The Florida Gators are coming off a 42-0 victory against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
However, the loss to Kentucky two weeks ago continues to leave a sour taste in the mouths of all of Gator Nation.
Going on the road to LSU — one game out from a showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville — a statement victory for UF over the Tigers would avenge their ugly loss from last season and simultaneously give them the confidence needed Halloween weekend.
How do they do that?
Here are AllGators’ three key matchups that they must win to ensure a victory over the Tigers on Saturday afternoon.
Dan Mullen vs. LSU Defense
Everyone knows what happened the last time these two teams faced off.
The matchup against LSU was Dan Mullen’s yearly letdown game that changed the course of the remainder of Florida’s season.
Well, that game has already come this season. Dropping a heartbreaker to Kentucky on the road in week five, UF was hurt by its own conservativeness and personal miscues offensively.
To pick up the win in Baton Rouge, Mullen needs to embrace his inner aggression, and play-call like his legacy depends on it for the rest of the season.
Getting a chance to tune up the game plan last week, LSU presents another favorable matchup for one of the best coaches schematically in college football.
Given the absences of Derek Stingley Jr., Eli Ricks and other members of the Tigers secondary, the Gators will have plentiful opportunities to find their groove in their passing game down the field.
The question is: Does Dan Mullen continue to trust quarterback Emory Jones the way he did against Vanderbilt last week to take those shots downfield?
Giving Jones opportunities to target the likes of Jacob Copeland or Xzavier Henderson down the field, the Gators will be able to open up the LSU defense to the dominant three-headed monster of Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Qan Wright in the backfield.
Teams haven’t been able to stop them when it’s expected— as shown by the Gators ranking No. 3 in rushing in the NCAA.
What happens if it becomes unpredictable due to an increase in variety?
If Florida gets the aggressive and passionate play-caller seen against the Commodores in week six, there should be no issue for Florida to win by more than a touchdown.
Gators Offensive Line vs. Tiger Stadium Crowd
The last time Florida traveled on the road to experience an opposing team’s environment, the offensive line wasn’t just a cause for concern. It was a liability.
Namely, communication issues with the snap count expose the Gators young center Kingsley Eguakun despite an excellent start to his season.
Rebounding with a decent performance against Vanderbilt last week, Eguakun gets another opportunity on the road.
It will be a chance he will need to take advantage of. Not all the blame rests on the center’s shoulders, however.
His counterparts along the offensive line mightily contributed to the 15 penalties for 115 yards that plagued the Gators in creating a rhythm offensively.
To finish the regular season on a high note — without dropping any more games by playing down to their opponents — the big men in the tranches will have to figure out how to communicate on the road.
Luckily for them, a noon game does not bring the same energy to Death Valley as a night game in primetime would. Still, the expectation following the end of the proof of vaccination for Tiger Stadium is that LSU faithful will be rocking.
If the offensive line remains disciplined and can fight through the noise that the road atmosphere will bring, Florida should be able to exploit the Tigers both in the rushing game and passing game.
Max Johnson vs. Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr.
This is a significant matchup between a young quarterback and two young cornerbacks.
Going for 239 yards and three touchdowns on 59% completion against the Gators last season, Tigers quarterback Max Johnson impressed in his first start at the collegiate level and left The Swamp in 2020 with an upset victory over Florida.
In 2021, the Gators for retribution. With Kayshon Boutte out for the season with a lower leg injury, Johnson’s duty becomes more difficult as the year rolls on.
Meanwhile, Florida’s job is getting easier.
With Kaiir Elam expected to return against the Tigers following a three-week absence due to a knee sprain, the Gators defense finds itself in a favorable situation when facing the efficient LSU quarterback.
The Florida secondary has played surprisingly well without the projected first-round pick in the lineup, growing stronger in Elam's hiatus over the past few weeks.
However, Elam’s return marks an opportunity to take the next step as a secondary and defense, as he will nearly eliminate as side of the field.
As a result, to limit Johnson in Todd Grantham’s second attempt at him, Florida will look to the other side of the field at Elam’s counter pieces Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr.
Totaling 12 tackles and three PBUs on the year, Helm has seen a large workload in his first year as a starter and has played relatively well considering the pressure for the UF defense to rebound following a rough 2020 campaign.
Meanwhile, stepping onto the field in relief of Elam, Marshall has been a bright spot for the secondary depth as a true freshman. Winning with sound technique and physicality against SEC-caliber talent, Marshall has made his mark for more playing time and it will come in rotation with Helm.
With each continuously progressing throughout the year, Elam’s return will likely mean a near-even split for Marshall and Helm while targets to their side of the field will be more plentiful with Elam on an island.
If they can hold up against an LSU wide receivers room that misses their star, the Gators have a chance to shut down Johnson in a resounding fashion on Saturday.
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