Florida Gators: Odell Beckham
Greg Ostendorf: It starts with the defense. Florida is ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217 yards per game. In a season that has been dominated by the offenses in the SEC, the Gators are winning with defense. If anybody can stop or slow down LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season, it’s Florida. They have two NFL-caliber cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and maybe the conference’s best freshman, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. On offense, the Gators need to establish the run early and often. LSU ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. That could mean a big day for running back Matt Jones.
Kevin Paul (@KevinJPaul) writes: Does LSU have the best offense in the conference?
Greg Ostendorf: As good as Florida’s defense has been this season, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop this LSU offense. Sure, Georgia outscored LSU when they met in Athens. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been the most explosive player in the SEC. But how can you argue against the Tigers’ offense? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has turned the page and is looking like a first-round draft pick. They have the top wide receiver tandem in the conference. And if you try to shut down the passing game, they can just hand the ball off to Jeremy Hill. There’s not a more balanced offense in the league. LSU is averaging 291 yards per game through the air, and since the return of Hill they’re rushed for more than 200 yards in three of the last four games.
Jerrod Piker (@d1nonlyhogfan) writes: With or without Clowney, does South Carolina struggle in Fayetteville this weekend? Could this be Bielema’s signature win in season No. 1?
Greg Ostendorf: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to pay for South Carolina this weekend, per his defensive coordinator. However, even with the star defensive end on the field, I think the Gamecocks will get all they can handle from Arkansas. Freshman running back Alex Collins is leading the SEC in rushing with 651 yards through the first half of the season, and he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, South Carolina has struggled in recent weeks against the likes of Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. There's no doubt this would be a signature win for Brett Bielema and put them one step closer to making a bowl game.
Adam Hathcock (@adam_hath) writes: Does Tennessee's bye week help or hurt them?
Greg Ostendorf: It all depends on how the Volunteers respond after a gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. You could argue the bye week would be helpful because the team is still devastated after Saturday’s game and might have come out flat this weekend. However, the overtime loss to the Dawgs seemed to re-energize the program and the fans. Butch Jones & Co. could use the game as a springboard for the rest of the season. Ultimately, I think the off week will be helpful. It gives the players a chance to rest up and get healthy, and they will have extra time to prepare for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come to Neyland Stadium a week from Saturday.
Daniel Badger (@badger_daniel) writes: Is Dan Mullen on the hot seat? If so, who are some possible candidates to replace him after the season?
Greg Ostendorf: It’s hard to argue with what Mullen has done for the Mississippi State program. He has taken the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, which is no easy task. But they have seemed to hit a ceiling of sorts and are in danger of missing the postseason this year. I think it’s too early to fire Mullen, but in this day and age in college football, nothing is out of the question. If he were let go, Mississippi State might look at Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was born in in Mississippi and coached in Starkville once before. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bobby Petrino’s name came up as well.
3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.
5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?
6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.
7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.
8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.
9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.
10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
1. Containing the receivers: LSU receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are first and second, respectively, in receptions per game in the SEC. Beckham had a career-high 179 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State, a team that had virtually no answer for him. Both have more than 600 yards receiving and at least six touchdowns. Double-teaming one of them means you run the risk of the other beating you. The best recipe for slowing them down? Rush the passer and get to LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
2. Stop the run: LSU hasn't been dominant statistically rushing the ball (the Tigers are ninth in the SEC with 197.3 yards per game) but they are effective when they do run it, averaging five yards per carry. The Tigers have rushed for 200 or more yards in three of their last four games, with Georgia holding them to 77. That performance by the Bulldogs should be a positive sign for the Gators, who have the best run defense in the conference and the second best in the nation (65 yards allowed per game). If Florida can replicate what Georgia did, it bodes well for the Gators' chances.
3. Keep the big plays coming on D: Loucheiz Purifoy changed the momentum early in the Gators' last game, a 30-10 win over Arkansas, with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown. Purifoy, who blocked a punt against Miami earlier this year, is no stranger to big plays. The defense had six tackles for loss, including two sacks and two forced fumbles with a fumble recovery (defensive back Cody Riggs had 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack while leading the Gators in tackles against the Razorbacks). That kind of effort helped keep Arkansas' offense to 10 points; replicating an effort like that would pay dividends against LSU.
4. Continued success for Murphy: Another week, another solid performance for quarterback Tyler Murphy. So far this season, he has completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 530 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception. He has run for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. He has been poised since stepping in for the injured Jeff Driskel. Can he keep that same poise and level of play on the road against LSU?
5. Seeking redemption: The Gators' last trip to LSU in 2011 wasn't a pretty one. Florida got blasted 41-11 and it's a game players say was a low point. Coach Will Muschamp said not everyone will use that for motivation, but many will, including himself. If that can give the Gators some extra fire heading into Baton Rouge, La., they'll take it.
- Alabama center Ryan Kelly is expected to a miss a couple of weeks with a “stretched” MCL. That means more playing time for Chad Lindsay, who is making the most of his opportunity.
- Coming off a huge win over LSU, Georgia is still on high alert as it heads to Knoxville this weekend for a matchup with SEC East foe Tennessee.
- Since Lane Kiffin was fired, there have been rumors linking Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin with the open USC position. He says the rumors are just part of the job as the Aggies head into an open week.
- LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. muffed a punt against Georgia on Saturday that led to a touchdown. It’s not the first miscue for the dynamic return specialist, but he knows how to respond from a mistake like that.
- Connor Shaw was expected to miss at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder sprain, but the South Carolina quarterback could play against Kentucky on Saturday.
- Florida boasts one of the top defenses in college football, so the Gators’ offense has resorted to an old-school approach -- a simple, keep-away philosophy.
- Ole Miss was shutout last Saturday at Alabama. Head coach Hugh Freeze says it starts with the offensive line, and they will need to play better this weekend against Auburn.
- Missouri has yet to start SEC play, but through four games, the Tigers’ offense has passed the test under new coordinator Josh Henson.
- Auburn cornerback Chris Davis has missed the last two games due to injury, but the Tigers are eager to get their “extra spark” back on defense this week against No. 24 Ole Miss.
- The trash talk has already started between Arkansas and Florida this week. Florida defensive lineman Damien Jacobs called out the Razorbacks’ offensive line, saying they play a little dirty. He singled out Hogs’ center Travis Swanson.
Don’t forget about Florida: Everybody just assumes Georgia will win the SEC East after its win against LSU on Saturday, but don’t forget about Florida. The Gators have yet to lose in conference, and although the offense has struggled at times, the defense is good enough to keep them in most games. The real test will come in two weeks when the Gators visit LSU. If quarterback Tyler Murphy continues to improve and the offense plays well, it’s not out of the question for them to win in Death Valley. Florida was a trendy pick to win the East in the preseason, but people gave up when Jeff Driskel went down. The Gators might be better off without him.
Matt Jones is healthy again: Before the Tennessee game, Jones came out and said he was ready to put this Florida team on his back. He only received 12 carries and rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown. Evidently, the staff felt he needed one more week before it was ready to give him a full workload. Against Kentucky, he got 28 carries and rushed for a career-high 176 yards with a touchdown. It was the first time he’d ever rushed for over 100 yards in a game. It’s clear that the sophomore running back is back from a viral infection that kept him out of fall camp and forced him to miss the first game. He’s back and ready to carry the offense.
The SEC’s best CB might be a freshman: All Vernon Hargreaves III does is make plays. It’s easy to forget he’s just a freshman. In just his fourth college game, the Florida cornerback locked down his side of the field and pulled down another interception, his third in four games. The pick came in his own end zone, ending one of the few opportunities Kentucky had to score. He’s making a case for the best cornerback in the league, and he might be the best player on the Gators’ defense. He’ll be tested in two weeks when he has to go against LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
Ranking the offensive players
1. QB Aaron Murray (Georgia): Murray led the SEC in passing yards (3,893) and touchdown passes (36) and guided the Bulldogs to a school-record 529 points. He’s got plenty of weapons around him, so similar numbers in 2013 wouldn’t be out of the question. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder hasn’t always played well against Florida, but he has won back-to-back games against the Gators. The last time Georgia beat Florida in consecutive seasons was 1987-89.
3. RB Todd Gurley (Georgia): Gurley finished second in the SEC in rushing (1,385 yards) and rushing touchdowns (17) last season as a freshman. The 6-1, 218-pound Gurley has the power to run inside and breakaway speed. The combination of him and fellow sophomore back Keith Marshall (759 yards last season) -- Bulldogs fans have nicknamed the combo Gurshall -- gives Georgia perhaps the best backfield tandem in the SEC.
4. QB Stephen Morris (Miami): Morris threw for 3345 yards and 21 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last season. He should be even better in 2013 with the addition of new offensive coordinator James Coley. Morris threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the Hurricanes’ spring game and the offense hummed along better than it did much of last season.
5. RB Duke Johnson (Miami): Johnson ran for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and picked up right where he left off by gaining 120 yards on only 10 carries in Miami's spring game. The 5-9, 183-pound Johnson never carried the ball more than 16 times a game last season but he’s going to get more work in 2013.
6. RB Henry Josey (Missouri): He was one of the Big 12’s best players in 2011 before a devastating knee injury forced him to miss the last year-and-a-half. The 5-10, 190-pound Josey ran for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns before his injury and is capable of putting up similar numbers now that he’s completely healthy.
8. WR Odell Beckham (LSU): Beckham was LSU’s between-the-20s big-play receiver in 2012, averaging 16.6 yards per catch. He caught 43 passes for 713 yards but only two touchdowns (Jarvis Landry led the Tigers with five TD catches). New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron likes to throw the ball down the field, which should mean bigger numbers for the 5-11, 183-pound Beckham.
9. WR Bruce Ellington (South Carolina): Ellington wasn’t the dual-threat that many thought he’d be, but he did lead the Gamecocks with 600 yards receiving last season -- 69 more than Ace Sanders, a fourth-round draft pick. He averaged 15.0 yards per catch and should be the Gamecocks’ top weapon in the passing game.
10. WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Missouri): Green-Beckham was the nation’s top recruit in 2012 and finished his freshman season with 28 catches for 395 yards. He did catch five touchdown passes though, meaning that roughly one out of every six catches went for a TD. He’s got the size (6-6, 220 pounds), speed, and athleticism to be one of the country’s top receivers.
GatorNation told you after every game. Now that the season’s over, here are the final rankings of the players who are responsible for the Gators’ 11-2 record:
1. RB Mike Gillislee: The Gators needed him to stay healthy and be a feature back capable of handling 20-plus carries per game. He delivered. Though he got banged up -- he hurt his groin against Texas A&M on a TD run but stayed in the game -- he played in every game and ran for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs. He averaged 18.7 carries and 4.7 yards per game.
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Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Mercedes-Benz Sugar Bowl, New Orleans
Gators to watch
QB Jeff Driskel: The 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore played his best game of the season in the regular-season finale against Florida State. Even though he was still bothered by an ankle injury, Driskel remained composed -- despite being sacked four times and harassed by a pair of NFL defensive ends -- and hurt the Seminoles on rollout passes. It’ll be interesting to see how much he has benefitted from the 15 bowl practices in which he didn’t have to evenly split reps with Jacoby Brissett. A lot of players make significant jumps during the bowl practices, as CB Loucheiz Purifoy did last season. Is Driskel next?
DT Sharrif Floyd: This might be Floyd’s final game with the Gators because the 6-3, 303-pound junior is considering leaving early for the NFL. Floyd has been a disruptive force all season, with 11 tackles for loss, a sack, and six quarterback hurries (one shy of the team lead). He’ll be matched up against a pair of sophomore guards, John Miller and Jake Smith. The Cardinals average just 127.1 yards per game rushing and are without RB Senorise Perry, who tore his right ACL. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and still leads the team with 11 rushing touchdowns. Floyd will be a big part of the Gators’ plan to make the Cardinals one-dimensional.
S Matt Elam: Elam is another player who could be appearing in his last game for Florida. The 5-10, 202-pound junior also is considering leaving early for the NFL after putting together an All-American season (65 tackles, four interceptions). He’s a rarity in that he can play safety but also has the one-on-one coverage skills to line up at nickel back. He made perhaps the biggest play of the season when he stripped LSU WR Odell Beckham after a 56-yard gain. The Gators went on to score a game-clinching touchdown and beat the Tigers.
Cardinals to watch
QB Teddy Bridgewater: The 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore ended the regular season ranked eighth nationally in pass efficiency. He was named the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns. He was fantastic in the regular-season finale against Rutgers, when he came off the bench and rallied the Cardinals to a 20-17 victory to win the Big East title in one of the gutsiest performances of the season. Bridgewater had a broken left wrist and a severely sprained left ankle but he still managed to complete 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
CB Adrian Bushell: Bushell transferred from Florida after the 2009 season, spent a year at a junior college, and enrolled at Louisville just before the Cardinals started practices in 2011. It turned out to be a good move for the 5-11, 184-pounder from DeSoto, Texas, and the Cardinals. Bushell is a two-time first-team All-Big East selection and had a team-high 11 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, and an interception to go along with 59 tackles.
WR DeVante Parker: Parker has 38 catches for 712 yards and nine touchdowns this season. That’s a team-high 18.7 yards per catch. The 6-3, 204-pound sophomore is a touchdown machine. He has 15 touchdown catches on only 56 career receptions, which means he’s averaging a touchdown every 3.7 receptions. He’s also a big-play machine, because his 15 touchdown catches are averaging 29.5 yards.
Florida RB Mike Gillislee vs. Louisville LB Preston Brown
Expect a heavy dose of Gillislee today, especially with the state of the Cardinals’ rush defense. Louisville is giving up an average of 151.1 yards per game rushing and opponents have rushed for at least 196 yards in five of the past eight games. The 6-0, 257-pound Brown, who anchors the middle and leads the team with 96 tackles, is averaging 11.3 tackles in his last six games. Gillislee, a first-team All-SEC selection, has rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF back to surpass 1,000 yards since 2004. Gillislee is coming off his best performance: 140 yards and two TDs against Florida State, which had the nation’s No. 1 rush defense.
By the numbers
2 -- Number of victories Louisville has posted over top-five teams. The Cardinals beat No. 3 West Virginia in 2006 and No. 4 Florida State in 2002.
3 -- Number of victories for Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators are 3-5, with victories over West Virginia (1994), Florida State (1997) and Cincinnati (2010).
12.9 -- Number of points per game Florida is allowing. It’s the fewest allowed in a season since 1964 (9.8).
CB Marcus Roberson
20 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 pass breakups, 1 sack
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We finish with No. 1: Elam’s strip
He wasn’t thinking about momentum or last October or the rest of the season. He just wanted to get LSU WR Odell Beckham on the ground and save a touchdown.
Instead, he made what turned out to be the biggest play of Florida’s season.
Elam ran down Beckham and ripped the ball loose after a 56-yard gain. Florida’s De’Ante Saunders recovered, and the Gators went on to score a clinching touchdown to upset No. 4 LSU 14-6 on Oct. 6 at Florida Field.
"I felt like I had to make a play," Elam said. "My plan was to stop him from getting into the end zone. More came out of it, so thank God for that."
It was a lot more than just a forced fumble. It was the turning point in the season.
Florida had just taken a 7-6 lead late in the third quarter, but LSU squashed any momentum the Gators had generated when QB Zach Mettenberger hit a wide-open Beckham down the right sideline to convert a third-and-7. At the very worst, the big gain was going to set up the Tigers for a go-ahead field goal.
Nothing, apparently, had changed from October 2011. The Gators went 0-4 in the month, starting with a loss to LSU. It looked like this October was going to start the same way. Score a go-ahead TD and then almost immediately give up a big play? Same old, same old.
Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.
1. Maintain and even keel: This game is sandwiched between LSU and No. 3 South Carolina, so Florida has to be careful to maintain the same emotional level it has had for the past few weeks. The Gators can’t get caught looking ahead to the South Carolina game. Good teams win these kinds of games with little fuss.
3. Contain QB Jordan Rodgers: Rodgers hurt the Gators last season with his feet, both as a runner and in keeping plays alive with scrambles. But UF did a good job against Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel in the second half this season after the Gators did a better job of being disciplined in their rush lanes, so that should help against Rodgers.
Gators to watch
S Matt Elam: He had a big game against LSU and made the game’s key play when he stripped WR Odell Beckham after a long gain. He’s having the best season of his career and has become the playmaker the defense has needed in the secondary.
GatorNation will tell you every week. It’s not just a list of MVP candidates, but a compilation of the players who are making the biggest difference each week.
Here’s this week’s top 10 (last week’s rankings in parenthesis):
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Failed jump pass
The score: LSU leading 3-0 late in the first half.
The situation: Third-and-goal from the UF 4-yard line.
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Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Florida Field, Gainesville, Fla.
1. Measuring stick: Has Florida narrowed the gap between where the program has been the past two seasons and the SEC’s elite teams? This game will give us the answer. LSU has one of the league’s top running games and one of the nation’s top defenses. UF’s offensive line has a lot to prove, too. For months we’ve heard that it is tougher and stronger, but if it gets handled the way it did last season we’ll know that nothing has changed.
3. Tricky: UF has gotten burned by a fake field goal and a fake punt against LSU in the past two seasons. LSU coach Les Miles hasn’t attempted a fake this season, but he earned the nickname "the Mad Hatter" for a reason. The first time the Tigers line up to punt, expect UF to be especially vigilant. Getting faked out three years in a row would be embarrassing.
Gators to watch
RB/FB Trey Burton: He had a big game against Tennessee but missed the Kentucky game with back spasms. Expect him to have a significant role in the offense against LSU if he’s completely healthy. He’ll play in the Wildcat and will be a factor in the passing game.
LB Jelani Jenkins: He will be playing his first game since he suffered a fractured right thumb Sept. 8 against Texas A&M. He’s going to play in a cast. Jenkins might not play as many snaps because of his conditioning, but UF coach Will Muschamp said the linebacker will have no limitations on when he will play.