Updated: Apr 17, 2020
While not a longstanding rivalry, the Florida-LSU matchup has become must watch TV full of fingernail biting drama over the past decade.
BY: KASSIDY HILL
The Florida Gators are a rival rich school; a program that can’t even agree on their biggest foe because there are so many. It’s what comes from being strong across a stretch of decades. You catch other programs at their peak and weakness, becoming the game they circle on their calendar as important. And then, like the Gators program currently, you find yourself with five legitimate huge rivalries.
There’s FSU, obviously, and Georgia, of course, along with Miami and Tennessee. Over the last 10-12 years though a new rival has emerged, packing years and years worth of hate and loathing into a relatively short period of time. The animosity that has arisen between Florida and LSU was quick and intense, edged on by instant classic moments and games that altered the course of National Championships runs.
It was the Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Jacob Hester years that lit the match, with dueling national championship teams and punts following Pick-Six’s and fake field goals that earned the Mad Hatter his reputation. But as the matchup rolled into the 2010 years, it became clear this was more than a flash in the pan. Florida-LSU was becoming a heated rivalry that would come to define the programs over the next decade.
2012-MATT ELAM VS OBJ
The 2012 game set the tone for what would become a marquee game. It was a Top 10 game (Florida 10/11—LSU 4/3) and was the ninth straight year as a Top 25 matchup. Both teams were undefeated, making it an easy choice as the CBS SEC Game of the Week. Tigers wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was the extent of the offensive firepower. The two defenses though were stocked with future NFL talent. As such, it’s not much surprise that scoring was at a premium. At halftime, LSU led 6-0, courtesy of two field goals. The second half began much the same way—in fact, the game ended with 25 total drives, 14 of which finished with a punt, eight coming on three-and outs.
By the time the third quarter began, Matt Elam had already become a hassle for OBJ, sticking on him all day like white on rice. When Kyle Christy punted the ball away following the Gators first stalled drive of the second half, OBJ took it from the LSU 10-yard line. He made one cut, then another, before zipping towards the sideline with intentions of going out of bounds. Marcus Maye was on his hip but didn’t have the right angle to bring him down just in case. Then came Elam. He flew in like a rocket, meeting Beckham’s body as they both dove through the air, the returner aiming for the sideline and away from the defender, Elam with target lock on his opponent. The two popped up facing each other, each pausing to see what the other would do. OBJ reached out and condescendingly patted Elam’s helmet. Elam folded his hands beneath his face and told Odell Beckham Jr. it was time to take a nap.
The Gators second drive of the third quarter, Will Muschamp put the ball in Mike Gillislee’s hands and essentially, the game. Gilly delivered on an eight play drive that ended in the first touchdown of the game. LSU tried to immediately answer with a 56-yard bomb to OBJ. But yet again, Matt Elam was right there. In front of the Florida sideline and alum stands, Elam wrapped Beckham in a vise, pulling at the ball as the two fell to the ground together. By the time OBJ’s knee touched the grass, Elam had the ball back. The Gators got the ball back, went 77-yards for Gillislee to score again and that was all she wrote.
Florida went on to finish the season 11-2 with a trip to the Sugar Bowl as the No. 3 team in the BCS. Odell Beckham Jr. and Matt Elam both became first round picks. While Elam is no longer in the NFL, OBJ credits a lot of his success to the Gator safety.
"That play still lives in my mind all the time," Beckham Jr. told Daily News in 2015. "The next time I saw Matt Elam, it was at the draft. I was like, 'Man, I just want to thank you.' I had been through so much that year already. That was just the icing on the cake. Either I could take it or just build up from there. It made me absolutely stronger.”
2013—THE 6-1-1 FORMAT DEFINES THE RIVALRY
Following the SEC conference expansion to add Texas A&M and Missouri, schedule realignment conformed to what’s known as the 6-1-1 format. This means each team plays the other six teams in their division, one permanent cross division opponent and one rotation cross division opponent. (i.e. Florida plays the other six teams in the SEC East, one team from the SEC West that remains the same and rotates each year amongst the other SEC West teams). This was done to maintain “traditional rivalries” like Alabama-Tennessee on the “Third Saturday in October” and Auburn-Georgia which is “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.”
This is when Florida and LSU became official permanent opponents, much to the chagrin of then Tigers head coach Les Miles. He vocally opposed the matchup, feeling it was unfair for LSU—and by proxy Florida—to draw a perpetually tough rival while Alabama got to face a team that had been on the downslide since Phil Fulmer.
He had a valid point, but when Muschamp took the dissent and said he didn’t mind, Miles looked like he was whining. The needling laid a foundation that would come to blows in 2016.
2015—THE MAD HATTER
Les Miles did this again
2016-THE HURRICANE GAME
It all hit the fan in 2016. It would honestly take another 1,500 words to recap what went down leading up to the 2016 Florida-LSU game but we’ll try to summarize it here shortly.
The game was scheduled to be played in Gainesville that year. Leading up to the matchup, Hurricane Matthew was bearing down on Florida. The Gators and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley wanted to cancel the game and worry about rescheduling at a later date; you know, when they were done worrying about a natural disaster in the imminent future. LSU said Florida was running scared from the game. The Tigers and Athletic Director Joe Alleva asked for the game to be moved to Baton Rouge that week. Foley said losing a home game hurt more than the school but also the surrounding local businesses. Alleva said play the game or forfeit. Stricklin again was like, “sorry man, I can’t take your call, Jim Cantore is walking in my office.”**
**I made up that last part but it explains the seriousness right?
The programs finally compromised. They each lost a late season cupcake and played in Baton Rouge in November. Gainesville got both the 2017 and 2018 game. And by the time the Gators rolled in to the bayou, the heated but respected rivalry had turned into pure hatred. Players from the two squads even met at midfield during warmups and got into a pregame skirmish that was one coach pulling guys away from turning into a full-blown fight.
At halftime, LSU was up 7-3. Caleb Brantley had already forced one fumble in the redzone to save a second Tigers touchdown. The Tigers started the third quarter moving the ball right down the field. Running back Leonard Fournette rushed down to the 3-yard line to make it 2nd and goal. The next play, quarterback Danny Etling took the snap and ran a bootleg to his right. Fournette went out ahead as a blocker/possible pitch option, but Gators defensive end Jordan Sherit tripped up the Heisman contender and rerouted the play. Etling pointed his nose towards the pylon and was looking to score. Freshman Vosean Joseph met him there. Joseph leveled Etling, without even lowering his shoulder, then stood over him as Etling sat confuddled on the grass. The Tigers ended up settling for a field goal attempt…and then botching the hold, leading to nothing.
Out trotted Austin Appleby and the Gators, taking over from their own 2-yard line. Appleby dropped back in the pocket, set his feet in the middle of the “U” in LSU’s endzone and let one rip. Then freshmen Tyrie Cleveland pulled in the 50/50 ball around the 38-yard line, shook off Donte Jackson, and practically strolled the remaining 62-yards to the endzone, accompanied only by teammate Antonio Callaway. Florida was up 10-7 and we had a ball game.
But of course that all paled in comparison to how this game concluded. Florida held the ball for 7:45 and scored a field goal to milk clock in the 4th quarter then immediately got the ball back after LSU fumbled on the kickoff return, milking it for another minute off the clock.
Les Miles and the Tigers got the ball with 3:24 to play and down by six. They took 12 plays to march 73 yards down the field before stalling at the 1-yard line. Miles took a timeout and the clock showed 0:03 to play.
Etling lined up under center, took the snap, turned and tossed it to Derrius Guice. The running back leaped, looking to go over the top and into the endzone. He was pulled down into a scrum but the bayou Bengels in attendance went nuts, knowing he’d made it far enough. But wait! The Gators defense was jumping up, running to the sideline and celebrating. They said they stopped him, that he had never broken the plane. Upon further review, it’s clear to see Sherit and Marcell Harris had met behind Guice and grabbed his feet. They pulled him back and down, keeping him from the endzone.
McElwain stormed the field, his staff gator chomped and UF players jumped into the stands where their family waited. UF was going back to the SEC Championship with the win, but more importantly, had gone on the road to the toughest environment in college football to play a home game, had heard taunts and ridicule all week, then won in the toughest way possible.
2018-THE PICK SIX AND RETURN OF THE SWAMP
The 2018 LSU game was a perfect day for Florida Gators fans. SEC Network’s SEC Nation was in town, set up on the Plaza of the America’s, Gainesville was packed, the 2008 National Championship team full of it’s superstars were on the field for a 10-year reunion, Tim Tebow was inducted into the Ring of Honor and the sold out crowd spilled into the parking lots as thousands of others decided if they couldn’t get a ticket they’d at least watch within shouting distance.
For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t a well executed game on either side. There were sloppy moments, interspersed with successful plays and Lamical Perine. The biggest factor, arguably, was The Swamp.
“I want to thank Gator Nation and all our fans, our student body for the atmosphere," said Mullen following the game.
“There's a Florida I know and there's a Florida I love and I know our players love, and I'll never forget all the former players that are, right now, celebrating with our guys. There's a certain Gator standard that they expect the team to live up to, but they also expect the Gator Nation to live up to — and it was that way tonight.”
And despite seeing a Florida 14-10 halftime lead fall behind to a 19-14 deficit, The Swamp never let up. The 90,283 in attendance were at full throat for the entire 60 minutes, complete with one of the best “I Won’t Back Down”s yet.
The Gators had begun the second half with an interception and saw LSU score on their first drive of the 4th quarter. But then, The Swamp exploded when tight end and former lefty pitcher Lucas Krull took an end around, tossing it back to quarterback Feleipe Franks within the 5-yard line. It raised the din even further when Perine finished the drive for a touchdown. Florida had the lead back at 20-19.
With 2:21 to play and Florida still ahead by one, Tyrie Cleveland and Kyree Johnson stopped a Tiger punt returner at his own 12-yard line. That’s where Joe Burrow and friends took over. A 6-yard pass moved them slightly down field before an incomplete pass went no where. Then came “the play.”
It was 3rd and four from the LSU 18. Burrow dropped back, looking to his right. He had a receiver wide open. Stephen Sullivan was there with the sideline to help. But Burrow—who a year later would most likely not make the mistake—threw inside of Sullivan instead of leading him away. Brad Stewart—a Lousiana native who was jilted by his home state school—was tracking the receiver, reading Burrow and waiting in place for just such a mistake.
Stewart picked the ball out of the air, hoofed it back 25-yards before diving for the pylon.
Vosean Joseph grabbed the ball and punted it into the stands a la Brandon Spikes, got an unsportsmanlike flag that not a single person the field cared about since the 2008 team was celebrating with the current team on the sidelines, and Florida went ahead 27-19.
Technically the football play would have been to go down on one knee so the offense could run out the clock. And if LSU had scored and added a two-point conversion to tie, then it would’ve been a problem. But that didn’t happen. Because when Burrow did get the ball back after throwing his first interception all season, he promptly threw another one, this time to Donovan Stiner. The game was over. Florida had defeated No. 5 LSU 27-19 and The Swamp had returned to its former glory.
2019-TOE TO TOE WITH THE BEST
Under normal circumstances, it would feel weird to include a loss on this list. No matter what your kids tee-ball coach tries to sell, there is no such thing as a moral victory. But Florida-LSU has always been weird and an exception to all rules—concrete or arbitrary. The 2019 game was the first back in Baton Rouge since the goal line stand. Yet again, it was a Top 10 matchup (No. 7 Florida vs. No. 5 LSU) and College Gameday was in town for the night game in Death Valley.
It’s the toughest place to play in college football, especially at night; Mullen and crew were facing the nation’s best offense and had a green quarterback themselves at the helm. And by games end the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and National Champions had won, defeating the Gators 42-28. But for a rivalry that had been defined by the defense for the past decade plus, this one was nothing but offensive fireworks. Trask played toe-to-toe with Burrow, answering every strike until the end when a pick play resulted in an interception. Mullen called the best game of his career, at a point even taunting Ed Orgeron by going to Van Jefferson three times in one drive with the same play. The lead Florida held in the third quarter was one of the only times all season the Tigers trailed. A late score from LSU padded the score but the game was within reach for so long.
Yes it was a Florida loss. But when examining the Florida-LSU rivalry and how it’s grown the past decade, it can’t be forgotten.
The week of the 2018 game, I was walking out of a Tuesday night post practice media session. Feleipe Franks and some of the receivers had stayed behind to run drills, as they often did, and walked out at the same time. I was chatting with receiver Van Jefferson, who was in his first season after transferring to Gainesville.
"Are you excited for this weekend," he asked.
"Oh gosh yes," I replied.
"This is my absolute favorite game and weekend of the year."
"Really," he remarked, noticeably shocked.
"Absolutely. The fans are nuts on both sides, it's always crazy and the entire town feels like its going to explode."
Franks nodded his agreement and we continued to fail to put into words for Jefferson what the weekend would be like.
For what it’s worth, while Miles was justified in his argument back in 2013, I love the Florida-LSU game. As a fan of college football and all that makes it great, few embody it like this annual grudge match. The two programs are eerily similar, though neither would ever admit that. They both suffered way too many years of mediocrity, flashing enough promise to create hope but never enough to be sustainable, watching from afar as Alabama and Tennessee and the likes ran the conference. Then in the past couple of decades, both began to build their dominance. As a powerhouse that wasn’t created in the Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno decade, they each came to the big boys table with a bit of an edge. Other programs—at the direction of their history—keep their mouth shut, their uniforms classic and their nose out of other teams business. Florida and LSU aren’t afraid to talk smack. They do so boldly, albeit cockily at times, but back it up on the field giving them the leeway to jeer. And they have more fun than anyone else.
Florida and LSU aren’t afraid to hit hard and laugh at you as you pull yourself up; they play with a swagger that is scoffed at by other teams on the surface and secretly envied. They know you don’t like them and they don’t care. Their stadiums are notoriously difficult to play in because they hold rapid fans and noise, casting a spell that makes them almost magical. And one of them has to be DBU, right?
College football and the SEC are better when Florida and LSU annually take the field, line up across from the team that is their equal in many ways and then attempt to pummel them into oblivion.