It’s bad blood colliding.
That’s how LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson described the Florida-LSU rivalry this week. That may be putting it mildly.
The cross divisional SEC rivals have historically met in season defining games. The 2006-2008 stretch all had national title implications with the two schools going on to win the trophy in those three years. But of course, the intensity peaked in 2016 when the game had to be moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge due to Hurricane Michael hitting the state of Florida. Then LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and then Gators A.D. Jeremy Foley had an openly contentious debate about whether or not the game should be played in Gainesville or Baton Rouge and what it would mean for future scheduling. In the end a compromise was made to move the game to Louisiana that year and have the Tigers visit Gainesville for the next two years.
Jim McElwain’s team went to the bayou, wide receiver Josh Hammond revealed this week that they had food and drinks thrown at their bus upon arrival, the two teams got into a fight before kickoff, the Gators stopped the Tigers on a goal line stand, won the East in doing so, held up a cat skeleton after the game and trolled the Tigers in the locker room by posting videos of them dancing to a LSU favorite song, the title of which we won’t put here because our moms read this. But trust us, it was a perfect troll.
The next year when the Tigers travelled to Gainesville, the were the Gators homecoming game. Florida lost 17-16. And then last season, again homecoming weekend, a pick-6 by New Orleans native Brad Stewart—the first interception Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow threw all year—gave the Gators arguably their biggest win of the season.
Now No. 7 Florida travels to Baton Rouge on their homecoming weekend to face No. 5 LSU in a night game in Tiger Stadium. College Gameday will be broadcasting from their second Gators game in as many weeks. A cool fall breeze will be flitting through Death Valley and as the sun finds it’s home in the western sky, a quasi playoff game will kick off between two schools who have become the biggest rivals for each other in the past decade.
So yea, it’s bad blood colliding. And it’s everything college football should be, including two schools that are both finding ways to play the underdog role. LSU, by recalling last years loss. But it’s the Gators who have a bit more ammunition to play the role. Despite knocking off then No. 7 Auburn last week, and sitting at 6-0, Florida is a two touchdown underdog on Saturday night. The line has shifted half a point this way or the other, but has continued to float around the 14 point spread. And just like last week, when the Gators were a 3-point underdog at home against Auburn, this time is perfectly fine with the label.
“I think the biggest thing for us is to just focus on the things we can focus on,” says receiver Josh Hammond.
“We don’t pick the spreads or anything of that nature. We know how hard we can play. We know how we can perform come Saturday…I think we probably gotten a little more respect now that we’ve beaten Auburn. So I think the message for us, our mentality kind of moving forward is just, you know, we’ll just go out and kind of earn the respect we deserve.”
Safety Donovan Stiner agrees.
“I mean, it's nothing new. People haven't respected us, we weren't supposed to beat Auburn, so. I mean we just go out there and accept the challenge and prove people wrong.”
And linebacker Jeremiah Moon.
“They’re playing with us right now. But after the game we’re going to see.”
And defensive lineman Kyree Campbell.
“I mean they picked against us this game too. So I mean, we’ll keep being the underdog, doesn’t faze us. We just gonna come out and play on Saturday…it’s great motivation but at the end of the day, they wanna label us underdogs then we cool with that. We’ll play as underdogs.”
And defensive lineman Adam Shuler.
"As long as we keep winning, there's no question who we are. So I try to stay away from it. It helps us, though. It helps us because it motivates a lot of the guys. We got that chip on our shoulder and we're going to keep proving people wrong.”
And wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, who saw comments from LSU players in particular.
"Just wait till Saturday. He's got to get on the field Saturday night and we're going to get on the field. At the end of the game we're going to see who's talking last."
And you get the point.
While Tigers players have done a bit more actual small talking this week, Florida is content to let everyone know they hear what’s being said, and they’ll let Saturday do their talking. These Gators are very aware they’re counted out in this game. But are they? Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups.
LSU OFFENSE VERSUS GATORS DEFENSE
Head coach Dan Mullen said of Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow, "He'll be the best quarterback, obviously, we've seen so far this year.”
LSU is second in the country in passing offense, total offense and individually for Joe Burrow in passing yards per game at 372.8 on average. Burrow leads the country in passing percentage as he’s currently completing 78.4% of his passes. The Tigers are averaging 571 yards of total offense per game. The Gators have given up an average of only 276.3 per game.
Burrow has a bevy of wide receiver, two of who are in the Top 10 in the country: Ja’Marr Chase averaging a 112.8 per game and Justin Jefferson, averaging 109.4 a game. However of the Tigers five opponents thus far, the best defense they have faced—statistically speaking—is Georgia Southern, who ranks 60th in the nation, giving up 380 yards per game.
This will, undoubtedly, be the best defense Burrow and the Tigers have faced yet. One particular note of interest is that the matchup will feature the nation’s No. 1 redzone offense (LSU) against the nation’s No. 1 redzone defense (Florida).
The Tigers—who are the nations top scoring offense overall—won’t change the Gators preparation though as safety Donovan Stiner explains.
“It doesn't change our planning, I mean we're gonna prepare how we always do. We see it as another challenge that we have to face this week and I feel like we're all looking forward and we're all excited about it.
As Campbell and Moon explain, the LSU offense isn’t confusing in the way Auburn tried to be with motions and stacks. The Tigers show you what they’re going to do and just dare you to beat them. Campbell knows what it’ll take to do just that.
“We gotta press [Burrow], we gotta contain him. He’s a hell of a thrower but he hasn’t ran that much. But like I said, we just gotta keep him in the pocket and we gotta press him, we gotta make him do things he’s not used to doing.”
“We're just gonna have to play our ball,” adds linebacker David Reese.
“We're not too much worried about what they have to offer. We know they're gonna be an unbelievable team, unbelievable talent and that's obvious, they're a top-five team in the country. It's basically based upon what we do, how we execute and [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham is an aggressive coach so we're not gonna wait on the offense to make decisions."
The Gators ability to rush four and keep pressure on the quarterback has paid off dividends so far this season. It allows the secondary time to adjust and get in place. With two of the best receivers in the country lining up on Saturday night, it’s going to take one of the best corner duo’s in the country to lock them down.
So what about the other side of the ball?
GATORS OFFENSE VERSUS LSU DEFENSE
“They're going to play man-to-man, so it's just you against him. Who's going to be a dog, that's how I take it.”
That’s how wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland summarized the matchup for this Saturday. The Tigers have always debated with Florida as to who can claim the title DBU. If the numbers so far this year are any indication, the Gators have the edge. And that means the Gators offense can take the edge.
LSU’s passing defense is giving up 206.8 yards per game and 284 total on average, while the Gators offense is averaging that just in passing offense (284.5 per game). Florida is averaging 424 per game total.
Derek Stingley Jr., a freshman Tigers corner, is 4th in the country in passes defended (8) and will get a lot of the Gators attention when it comes to one on one matchups.
“He’s a great corner. He’s only a freshman but he looks like he’s been playing for a long time,” says receiver Van Jefferson.
“We just have to be sound on our assignments, play our game. The environment is going to be crazy but just focus in on our assignment and I think we’ll be fine. They have a good secondary. We’re going to have to come to play.”
One thing that has benefited the Gators offense this season is that any given game can feature a different wide receiver. As Jefferson explains, it’s a game planning advantage for Mullen and a mindset installed by receivers coach Billy Gonzales.
"You’ve gotta stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. Every guy is ready to step up when his number is called. Just like Coach G said, competitive excellence. When your number is called just make the play.
“I mean, we’re going to have to make plays [to help Trask], we’re going to have to win, win our one-on-one matchups. Like you said, they have a talented secondary in Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton and those guys and their freshmen. So, I think we just got to make plays. It’s the SEC, so you got to make plays and you got to help your quarterback out.”
There is one more matchup that will possibly get attention on Saturday. As mentioned, the Tigers have the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense. So are the Gators prepared if this thing turns into a shootout? Josh Hammond feels they are, not only because of how this offense is built because of how the entire Florida Gators team is built.
“We haven’t had to [get in a shootout] so far. I think our offense is capable of scoring as many points as we need to do to win. I think our defense is capable of shutting out how many times we need to shut out to win. Whatever we’re thrown at, whatever adversity we have to deal with, I think we’ll be prepared for it. We just have to prepare the proper way and be prepared for whatever gets thrown at us.”