Mississippi State is not always an easy place to win. Plenty of good SEC teams have been ambushed in Starkville over the years, especially in night games. Even in seasons when the middle tier of the SEC isn’t especially strong, the punishment handed out by this conference every week can — and does — take a tool on good teams. Winning at Mississippi State, in some years, would often be considered a big deal.
Yet, given the way the Florida Gators won in Starkville in last Saturday night, it was hard to view that game as a season-changing win. It was an important win. It created confidence. It certainly improved the mood of the locker room and gave players a positive experience to build on. Yet, few were going to assign any profound level of meaning to that win over MSU if the Gators couldn’t at least put up a good fight against No. 5 and unbeaten LSU, a team which won at Auburn and had legitimate hopes of pursuing an SEC title. With Georgia and Alabama both at home, LSU just had to get through Florida to arrive at a sense that it could attain true greatness this season.
Could the Gators provide not just temporary or token opposition, but offer a strong presence which could earn LSU’s respect — and gain a measure of national notice?
The Mississippi State game showed Florida could exhibit a modest level of competence and fend off an opponent with manifold weaknesses. That game, phrased differently, featured a challenge based on raising the Gators’ floor.
This LSU contest was a challenge based on raising the Gators’ ceiling.
This was a true grow-up game — not the game you’re supposed to win, but the game in the prime 3:30 time slot against a top-five opponent. Can you trade punches in the ring? Can you endure the ups and downs which are a natural part of elite competition against a formidable adversary? Can you absorb the magnitude of a moment, breathe calmly, and perform when needed?
Florida did all of those things against LSU, even on a day when quarterback Feleipe Franks was noticeably — and expectedly — inconsistent in the passing game. Florida didn’t play flawlessly and didn’t play with a ruthless consistency, but whenever it had to play well, it did. It stood up to the power and speed of LSU’s defense to make acrobatic pitch-and-catch plays on the go-ahead touchdown drive which answered LSU’s go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
Coach Dan Mullen struggled to unlock the talents of his offense on Saturday — more Kadarius Toney, please — but he and his staff found the right play mixture on that essential fourth-quarter drive, refusing to be conventional or predictable.
When Florida did grab the lead, the Gators’ pass rush locked this game down Jachai Polite and CeCe Jefferson were monsters up front in the final seven minutes, and with Trey Dean manning the secondary, the Gators had balance and attention to detail at all levels of their defense. They didn’t give up the home run, and they often got home, sacking or pressuring LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in money situations.
Florida should have led this game, 21-10, in the third quarter,
but Feleipe Franks — who was tough and resilient, but not artful — threw an interception in the end zone which easily could have become the play which decided the outcome. When LSU took its 19-14 lead, the odds were good that the pick was going to stand up and remain the difference.
The Gators picked up their quarterback. They wouldn’t allow that one mistake to define the day. And by the time Brad Stewart picked off Burrow and raced in for the clinching score (above), the Gators defense defined a conference win for the third straight week.
The team which looked lost for most of the Kentucky game and was immersed in a steep learning curve now seems to have its feet solidly planted on the ground, knowing not only what it needs to do, but knowing it can compete with quality teams.
The Florida Gators just grew up. This doesn’t mean they are back on top of the mountain, but it does mean they are back in the upper tier of the SEC, back in the conversation surrounding good teams.
Florida wasn’t a good team three weeks ago. The Gators are now. This is what growth looks like… and just wait until Mullen finds an elite quarterback to go with the defense he and Todd Grantham have.
This was a happy day for Florida in the present moment. It could turn out to be an important day for Mullen and the future of his program.