It wasn’t pretty but neither has the SEC East been all season, so it was a fitting way for No. 23 Florida to clinch the division title. The Gators held off No. 16 LSU 16–10 in Tiger Stadium on Saturday, stopping running back Derrius Guice inches short of the goal line on the game’s final play. The victory assures Florida a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, where for the second straight year the Gators will play Alabama.
Here are three thoughts on Florida’s victory:
1. LSU gave this game away
A quick glance at the box scores gives every indication of a decisive Tigers win. LSU outgained Florida 432–289, won the time of the possession by over eight minutes and converted seven of 14 third downs while holding the Gators to four of 13.
So how did Florida manage to win? By capitalizing on costly blunders by the Tigers. After marching for a touchdown on its first drive of the game, LSU reached the red zone four more times yet managed to get just three points out of those trips. Guice fumbled on first-and-goal from the Florida seven-yard line in the second quarter. Then, on the opening drive of the second half, holder Josh Growden fumbled the snap on a field goal and tossed an incomplete prayer into the end zone for a turnover on downs. A methodical drive that began at the LSU 16 reached first-and-goal for the Florida 4 before a one-yard gain, a sack and a short completion led to a 22-yard field goal. And then finally, with the game on the line, the Tigers came up short at the goal line once more.
Needing a touchdown to win, Danny Etling led LSU down the field, including a clutch 30-yard completion on fourth-and-10. However, with the ball just one yard from the end zone, fullback J.D. Moore was stuffed on third-and-goal. Finally, with three seconds left, Guice tried to hurdle into the end zone but was stuffed and fumbled trying to extend the ball across the goal line.
The red-zone woes weren’t the only self-inflicted wounds LSU suffered Saturday. Florida’s only touchdown of the day came on a 98-yard pass to Tyrie Cleveland on which defensive back Donte Jackson fell as he tried to make the tackle. The Gators entered Saturday averaging just 5.49 yards per play and gained just 3.75 yards per play on their 51 other snaps. Quarterback Austin Appleby threw for 46 yards outside of touchdown completion to Cleveland.
In the fourth quarter, after Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro booted a 26-yard field goal to give the Gators a 13–10 lead, they got the ball right back when Jackson fumbled the kickoff. Florida only gained four yards after the turnover but still got a 34-yard field goal from Pineiro. If not for that, LSU could have forced overtime with a field goal. Instead, Guice came up short, and Florida escaped Death Valley (in a game that was originally scheduled for The Swamp) with an improbable win.
2. Let’s give Jim McElwain some credit
It’s easy to make fun of Florida for its consistent offensive ineptitude. Since losing quarterback Will Grier to a suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs midway through last season, the Gators have rarely looked competent on offense.
Still, it’s worth noting that in both of McElwain’s seasons with the Gators, they have won the SEC East and made the conference title game. Alabama rolled past Florida 29–15 last year, and all signs point to a blowout in this year’s rematch. Still, even in one of the Power 5's weakest divisions, the Gators have managed to do just enough to emerge as the best. Now retired athletic director Jeremy Foley has to feel satisfied that his final hire is paying off.
3. Is this the end of coach O’s chances to secure the LSU job?
There is no doubt the Tigers have been a better team since Ed Orgeron took them over following an 18–13 loss to Auburn on Sept. 24 that led to Les Miles’s firing. The interim coach injected enthusiasm and revamped the offense, resurrecting a season that could have gone straight downhill after a 2–2 start.
However, after Orgeron was unable to steer the Tigers to a win over Alabama—the biggest flaw in Miles’s recent résumé—the general consensus was he needed to win out to get the head coaching job for good. Now, the best LSU can do is beat Texas A&M on Thanksgiving to finish the season 7–4 with a 5–2 record under Orgeron. That’s pretty good but not significantly better than the type of seasons Miles was compiling: solid records but no marquee victories that would actually put LSU in contention for conference titles and College Football Playoff berths.
Orgeron’s interim stints at LSU and USC prove he clearly deserves another shot as a head coach after his disastrous tenure at Ole Miss from 2005–07. But Saturday’s loss likely ends any chance that shot will come at LSU.