- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Florida (3-1, 2-1 SEC) and LSU (4-2, 0-2) might not be ranked, but Saturday’s meeting at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is still a key conference game -- particularly in the SEC East, where Florida is still in the running for a division title.
With an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information database, let’s examine some key factors in Saturday’s game.
Defending the run: Stopping the run will be a key for both teams in this game, but it has only been a problem for one of them.
LSU ranks 89th nationally and last in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 184.3 yards per game. This on the heels of surrendering 298 rushing yards in a 41-7 loss to Auburn, which was the third time in three games against Power 5 teams that the Tigers gave up at least 260 yards on the ground.
Thus, slowing down Matt Jones and Florida’s rushing attack will be the Tigers’ first goal Saturday. Jones is one of the SEC’s better running backs (he’s seventh in the league with 93 rushing yards per game), but the Gators have hardly been consistent in any aspect of their offense. They’re eighth in the SEC in rushing offense (189.8 ypg) and 11th in passing (215 ypg), so if LSU limits Jones’ impact in the running game, the Tigers have to like their chances.
On the other sideline, the Gators have been impressive against the run. They’re 15th in the nation and fourth in the SEC in rushing defense (103 ypg) and held Tennessee to 28 yards on 29 attempts last Saturday. Opponents are running for just 2.78 yards per carry against Florida, which ranks ninth nationally and trails only Alabama in the SEC.
Regardless of who plays quarterback for LSU on Saturday, the Tigers will likely stick with their run-first mentality. If they can’t move the chains more consistently on the ground than they have lately, this will be a tough game for the Tigers. There were times when they ran effectively against Auburn, but short yardage was generally a mess. They ran seven times in two-tight-end/two-back sets against Auburn and picked up just 9 yards, and on their 20 runs when the quarterback lined up under center, they totaled 55 yards.
Freshman Leonard Fournette (60.7 ypg) has led the Tigers in rushing in each of the last five games, but he’s averaging only 11 carries per game. In LSU’s two SEC games, he had seven carries for 38 yards against Mississippi State and 10 carries for 42 yards against Auburn.
Quarterback shuffle: The reason the running games are so important is because of the teams’ inadequacies at quarterback. Florida hoped this would be Jeff Driskel's breakout season, but he continues to struggle. Gators coach Will Muschamp removed him from the Tennessee game and freshman Treon Harris led the Gators to all 10 of their points in the 10-9 win.
But with Harris now suspended following a sexual assault complaint, the Gators are stuck with Driskel again. He ranks 103rd nationally in ESPN’s Total QBR metric at 40.8, just a point ahead of LSU’s Anthony Jennings (39.8), who was booed off the field by Tigers fans in his last start two Saturdays ago against New Mexico State.
Driskel’s QBR against Tennessee was an abysmal 14.3 after he went 11-for-23 for 59 yards and three interceptions. Unfortunately for LSU, its starter last week, Brandon Harris, was nearly as bad. In going 3-for-14 for 58 yards, Harris logged an 18.4 QBR against Auburn and Jennings replaced him late in the third quarter.
Since the quarterback position has been a problem throughout the season for these teams, Saturday’s outcome might rest on which club can get something approaching competence from its signal-caller.
Big-play vulnerability: From play to play, LSU’s defense hasn’t been awful this season. The disconcerting problem for the Tigers has been their vulnerability to explosive plays. The Tigers have already surrendered 26 plays that covered 20 yards or more, which is more than every team in the SEC except Mississippi State (26), Vanderbilt (29) and South Carolina (34). LSU opponents already have five touchdowns that covered at least 45 yards.
That said, Florida isn’t exactly a big-play offense. The Gators’ longest passing play against Tennessee came on a 15-yard grab by Demarcus Robinson. Their only run of 20-plus was a 32-yard Jones burst. Overall, the Gators have 13 plays of 20 yards or more, but six of them came in their season-opening 65-0 rout of Eastern Michigan.
One of the few areas where LSU’s offense has been consistent is in producing big plays. The Tigers have 37 plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for ninth nationally. That includes touchdown passes of 94 and 80 yards to Travin Dural, who is third in the SEC with 95.7 receiving yards per game.
Considering how it has one of the best cornerbacks in the nation in Vernon Hargreaves III, it seems somewhat strange that Florida has already given up 17 pass plays of 20 yards or more, covering a total of 618 yards. Alabama alone hit the Gators for scoring passes of 87 and 79 yards as quarterback Blake Sims passed for 445 yards that day, averaging 13.5 yards per pass attempt.
Turnover turnarounds: Both of these teams are accustomed to winning the turnover battle, so that could become a deciding factor Saturday.
Florida leads the SEC and is fifth nationally with a plus-eight turnover margin. The only way it stayed in the Alabama game -- at least for a while -- was because it generated four turnovers and Keanu Neal scored on a 49-yard fumble return.
Only Florida (15) has generated more takeaways than LSU’s 13 among SEC defenses, which helps the Tigers rank fourth in the league and 16th nationally with a plus-five turnover margin.
Both defenses have scored twice off turnovers this season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Saturday’s game swing on a similarly opportunistic play.