One of the Gators' biggest annual rivalry games is on our doorstep as Florida will travel to Baton Rouge this weekend to face a struggling LSU Tigers football program.
Although UF appears to be the superior team to LSU this season, SEC road environments have proven to be a challenge for the Gators' this season as seen by the team's upset loss to Kentucky. Florida is favored in this matchup while LSU has taken steps back from its 2019-20 National Championship glory, but riding a two-game losing streak to the Tigers into this game makes it a more unpredictable contest than some might think.
1. How much growth have you seen from Max Johnson compared to a year ago - keeping in mind that he gave UF's defense fits as a true freshman?
Glen West: Johnson’s play this season has been a polarizing topic of conversation among the LSU community all year long. The sophomore showed glimpses of what he could be in 2020’s finish to the season but I do think expectations were a little overblown in the offseason. Keep in mind this was a three-man battle between Johnson, Myles Brennan and TJ Finley all the way through spring.
Finley transferred and Brennan broke his arm in a freak fishing accident that essentially gift-wrapped the job to Johnson in fall camp. As far as improvements he’s made, it’s hard to say because of the limited time we got to see him a year ago. The one notable difference is the team is much more catered to him throwing than running the ball. Part of the initial appeal in his game was the belief he could do both but that hasn’t been the case in 2021.
He’s missed some throws and is coming off of his worst game as a starter but there’s still plenty to like in his game. I do think a lot of the responsibility has fallen on his shoulders to carry the offense because of an absolutely putrid offensive line and a running game that was 128th in the country prior to the Kentucky outing. There’s room for improvement for sure but Johnson is far from the biggest issue with this program currently.
2. How will/have the Tigers go about replacing their key, injured starters in Kayshon Boutte, Derek Stingley, and others?
GW: Losing Boutte is just devastating for this offense. He was tied with a nation-leading nine touchdowns this season and 25% of Johnson’s targets went to No. 1. That kind of production is nearly impossible to replace, particularly on an offense that has been so reliant on the passing attack this season.
I’d argue that losing Boutte is worse than losing Stingley, who’s been out all of SEC play with a lingering foot injury that required surgery. I doubt LSU sees Stingley return and Boutte has been ruled out for the season.
In terms of who I see replacing them, LSU has seen defensive backs Cordale Flott and Dwight McGlothern take huge steps in their development over the last three weeks. Of course, All-American Elias Ricks will handle one side of the field so I do think LSU is OK without Stingley. As for Boutte, the Tigers will be relying on four true freshmen who have all been contributors this season but will need to take their games to another level. It’ll be fascinating to see how Johnson disperses his targets but keep an eye on receiver-turned-tight end Jack Bech, who’s been a happy surprise this season.
3. This Florida team has a lot of strengths but is far from a perfect squad across the board. Where could you see the Tigers taking advantage of the Gators in this matchup?
GW: It’s been hard-pressed to find much consistency with anything LSU has done this season. The easy answer would’ve been to feed Kayshon Boutte but since he’s out of the equation, I’ll go with the defensive line. This group was shredded for 331 yards against Kentucky just last week but came into that game riding a ton of confidence. It was among the nation's leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss but has had trouble with stopping mobile quarterbacks like Emory Jones.
This defense will have to carry LSU to a win and while I don’t have much confidence that it will, getting after Jones and forcing a few turnovers is probably this team’s best bet.
4. Not exactly related to this game, but Ed Orgeron has obviously faced a lot of scrutiny for off-field issues and the team's record ever since the 2019-20 National Championship. What are your thoughts on his job security at this point, and if he's going to stick around in 2022 and beyond, what does he need to do to right the ship?
GW: As far as righting the ship goes, anything less than winning out with the exception of a close loss to Alabama is about the only shot Orgeron has to keep his job. And that’s not happening. The writing has been on the wall since really the Auburn loss, where a combination of poor coaching decisions and lack of execution led to a choke job of a loss.
To follow that up by getting thoroughly bullied by Kentucky on both sides of the line of scrimmage and it’s not far-fetched to say this program needs a change. LSU has gone 8-8 since that magical 2019 season and coaching hires, development of players and off-field issues have stolen the headlines. It’s just not a good look right now and considering athletic director Scott Woodward has a reputation for making splashy coaching hires, he’s chomping at the bit to make a football hire.
Most LSU fans have come to the realization Orgeron’s tenure is pretty much done but the only question now is when it will happen.
5. What is your prediction for the game, and do you have any hot takes about what will happen?
GW: I know you guys said 28-20, Florida and I appreciate the optimism. But this LSU program is a train wreck at nearly every level. The injuries alone have me thinking this will be a 14-17 point game and the Gators will pull away early. Maybe LSU catches Florida sleep-walking early for an 11 a.m. kickoff but I think Florida’s defensive line will be the story. Don’t see much of a way LSU’s offensive line can keep Johnson upright or the running game having a repeat performance of last week. I’ll go Florida 34-17.
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