 yards and 20 points more per game than the Gators. It will be imperative that LSU force the issue early. Given their success this season, it's clear that the Tigers would be more comfortable playing basketball-on-grass than Florida, especially at home. If LSU can maintain a schematic status quo on offense, it would put the Gators on their heels and stem some of the aggressiveness that Florida, and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, bring to the field. Quarterback Joe Burrow has to remain confident in finding Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson on the perimeter and go right after the Gators' albeit-extremely talented secondary. The Tigers have emerged as a leading national contender, at least in part, because of their reconfigured offensive attack. That must continue against Florida. Defensively, LSU needs to take it to the Gators, their unproven offensive line and still-evolving quarterback Kyle Trask.   

2. Get Defensive -- LSU's defense could make a statement on Saturday night. Though the Tigers don't yet a single defender with more than two sacks on the season, Florida ranks just 10th in the SEC having already allowed 12. Injuries have limited the LSU rush some; linebacker Michael Divinity appears to be back, while linemen Rashad Lawrence may be and Glen Logan could be. Regardless of how the lineup looks, the Tigers will need to take chances and make plays. LSU, whether with the front four alone or using occasional blitzes, has to make pressuring Kyle Trask a major priority; the combination of oncoming defenders and the noise and scene that is Death Valley could result in disrupted timing and turnovers. Expect to see all-everything safety Grant Delpit all over the field. He is an x-factor who can make plays in the passing game, in run defense and be used to a varity of different ways to confuse and frustrate Trask. Like Florida, the Tigers are incredibly talented in the secondary with stars like Delpit, Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley. With such ability in the defensive backfield, look for LSU to be active up front. Boosted by the help of the home crowd, the Tigers need to play fast and aggressive at each level on defense.

3. Protect Joe -- Quarterback Joe Burrow has been simply remarkable this season, ranking second in the nation in passing with an astonishing 372.8 yards per game. He is completing over 78% of his passes and has 22 touchdown passes compared to just three interceptions for good measure. Burrow has been the catalyst for LSU's fast start and, against one of the game's premier fronts, the Tigers must limit the number of hits he takes and slow down Florida's pass rush. Quite notably, the Gators are tied for third in college football with 26 sacks, having recorded, among other performances, a 10-sack effort against Miami. Versatile defender Jon Greenard leads the SEC with four sacks and ranks second in the league with 6.5 tackles for loss. He is the playmaker to watch and, at times, double team. The pressure will be on tackles Saahdiq Charles and Austin Deculus to limit the impact of Florida's front and allow Burrow to stand in the pocket and do what he does best. Burrow may need extra time to work through his progressions against this coverage unit.  

Position Advantages

Quarterback: LSU -- Joe Burrow has been a revelation and, beyond just this season, has been one of the hottest quarterbacks around going back to the end of last year. He has emerged as a very real Heisman Trophy candidate and is at the center of LSU's offensive reintroduction. Kyle Trask has done a nice job in for the injured Feleipe Franks.

Running Backs: Florida -- One of the stars of Florida's win over Auburn was Lamacial Perine, who rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, with 360 yards and five scores, has been very good this fall for LSU. The Gators have a little more proven depth at the position with Demeon Pierce and Malik Davis.

Pass-Catchers: LSU -- Quite impressively, Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson rank one-two in the SEC receiveing yards per game at 112.8 and 109.4, respectively. Terrance Marshall is also in the top ten. That LSU trio has combined for 19 touchdown catches. Another elite group, Florida has tremendous depth with the likes of Freddie Swain, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes and Kyle Pitts.

Offensive Line: LSU -- While Florida is still solidifying a depth chart, LSU's front five has allowed just nine sacks on 188 pass attempts and has paved the way for 12 rushing touchdowns. The interior of the offensive line, led by center Lloyd Cushenberry, is a veteran group with plenty of big game experience.

Defensive Line: Florida -- The numbers speak for themselves; Florida has one of the nation's top defensive fronts. End Jabari Zuniga looks to be a full-go for this weekend and he is dynamic off the edge. LSU has been hurt by injuries to multiple standouts, though Neil Farrell has been a rising star. 

Linebackers: Florida -- Louisville-transfer Jon Greenard has reunited with coordinator Todd Grantham to become one of the top defenders in the country. He has played at an All-American level, leading Florida's defensive charge. Jacob Phillips has been productive in the middle of the field for LSU and a healthy Michael Divinity is a good thing.

Secondary: Florida -- Though LSU is close, no defensive backfield in the nation has the depth that Florida does. Three elite cornerbacks in C.J. Henderson, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean give the Gators quite a luxury in coverage. The Tigers also have some of the best ballhawks in the game in star Grant Delpit and freshman Derek Stingley. There is considerable NFL talent on both sides.

Special Teams: LSU -- Derek Stingley and Trey Palmer have brought big plays to the return game for LSU, while kicker Cade York and punter Zach Von Rosenberg have been solid. Florida is sound in the kicking and punting game, too, and has come up with two big blocks already this season.          

Coaching: Florida -- Both head coaches and staffs are top-notch, but Dan Mullen has developed an almost-unparalleled reputation for having his teams ready to play on the big stage. Florida has won ten games in a row. It goes without saying that LSU, featuring the ideas Joe Brady on offense, is playing with great confidence and cohesion as well.

Intangibles: LSU -- A night game in Baton Rouge is arguably the most significant homefield advantage in all of college football. It is an atmosphere unlike any other. Simply put, LSU is often a different team at night.

Players to Watch

Florida: Jon Greenard, LB -- He has been everywhere this season, including front and center for his team. Greenard, in many ways, makes the Gators go defensively. His relentlessness typifies Florida's philosophy and scheme. In terms of Saturday night, Greenard's main job will be to get after Joe Burrow. Should Greenard be a regular in LSU's offensive backfield, it will create playmaking opportunities for the Gators' defensive backs.

LSU: Joe Burrow, QB -- The streak Burrow is on is stunning. Over his last eight games, Burrow has thrown for 2,835 yards, with 31 touchdown passes and three interceptions. His downfield proficiency is off the charts, with countless records within reach. Against a Florida defense that is one of the nation's best at rushing the passer and intercepting the football, Burrow will have to continue to be at his best.

Final Thoughts

What a game. What a setting. This showdown of undefeated, top ten teams could prove to be one of the signature games of the college football season. The matchup of LSU's offense against Florida's defense may be the best unit-specific pairing seen all year. From the line of scrimmage to the perimeter, the next-level talent is off the charts on both sides. Joe Burrow might ultimately be the deciding factor. He gives the Tigers an extra dimension that may be hard for the Gators to consistently match. Burrow's downfield effectiveness, and the energy stemming from a raucous home crowd, is the difference. LSU 27, Florida 23

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: / Twitter: @BJBennettSports