LSU Tigers: Will Muschamp
DESTIN, Fla. -- If Florida coach Will Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley have their way, both LSU and Florida State will stay on the Gators' schedule regardless of how many SEC games are on Florida's slate.
It's a good call by Muschamp and Foley because both games are big for the program, and big for the money pot. Anyone who knows anything about Florida football recognizes the bitterness and enthusiasm the Gators' rivalry with the Seminoles, which dates back to 1958, exudes.
"The Florida State game is very important to us," Foley said. "I don't see that changing."
Muschamp understands LSU's stance on moving from the current 6-1-1 format to a 6-2 format, which has two crossover rotators and no permanent opponent, but he believes this game is too important to scrap.
"It's a great game for our league," Muschamp said. "I've been on both sides of it as a coordinator and now as a head coach. It's a national game for our league.
"At the end of the day, a 6-2 format is probably the fairest format -- if you want to be honest -- but I do enjoy the rivalry."
Miles, whose Tigers already share a division with Alabama and Texas A&M, doesn't want to have to continue playing one of the East's top teams every year if other squads don't face similar challenges.
"I think you play your division, rotate two teams [from the other division]," Miles said. "Everybody in the country can honor and visually see that that's the honest, straightforward way to do it."
I understand where Miles is coming from. Alabama and Georgia are dealing with permanent opponents who have fallen in recent years, while LSU played 11-win teams in Florida and South Carolina last year, going 1-1 against them. This fall, the Tigers host Florida and play at Georgia, both of which will probably be top-10 teams entering the fall.
Alabama's East opponents are Kentucky and Tennessee (permanent), which both have new head coaches.
“I'm totally opposed to permanent opponents," Alleva said. "It has nothing to do with Florida. I think it’s a competitive disadvantage to every team in the league to have a permanent opponent. I think they all should rotate. It’s better for our fans, it’s better for our players. We have players who never get to play against some SEC teams. So from a competitive standpoint, from a student-welfare standpoint, from our fans' standpoint I think we should just play six in our division and rotate the other two.”It's going to be tough for LSU to get rid of Florida because of other more historical crossover rivalries, such as Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn. SEC commissioner Mike Slive has been adamant about not getting rid of those games and said a hybrid format with only some teams having permanent crossover opponents hasn't been discussed.
"The rivalry games are important," Slive said. "Otherwise I would have given you the [scheduling] format last Monday."
One rivalry the Gators aren't high on is the one against Miami. This fall, Florida will play Miami for the fifth time since 2002, but Foley doesn't consider the rivalry, which was hot before the 1990s, much of a priority -- especially if the SEC moves to nine conference games.
"You never say never, but that's not high on the agenda right now," Foley said. "For me to sit here and say, 'Well, we'll do that down the road,' there's too many unknowns in scheduling right now. If you're at nine conference games plus Florida State, I'd probably tell you it's unlikely. There's been no conversation between us and the University of Miami."
Take for example the Dallas Nike Football Training Camp in Allen, Texas, on April 7 when he set the tone in 1-on-1 drills by shoving a wide receiver three yards behind the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.
Adams, the No. 23 player overall and No. 3 safety, isn’t naming any favorites. But we caught up with him to get a sense for where he stands with a few of the programs generally thought to be in the mix.
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Alabama Crimson Tide
What they are selling: What's not to sell? Alabama is coming off back-to-back national championships, and the Crimson Tide had nine players taken in April's NFL draft, including three in the first round. For the critics who say you won't play early at UA, ask T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper how much they contributed as freshmen.
What they are missing: Although they won a national championship, the Tide didn't generate much pass rush last fall, and they had trouble containing freshman sensation Johnny Manziel. Also, they need to rebuild the offensive line, a unit that anchored the offense last year.
What they are selling: New head coach Bret Bielema runs a completely different offensive system than the previous two Arkansas coaches. The Razorbacks are selling an opportunity for freshmen to come in and earn playing time early in their careers.
What they are missing: The Razorbacks signed only one offensive lineman, Denver Kirkland, who was rated a four-star prospect or higher last year. In this run-heavy system, look for Arkansas to focus on landing talented players along the offensive line.
What they are selling: It's a new regime for Auburn, but there's a familiar face running the show. New head coach Gus Malzahn knows the program from his days as offensive coordinator. He's already shown the ability to recruit, stealing ESPN 150 linebacker Tre Williams away from the Tide. There's a sense of excitement on The Plains again.
What they are missing: Malzahn filled out his first recruiting class with playmakers, but Auburn needs to build up front on the offensive and defensive lines. No matter what offense you run, if you want to win in the SEC, you need to be able to compete up in the trenches.
What they are selling: With no proven wide receivers on the perimeter, Florida is attempting to sell early playing time at the position. A chance to play for one of the best defensive minds in college football in Will Muschamp is another selling point to defensive prospects.
What they are missing: Production on offense. After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense, it will be hard to sell playing time to wide receivers without an explosive passing game in place.
What they are selling: Freshmen, if they're good enough, play early at Georgia. From running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to offensive tackle John Theus to defensive end Jordan Jenkins, several freshmen Bulldogs made major contributions on a team that was a few yards away from making the national championship game.
What they are missing: Georgia has brought in four top-12 recruiting classes in the last four years. Depth might become an issue for some recruits, but Georgia has certainly shown a willingness to play younger players.
What they are selling: After finishing 2-10, Kentucky fired coach Joker Phillips. New head coach Mark Stoops is offering a fresh start and a chance to help build Kentucky in to a contender in the SEC East.
What they are missing: Plain and simple -- tradition. Sure, Kentucky is full of basketball tradition, but the success on the hardwood completely overshadows the football program. A record 50,831 fans attended the Wildcats' spring game, so the interest level is certainly headed in the right direction.
What they are selling: An unprecedented 10 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. LSU is selling the opportunity, not only for early playing time because of the departures, but a chance to make it to the NFL in three years.
What they are missing: Because of all the departures, there are some holes on both sides of the ball. Depth is now an issue at running back and LSU will need to replace Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter.
Ole Miss Rebels
What they are selling: Ole Miss landed the No. 5-ranked class in the country, including No. 1 overall player Robert Nkemdiche and No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Look for Ole Miss to sell recruits on the opportunity to help build something special under head coach Hugh Freeze.
What they are missing: Freeze brought a creative and innovative offense to the SEC, but the defense is still a work in progress. Ole Miss finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense and will need to continue to build depth in order to compete for the SEC West championship.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
What they are selling: Only 11 of 22 starters return for a team that finished 8-5 last year. The Bulldogs offer recruits a chance to play early and play in the best division in college football.
What they are missing: Mississippi State returns its starting quarterback Tyler Russell, but who will he be throwing to? Last year's four leading receivers, including Chad Bumphis, are gone. Look for the Bulldogs to focus on offensive weapons in this recruiting class.
What they are selling: The Tigers return 14 of 22 starters on a team that went 5-7 in its first year in the SEC East. Missouri runs a fun and innovative offense that is sure to attract recruits, and there is certainly an opportunity to play early.
What they are missing: The defensive line is probably the most critical area on any defense in the SEC, and the Tigers lost their best lineman in Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou must find a viable replacement for Richardson and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner.
South Carolina Gamecocks
What they are selling: The Gamecocks have been dominant on defense over the last few years, and a strong line is a big part of their success. South Carolina is selling an opportunity to be the next Jadeveon Clowney and be a part of one of the top defenses in the SEC.
What they are missing: Hard to believe, but head coach Steve Spurrier needs help at wide receiver. The Gamecocks signed only one wide receiver in their 2013 class. They have young bodies, but not much depth or production from the returning group.
What they are selling: A fresh start under new head coach Butch Jones. Since 2011, Tennessee has finished with the No. 13, 21 and 29 recruiting classes in the country. There plenty of holes to fill, and any incoming freshman will have plenty of opportunities to earn a starting spot.
What they are missing: Tennessee lost wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft and must replace their production on the outside. The Volunteers are also thin in the secondary and will look to recruiting to plug some key holes on defense.
Texas A&M Aggies
What they are selling: There is a lot to sell a recruit on at Texas A&M right now. An explosive offense which led the SEC in total offense by more than 100 yards a game, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a team that went into Tuscaloosa and handed Alabama its only loss last season.
What they are missing: There are still some holes to fill on defense. The Aggies finished with the No. 8-ranked defense in the SEC and the No. 10-ranked pass defense in the league. They also need to replace talented defensive end Damontre Moore, who is now in the NFL.
What they are selling: Head coach James Franklin has taken Vanderbilt to a bowl in two consecutive years, and the Commodores are bringing in a solid recruiting class. Selling recruits on an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt during one of the best eras in the school's football history is enticing to high school recruits.
What they are missing: Vanderbilt is not yet on par with other SEC schools as far as facilities. The Commodores, though, are certainly headed in the right direction. A new indoor practice facility is being constructed, and stadium renovations are in the planning stages.
Just look at the seven straight BCS titles.
But changes to scheduling is being talked about in college football's most successful conference, especially with the new College Football Playoff on the horizon.
Currently, SEC teams play eight conference games, but that number could move to nine. Talk of SEC teams playing nine conference games isn't anything new, but with two more teams in the conference and strength of schedule becoming a very important factor in how the playoff committee chooses its four playoff teams, nine-game talk has increased.
SEC coaches fielded questions about increasing the number of conference games during last week's SEC coaches teleconference, and league commissioner Mike Slive addressed a nine-game conference schedule Monday.
"Obviously the playoff impacts how we think about scheduling," Slive said. "Strength of scheduling will be a significant component in the committee's analysis. As far as I am concerned, I am open-minded about how we should schedule, and I anticipate continued discussions about how we schedule in the future."
Nine games is a tricky subject when it comes to the SEC. Coaches have made the argument that the league is tough enough, and adding another conference game makes the road to Atlanta -- and the national championship -- that much harder. Also, SEC championship teams would have to play 10 conference games. That's a lot of wear and tear before heading into a four-team playoff.
Then, you have a schools like Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina who annually play nonconference rivals. Those certainly aren't gimmie games, so think about adding another conference game to the slate.
"We're not for nine conference games because of our instate rival Florida State," Florida coach Wil Muschamp said.
While the selfish part of me wants to see all SEC teams playing tougher nonconference games more consistently, I understand why coaches and athletic directors would be against that. Again, scheduling formulas have worked to this point.
Here's what Missouri's Gary Pinkel had to say about moving to nine conference games:
“Most coaches like eight games, and one of the reasons is because it’s such a tough league as it is. It would have a huge effect on your nonconference (schedule) going down to three games. There’s a lot of aspects to it. And I think TV will have maybe something to say about that also, in terms of what they would like.”
But there are arguments for moving to nine games. With a nine-game SEC schedule players would have the chance to play every SEC school during their careers. It would also help bolster teams' strength of schedule for the upcoming playoff. You'd certainly get a much more entertaining game than Alabama taking on a directional school or an FCS opponent.
Strength of schedule is certainly going to be an issue the SEC has to tackle, whether it has eight or nine conference games, but as long as the SEC stays as strong as it is, chances are its champion will continuously sit at the playoff table.
So why alter a working product?
Plus, the SEC still has to figure out its rotation issues with scheduling first. Does the conference stay with a permanent cross-division opponent, regardless of how many conference games teams play?
Like last year's SEC spring meetings, which begin at the end of May, coaches and administors will discuss all things under the scheduling sun, but another thing to consider when it comes to nine conference games is that teams would be giving up a home game every year in order to play another league game. That means a loss of revenue, folks.
There are pluses and minuses to nine conference games, and while the Big Ten is taking on the challenge, the SEC doesn't have to be so fast to copy its northern cousins.
We heard plenty, too, both yea and nay.
Is he the league's most underappreciated head coach?
Or is it Georgia's Mark Richt, who according to a loud sect of Georgia fans I hear from regularly, should have been gone several years ago. Never mind that he's been to the SEC championship game each of the past two years and came within a tipped pass of playing for the national championship last season.
Then again, maybe it's Florida's Will Muschamp, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen or Missouri's Gary Pinkel.
We'll let you tell us who is the SEC's most underappreciated head coach by voting in our SportsNation poll.
We'll give you the rest of the week to vote, and we'll go over the results later in the week. This ought to be interesting.
During Muschamp's second season at Florida, he helped lead the Gators to an 11-1 record and a 7-1 record in SEC play. Florida ended the season No. 3 in the BCS standings and will play Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators also defeated four teams that finished the season ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings.
As for Sumlin, in his first year at Texas A&M, the Aggies went 10-2 (6-2 SEC) and upset No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A&M also owned the SEC's No. 1 offense and quarterback Johnny Manziel broke the SEC record for total offense in single season and is a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Aggies are headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl to take on Oklahoma.
The coaches also named Manziel, who threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns to eight interceptions and rushed for an SEC-high 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns, the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year.
Here are the individual awards voted on by the SEC's coaches:
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
CO-SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
*Caleb Sturgis, Florida
*Ace Sanders, South Carolina
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Barrett Jones, Alabama
JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
CO-COACHES OF THE YEAR
*Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
*Will Muschamp, Florida
Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.
Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?
In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?
The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.
If you think everybody else in college football is tired of seeing the SEC win all the time, try taking the temperature of fans in Baton Rouge, La., or Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., over how tired they are of seeing Alabama win all the time.
Not since Florida in 2008 has a team from the East won the SEC championship, and it was only two years ago that a three-loss team in the East (South Carolina) made it to the SEC championship game.
In fact, South Carolina was the only team in the East with a winning conference record that season, and four of the six teams in the East finished with losing overall records.
It was a similar story a year ago. Four of the six teams in the East finished with losing conference records.
The “Least of the East” jokes were well deserved.
But as we look ahead to the second half of this season, the landscape has changed.
The first BCS standings were released Sunday night, and three of the top 11 teams were from the Eastern Division. Right there behind Alabama at No. 1 was Florida at No. 2, while South Carolina was No. 7 and Georgia No. 11.
“I think people would say there are more than two teams [from the SEC] that could contend for a national title right now,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
And, yes, those same two teams from a year ago are still right there in the hunt, the same two teams that played for the national championship last season: Alabama and LSU.
Alabama has yet to have a close game this season. The only thing that remotely qualifies was the Crimson Tide’s 33-14 win over Ole Miss the last weekend of September. Alabama actually trailed in the second quarter of that game (for 15 seconds), which was the first time the Crimson Tide had trailed after the first quarter in regulation since the end of the 2010 season.
Alabama, which hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in its first six games, will find out a lot more about itself over the next month. The Crimson Tide travel to Tennessee on Saturday, and then it’s three straight games against nationally ranked foes -- No. 12 Mississippi State at home, No. 6 LSU on the road and No. 18 Texas A&M at home.
The Alabama players have become accustomed to being the team everybody is gunning for, but they’re more worried about themselves than they are anybody else.
“There are a lot of great teams all over college football,” Alabama senior safety Robert Lester said. “Any team is capable of beating you if they execute and do what they need to do.
“We’re not worried about being No. 1 and looking at any other teams in our conference and wondering about what they’re doing or how they’re playing, because as long as we do what we’re capable of doing, we feel like we’re going to beat them.”
So far, that formula has worked just fine for the Crimson Tide, who have won two of the past three national championships.
But with six SEC teams in the top 12 of the first BCS standings, Alabama is far from the only team in this league with its eyes on the top prize in 2012.
He’s not the leading rusher in the league, and his numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy as what Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has put up to this point. Nonetheless, Gillislee has meant everything to that Florida offense. He’s rushed for 615 yards in his first six games and has allowed the Gators to play their physical brand of football that’s been so successful. He was sensational in the second half of the 14-6 win over LSU and has come through every time the Gators have needed him. Without him, there’s no way this team would be where it is right now.
Defensive MVP: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Although LSU was able to keep Clowney at bay in the second half Saturday, he’s been the SEC’s premier game-changer defensively through the first half of the season. He’s freakishly athletic and, at 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds, has the size to give anybody he goes against fits. Good luck in trying to block him one-on-one. Clowney has 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, both second in the SEC. That’s not counting all of the other big plays he’s created for the South Carolina defense with his relentless pressure. Honorable mention goes to Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore and Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Newcomer of the Year: Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
Manziel’s numbers as a senior in high school were straight out of a video game. He passed for 45 touchdowns and rushed for 30 touchdowns. Obviously, he’s not going to put up those kind of numbers in the SEC, but he’s still making life miserable for opposing defensive coordinators. He’s second nationally in total offense with 2,356 yards and is becoming much more than just an athlete playing quarterback. Already, he has two games this season in which he’s surpassed the 500-yard mark in total offense, making him the first player in SEC history to do that. Not bad for a redshirt freshman who’s played just six college games.
Biggest surprise: Florida
There was hope in Gator Land that Florida would be better in Will Muschamp’s second season, and for that matter, the Gators needed to be better. No team in the league, though, has made the kind of improvement from last season to this season as Florida, which has already won five league games and debuted at No. 2 in the first BCS standings on Sunday night. The Gators are doing all the things it takes to win a title and can take another big step toward winning the East this Saturday with a win over South Carolina in the Swamp.
Biggest disappointment: Arkansas
Even though the Hogs (3-4, 2-2) have won their past two games, their September collapse was stunning. You’re talking about a team that started the season ranked No. 10 nationally and harbored national championship hopes. Those hopes were gone by the second week of the season when Louisiana-Monroe came into Little Rock and upset Arkansas 34-31 in overtime. It was the start of a four-game losing streak for the Hogs, who gave up 179 points along the way. The good news is that it looks like they could be getting well physically and emotionally for the stretch run.
Best game: LSU 23, South Carolina 21, Oct. 13
Tiger Stadium came alive as only it can on a Saturday night, and LSU’s offense also came alive, at least on the ground, to send the previously unbeaten Gamecocks packing. It was an unbelievably physical game with some big-time plays from Marcus Lattimore’s never-give-up touchdown run to Clowney’s tipped passes to Jeremy Hill’s 50-yard touchdown run that seemingly put the game away for the Tigers. South Carolina, though, fought back to pull within two and had the ball with 35 seconds remaining. Craig Loston’s interception finally sealed it.
Best coach: Florida’s Will Muschamp
It’s amazing what Muschamp has done with the Florida program in a year and the way he’s transformed it into exactly what he had envisioned when he took the job. The Gators are physical. They’re committed to running the ball, and they play championship-caliber defense. What’s more, they’ve allowed just 23 second-half points in six games. That’s after melting in the fourth quarter for most of their SEC games a year ago. Muschamp also gets props for hiring offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who’s given this offense new life. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also deserve mention for the jobs they’ve done to this point, but Muschamp takes home the midseason award.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The 41-11 beatdown LSU gave Florida last season took quite the emotional toll on the Gators -- especially the defense.
The Gators were gutted by LSU’s ground attack, giving up 238 rushing yards. They looked overmatched, overwhelmed and listless in Baton Rouge, La.
Angry probably isn’t the best word to describe how Florida’s defense felt, but depressed and humiliated are good starts.
That debilitating pain was something this team didn’t want to go through again. It wanted that pain to be transferred over to LSU when the Tigers ventured into the Swamp on Saturday. The Gators wanted LSU to feel what they felt last year … and then some.
“We wanted to come in this game and win, but more, we wanted to come and hurt them,” defensive lineman Dominique Easley said after No. 10 Florida’s 14-6 victory over fourth-ranked LSU. “We wanted them to feel the pain that we felt last year. We had hurt in our heart and we wanted them to feel the pain that we had.”
And for the better part of 60 minutes, Florida’s defense pounded LSU, allowing just two field goals, 200 yards and 42 rushing yards. LSU averaged just 1.7 yards per carry and mustered just 12 rushing yards in the second half. The best part of LSU’s offense was terminated from the start, and it was all downhill from there.
Say what you will about how poorly quarterback Zach Mettenberger played or how banged-up and bewildered LSU’s offensive line was, but Florida’s defense manhandled LSU. The team that tops the physical charts was outplayed and outmuscled by the Gators. And Florida’s defense was the reason for a lot of LSU’s offensive ineptitude.
This unit looked gassed at times last season, but was a total juggernaut Saturday. The Gators flew around on defense, and there was no slowing the Gators down when LSU had the ball.
No play exemplified that more than the game-changing fumble forced by Matt Elam late in the third quarter, right after Florida made it 7-6. LSU beat Florida’s defense with a double move that completely took cornerback Marcus Roberson out of the play, leaving a wide-open Odell Beckham Jr.
To complicate matters for the Gators, Elam took a bad angle on Mettenberger’s pass as he connected with Beckham down Florida’s right sideline for a 56-yard play. But Elam kept chugging after Beckham and eventually stripped him of the ball.
Florida’s recovery sucked every ounce of life out of LSU.
“Them boys were huffing and puffing,” Easley said. “I was looking into people’s eyes and they were scared. We wanted to take somebody’s will. Not just win the game, take their will, make them remember this night.”
Added defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd: “We knew that they were banged up and we knew that they were tired and we wasn’t taking our foot off the gas.”
Florida then drove 77 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
But that wasn’t all the defense had. It made the stop of the season for the Gators when it forced LSU to kick a field goal late in the first half after the Tigers recovered a Jeff Driskel fumble at Florida’s 7-yard line. LSU gained 3 yards, took two timeouts and settled for three points on a drive that might have buried Florida if the Tigers went up 10.
Florida’s defense constantly bailed the offense out, even with all the great field position it gave the offense. Five of LSU’s last six drives in the first half were three-and-outs, and LSU’s offense crossed into Florida territory just once in the second half … to the 49.
As Gators coach Will Muschamp put it, this defense has the capability to adjust better than it could last season because it's smarter, tougher and deeper.
With Florida’s offense stumbling along for most of the game, its defense kept the Gators going with its smothering play.
“Without those guys, we wouldn’t be celebrating this,” offensive lineman James Wilson said. “The defense is amazing.”
The offense is worrisome at times, but that defense could keep everyone in Gainesville happy. The offense might not be pretty, but that defense sure is, and it’s mean. That’s the demeanor it had Saturday, and that’s what it intends to be from here on out.
“Defense wins championships, offense wins games,” Elam said.
“It’s another step to Atlanta and that’s our goal. I feel like the sky’s the limit from here.”
LSU's 41-11 win last year at Tiger Stadium, a game most remembered for Tiger punter Brad Wing's fake punt run for a touchdown that was called back because he was flagged for taunting on his way to the end zone, was the most lopsided LSU win in the history of the series.
It was that kind of day for the Gators -- so bad, so one-sided, that even the LSU punter was having fun and their expense.
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All the Gators will notice is the constant pounding LSU's run game put on it. All those defenders were good for was getting pushed around and making each of LSU’s running backs look like a Heisman candidate.
That film is probably burning in a trash heap this very moment. And that's perfectly acceptable when you consider the Gators surrendered 238 rushing yards to the Tigers last season.
For as much push as Florida tried to give LSU up front, the Tigers doubled that intensity, constantly knocking the Gators back as they cruised to a 41-14 win at Tiger Stadium.
"They're a team that really likes to run the ball and grind down a team and win the game in the third and fourth quarter,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.
"We have to come out and make plays, too. We can't just let them come out and run the ball down our throats."
And that's exactly what happened to the Gators last year in October. In back-to-back weeks against the league's strongest running teams in Alabama and LSU, the Gators gave up a combined 464 yards and allowed both teams to run for more than 4 yards per carry.
It's obvious that toughness in the trenches was lacking. As the Gators enter the first weekend in October, they are light-years ahead of last year's squad in the toughness department. The blue-collar approach Will Muschamp wants from his defense is finally starting to come together, and that will go a long way against LSU.
"Toughness is everything," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said of stopping the run. "You have to have toughness, smartness and discipline. We're working on all of it. Toughness is a big factor when the run game is involved."
Florida is allowing a little less than 120 rushing yards a game and just 3.8 yards per carry, but the Gators have yet to play a team as physical and as deep in the run game.
LSU can throw four backs out on any given drive. There's the quick bruiser in Kenny Hilliard, the speedy Michael Ford, the pounding Spencer Ware and the dynamic Jeremy Hill, who has yet to really be unleashed this year. Also, the Tigers have a certified battering ram in 272-pound fullback J.C. Copeland.
All five are averaging more than 4 yards per carry, with Hilliard leading the group with 6.9 yards per rush.
"We have guys who can run fast and run hard. It's hard for defenses to prepare for," said Ford, who has 224 yards, but is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
"Even our defense, it's kind of hard because they always get a different look."
Fresh legs against huffing, puffing defenders is never a fair fight, and that's why the Gators found themselves on defense for the majority of the second half in last season’s game. Florida's defense couldn't get off the field on third downs, and you can’t win games like that.
"That's just an important storyline in this game -- winning on third down -- because this is a team that knows how to run it, and if they can possess the ball and continue to convert on third downs, it's a hard day," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said.
The good news for Florida is that opponents have converted on third downs just 29 percent of the time this fall.
Part of Muschamp’s plan against the rush is to add defensive backs to the box and control the perimeter. He’s also harping on gap control.
But to Bostic, positioning isn’t everything. The mental side will be just as important and he wants players to have more composure and be more restrained this time. Overzealous play in pursuit could be detrimental against this running game, so patience is key.
"A lot of guys will get antsy and want to go make a play," he said. "You've got to let the big plays come to you."
LSU will go right at them ... again and again.
1. Lassoing Lattimore: There’s no other way to say it. South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore has owned Georgia. Lattimore rushed for 176 yards and a touchdown last season against the Bulldogs, and he racked up 182 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. Most notably, he’s been money in the fourth quarter. He had 94 of his yards last season in the fourth quarter. And in 2010, he had 56 yards in South Carolina’s final drive to ice the game. The Bulldogs simply haven’t been able to get Lattimore on the ground when it’s counted. Of his 358 rushing yards the last two years against the Bulldogs, 152 have come after contact. If they’re going to win this game, they need to put the clamps on Lattimore early and not allow South Carolina to ride him in the second half. He’s already had a pair of 100-yard rushing games this season against SEC foes Vanderbilt and Kentucky and combined for 145 rushing/receiving yards against Missouri. He’s answered a lot of the questions about whether he could regain his old form post-ACL surgery, but can make a resounding statement Saturday that he’s all the way back.
Q: Does Florida get enough out of Jeff Driskel to win against the better teams it will face in the SEC?
Despite being a sophomore who rarely played last season, Driskel has been surprisingly efficient: He doesn’t turn the ball over, he’s accurate with his throws, and he’s been able to check the Gators into the correct runs when he gets to the line of scrimmage and sees the defense.
Led by the SEC's second-best rusher in Mike Gillislee (402 yards on 69 carries), the 10th-ranked Gators run the ball more (44.5 times a game) and throw fewer passes (21.3 a game) than any other team in the SEC. And they do it well, as a 4-0 start and 30.5 points per game against a relatively competitive early schedule would attest.
The emergence of quarterback Jeff Driskel has indeed been a nice story for Florida. But make no mistake: The Gators are a running team.
So it's a steady dose of Gillislee and the more physical run game for which LSU's defense must prepare when the Tigers visit the Gators on Saturday at The Swamp. Forget the spread and high-powered passing attacks of years past. This season, Florida comes right at you.
"They look more downhill this year," LSU linebacker Luke Muncie said. "I wouldn't say more physical, but more downhill-style running."
Downhill is how things went for Florida almost from the opening kickoff last season against LSU. A young Gators team was outgained by more than a 2-1 margin in Baton Rouge, en route to an un-Florida-like 7-6 season in Will Muschamp's first year as coach.
"We faced some good athletes," Florida center Jon Harrison said. "We didn't come out there completely locked in."
This season, Muschamp's second, a more mature Florida team has looked quite dialed in.
The Gators have averaged 224.5 yards rushing a game, third best in the SEC. What's deceptive about it is while some SEC teams -- LSU included -- have played the bulk of their nonconference "gimme" games early, Florida has played three of its first four games against SEC opponents. While Florida's rushing stats trail LSU's (229 yards per game), the Gators' numbers have been compiled against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky while LSU has played a relatively light nonconference schedule.
"We know they are better [than last year]," LSU cornerback Tharold Simon said. "We see it on film."
Before the second half of last week's 38-22 win over Towson, facing a physical running game might not have seemed like a big concern for LSU. But Towson, led by one of the FCS's best running backs in Terrance West, gashed the LSU defense in two touchdown drives in which the Tigers missed tackles and gave up 69 rushing yards on 12 carries on Towson's last two possessions.
"That was uncharacteristic," LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said. "Usually, we finish games."
On paper, LSU's defense should be built to defend a team that runs like Florida or, for that matter, Towson's often straightforward attack. The fourth quarter of the Towson game aside, the Tigers have been outstanding against the run, third best in the SEC at 83 yards a game. One might think of the pass rush of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery when thinking of the Tigers' front four, but really, it's built just as well to handle the run.
In its first SEC game, a 12-10 win at Auburn, LSU saw Auburn choose to go with a misdirection running game toward the edges to avoid running right at the talented middle of LSU's defense, where tackles Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson have dominated the point of attack and where Minter has been emerging as a first-rate middle linebacker.
Even with its remarkable speed, Auburn's misdirection didn't work, for the most part. Montgomery had 3.5 tackles for loss, often the result of staying home on misdirection plays. It's a trend this season. While the 5-0 Tigers have a fair share of quarterback sacks (11), the 41 tackles for loss are more remarkable. Considering that opponents have attempted 155 rushes, 41 tackles for loss means LSU is dumping opponents for loss on more than a quarter of their rush attempts.
The good thing for LSU was that Florida uses some of the same misdirection elements Auburn used. And, when Auburn did have success, it was mostly with a Wildcat look with backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace, a look Florida also uses at times with Trey Burton.
After LSU stymied Auburn's rush attack, the Tigers' rushing defense looked almost impenetrable. It stayed that way until the fourth quarter of the Towson game until an FCS team ran roughshod over LSU on back-to-back possessions.
"Our defense is known for playing the run hard and having that killer instinct," Minter said after the Towson game. "We just didn't today."
Like Florida in Baton Rouge a season ago, LSU wasn't "locked in."
A year more mature and a year better, Florida's run game is focused this season. The question is, will LSU's defense find itself again after an off night against Towson?
He didn’t play a snap and instead watched from the sideline after spraining his ankle the week before against Alabama.
“I didn’t even dress,” Driskel recounted. “It was a hard game to watch.”
On Saturday, when No. 4 LSU invades the Swamp, Driskel won’t have to worry about finding a good vantage point on the Gators’ sideline. He’ll be right in the middle of the fray.
This will be his fourth consecutive game as Florida’s starting quarterback, and in a lot of ways, his progress since nailing down the job in the opener has mirrored that of the entire Gators team. There’s a steadiness and a blue-collar, get-it-done approach about him. And when the second half rolls around, he seems to be at his best.
“Having confidence in the quarterback is huge,” said Driskel, who’s completing 69.6 percent of his passes and has turned the ball over just once this season. “The offense feeds off the quarterback and gets momentum from the quarterback, so the quarterback has to have confidence and go into the huddle and command the huddle and be the leader of the offense.
“I feel like that’s probably the biggest improvement that I’ve made thus far.”
Of course, it only builds the confidence of everybody around him when he stands in there and makes the kind of throws he did in both road victories at Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Driskel’s 39-yard pass to Omarius Hines in the fourth quarter set up the go-ahead touchdown against Texas A&M. A week later, he connected with Jordan Reed for a 23-yard score and then hit Frankie Hammond with a 75-yard touchdown pass to fuel a second-half rally against Tennessee.
On Reed’s touchdown, Driskel had two defenders bearing down on him but bought just enough time to throw a strike before taking a big hit. And on Hammond’s touchdown, Driskel stood in there against a corner blitz and delivered the ball to Hammond with plenty of room to run.
“Those are plays I have to make,” Driskel said. “It’s my job as the quarterback of this team.”
LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Driskel has gotten better with each throw, which is true. But he’s also gotten more comfortable, and the game is beginning to slow down for the 6-foot-4, 237-pound sophomore.
“My internal clock has gotten a lot better just from a couple of games ago against Texas A&M,” Driskel said. “I took eight sacks, and that can’t happen. I’ve gotten better, watched the film and learned from it. I’ve gotten used to the speed and have a much better feel for when it’s time to take off and run and when it’s time to get rid of it.”