That’s how it often works in the SEC, as the No. 22 Gators play host to No. 5 LSU on Saturday in The Swamp in Gainesville, Fla.
“The league always gets tougher, one week to the next,” coach Dan Mullen said.
Florida (4-1, 2-1 SEC) is on a three-game winning streak, including back-to-back conference road wins at Tennessee and Mississippi State. The Gators, who allowed only 202 yards last week to the Bulldogs, are ninth nationally in scoring defense (14.0 points per game) and 19th in total defense (311.0 yards per game).
Moreover, Florida is tied for first nationally in takeaways with 14 and has given up just two touchdowns in eight red-zone trips.
But LSU’s offense is coming around, as the Tigers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) had their most yards of the season (573) in a 45-18 victory against Ole Miss last Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
Quarterback Joe Burrow led the way, as he was LSU’s leading rusher (96 yards) in addition to passing for 292 yards. He had the fourth-most total yards (388) in school history while passing for three touchdowns and running for another.
“Joe Burrow obviously had a tremendous game,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday. “I give all the credit to (offensive coordinator Steve) Ensminger and the development of Joe Burrow. I think Joe is a quarterback that’s very smart. You saw the way he could run the football.”
Burrow, who joined the team as a grad transfer from Ohio State during the summer, is not the most athletic runner, but he is capable and Ensminger seems to have found a way to maximize Burrow as a runner.
“Obviously we would love to run him a little bit more but we only have two quarterbacks so we need to be careful,” Orgeron said. “All those things are coming into play.”
LSU running backs Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire aren’t Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, but they have evolved to be a solid backfield tandem whose effectiveness can only be boosted by Burrow’s increased effectiveness in the running game.
Wide receiver Justin Jefferson has been the closest thing to a go-to receiver for Burrow. He has had a couple of big games and is coming off his biggest last week when he had five catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
Florida, meanwhile, held Mississippi State to just 43 yards of offense in the second half. Mullen said defensive players are buying into rotating in and out of plays, which has kept the defense fresher after halftime.
“When you see the fourth quarter, the second half, when your defense is fresh, the better of a chance you have to make plays,” Mullen said.
The Gators will need a strong effort on both sides of the ball to handle an LSU team that’s already knocked off Miami, Auburn and Ole Miss.
“They are going to pound you physically,” Mullen said. “So we have to be ready for that this week.”
Florida’s much-maligned offensive line has allowed just seven sacks through its first five games but will need to keep sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks protected. Franks, who went 23-of-31 for 219 yards and one interception in the Mississippi State win, will get a chance to take more shots downfield against an LSU secondary that plays man coverage.
“We’re going to have one-on-one matchups and we’re going to have to win some of those matchups,” Mullen said.
LSU safety Grant Delpit is quickly joining cornerback Greedy Williams to form an All-American caliber tandem in the secondary. Delpit’s versatility has made him one of the leaders of the defense as a sophomore. He has matched Williams with two interceptions, including one last week.
It should be a charged atmosphere at The Swamp, with Florida honoring its 2008 national title team and inducting quarterback Tim Tebow into its Ring of Honor.
“We’re celebrating the 2008 national championship team, which is a pretty special day,” Mullen said. “Having a lot of great players and former players come back. I know it will be nice after a couple weeks to get back home, let someone else deal with the crowd noise.”
The Tigers have won six of the past eight meetings between the teams. The past four games have been decided by seven points or less.