The No. 7 Gators (6-0, 3-0 SEC) played their best game of the season last week in a homecoming defeat of Auburn.
Their reward? An even tougher opponent in one of the most intimidating venues in the country at night. Such is life in the SEC. Florida takes on LSU (5-0, 1-0) on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness and three players to watch for from the No. 5 Tigers.
Three Positions of Strength
Joe Burrow is considered one of the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s completed a nation-best 78.4 percent of his throws for 1,884 yards (second in the country) with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s thrown almost as many touchdowns as incompletions (25). While not a great athlete, he has enough mobility to extend plays and pick up some yards with his legs. LSU is one of the best passing teams in the country, and they’ll challenge a Florida secondary that played extremely well last week.
Burrow hasn’t put up video game number by himself. Their receiving corps is deep and talented. Justin Jefferson leads the way with 30 catches for 547 yards (18.2 yards-per-catch) and seven scores, and Ja’Marr Chase has contributed 23 receptions for 451 yards (19.6 yards-per-catch) and six touchdowns. Jefferson and Chase are both big-bodied, physical type of receivers who excel at winning 50-50 balls in man coverage Burrow has spread the ball around to 19 different players so far this season. Against Texas, Jefferson, Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. each eclipsed 100 yards, becoming the first trio in school history to accomplish the feat. Marshall is doubtful for Saturday’s game as he recovers from a fracture in his foot.
As usual, the Tigers are loaded along the defensive front. They’re giving up just 81 rushing yards per game, second in the conference and eighth nationally. They’re tied for fourth in the league with 35 tackles-for-loss. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda operates out of a 3-4 base, but he’ll switch between three-man and four-man fronts to confuse opposing offenses. The headliner is defensive end Breiden Fehoko. He’s tied for the team lead with four tackles-for-loss and has also recorded half a sack. Neil Farrell Jr. leads them with two sacks and four quarterback hurries. End Rashard Lawrence, the MVP of the Fiesta Bowl last season, is expected to play for the first time since week two against the Gators, according to coach Ed Orgeron.
Three Positions of Weakness
LSU doesn’t have the dominant rushing attack that they usually have. They rank just ninth in the conference with 155 rushing yards per game. They’re averaging just 4.2 yards-per-carry, which is worse than UF’s 4.3 average. LSU has a couple of solid runners in Clyde Edwards-Helaire and John Emery, but they don’t have that one dynamic guy like Leonard Fournette or Darius Guice. Part of their struggles with running the ball has to do with their schematic shift toward a more pass-oriented offense, but the skill at the position seems to have dropped off a bit as well.
To be clear, the Tigers have great individual talent in the secondary, but they’ve underachieved as a group so far this season, at least with regards to the lofty standards set by previous teams. They’re fifth in the SEC in passing defense at 206.8 yards-per-game and sixth in passing efficiency defense. They’ve intercepted just five passes and recovered just two fumbles. Those seven turnovers rank tied for 12th in the league. Their only real test so far this season came against Texas, and the results weren’t pretty. They surrendered 401 passing yards and four touchdowns to Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
As with defensive back, LSU has good linebackers, but they’re lacking that alpha dog that strikes fear into opposing offenses like Devin White did the past couple of seasons. The unit has combined for just 5.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and no interceptions. Middle linebacker Jacob Phillips leads the team with 40 tackles but can be a liability in coverage. UF tight end Kyle Pitts should be able to exploit that.
Three Players to Watch
Quarterback Joe Burrow
The Tigers hired Joe Brady away from the New Orleans Saints to be their passing game coordinator and introduce some more dynamic passing concepts to what had been a very bland offense. Burrow was the beneficiary of that philosophical shift. He leads the SEC in total offense per game (385.2 yards), passing yards per game (372.8 yards) and is second in touchdowns and pass efficiency (216.2). UF’s defense got the best of Burrow in the 2018 matchup, as he completed just 19 of 34 passes for 191 yards and threw the first two interceptions of his career in the fourth quarter. He hasn’t faced a defense anywhere near the caliber of the Gators’ yet this season, so this game will provide a measuring stick to see just how much he’s progressed.
Safety Grant Delpit
The junior was a unanimous First Team All-American and a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy last season. He’s expected to be a high draft pick after this season. His statistics this season don’t jump off the page – 19 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery, one interception and one pass breakup – but some of that likely has to do with teams refusing to throw the ball his way. He figures to see a lot of time matching up against Pitts, and that will be a fascinating matchup to watch.
Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.
He was the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2019 class according to the 247Sports Composite, and he’s certainly lived up to the billing. He leads the SEC and is third nationally with 10 passes defensed. He leads the Tigers with two interceptions. Will he finally start to look like a true freshman against the Gators’ deep and talented receiving corps?