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Florida Gators

Recent history shows Saturday will be tough for Gators at LSU

Matt Zemek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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The last few Florida-LSU games have been slugfests, and beyond that, most Florida-LSU games this century have been slugfests. If you like offense, it has died an ugly and violent death in many Gator-Tiger tussles.

Given that Florida used a late pick-six (photo above) to beat LSU last year, 27-19, the UF offense was responsible for only 20 points in that game. Based on that reality, no UF or LSU offense has scored more than 20 points in any of the last three meetings between the two schools.

If you think that Florida-LSU games usually are grinders, you are correct, at least in the context of the 21st century.

Since Steve Spurrier’s last LSU game at Florida in 2001, the subsequent 17 Gator-Tiger games have produced only six games with more than 50 total points, only four with more than 52.

A score of 17 points or fewer has won this game five times in the last 17 games. A score of 21 or lower has won this game seven of the last 17 times.

LSU scored 30 or more points against Florida four times in six seasons, from 2010 through 2015, but other than that brief period of success, the Tigers have scored at least 30 points against Florida only one other time in the post-Spurrier era, encompassing the past 17 meetings between these teams.

A bonus fact extending beyond the 21st century: From 1979 through 2009, LSU scored at least 30 points against Florida only once: 36 in 2002 under Nick Saban. That’s it. When LSU crushed Florida in Year 1 of the Ron Zook disaster, it marked the first time LSU cracked the 30-point barrier against Florida since 1978, when the Tigers scored 34.

There is a long history and track record of Florida playing LSU in the mud and – certainly over the past 30 years – winning most of the time. The Gators are 19-11 in the last 30 meetings, and in their most recent trip to Baton Rouge, they won in typically rugged fashion.

The 2016 trip to Tiger Stadium was a rescheduled game due to Hurricane Matthew, which caused the originally scheduled game in Gainesville to be postponed. LSU agreed to host the 2016 game in exchange for Florida hosting in 2017 and 2018. This makes the 2019 game the first LSU home game in the series in three years.

In 2016, Ed Orgeron was on the LSU sideline – not as LSU’s permanent coach, but as an interim boss after Les Miles had been fired earlier in the season. Orgeron watched Jim McElwain’s limited and clunky Gators – a team which very rarely entertained the UF fan base but was good enough to win consecutive SEC East championships – lock down another trip to Atlanta with a 16-10 victory in Death Valley.

Florida won on the strength of a late-game goal-line stand. This was 1970s SEC football, the hard-nosed, turn-back-the-clock violence grandfathers knew well.

It was the kind of game Florida needed to play to beat LSU that year. It was the kind of game Florida needed to play to beat LSU a year ago.

It is the game Florida needs to play this Saturday to have a realistic chance… which is why the Gators are – let’s not beat around the bush here – in deep trouble.

Ed Orgeron has shown a lot more wisdom than I or other college football commentators expected two years ago. Orgeron never meshed well with highly-paid offensive coordinator Matt Canada. He intervened in the offense and gave the impression that he wouldn’t let his coaches coach.

What was happening, though, was not a process in which Orgeron was being more stubborn. Quite the contrary. Orgeron began, in a tough 2017 season, a process of evolution. He and his coaching staff gradually developed Joe Burrow into a competent, effective quarterback in 2018.

Burrow wasn’t a fully finished product, but he certainly complemented the Tigers’ defense and moved LSU toward its goal of creating an offense which didn’t get in the defense’s way. Les Miles’ offenses (with coordinator Cam Cameron calling the shots) often tore down what the defense built.

Orgeron’s 2018 season changed that dynamic in Red Stick… but Coach O wanted more O. He wasn’t satisfied.

Orgeron brought in Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to teach the passing game. Orgeron arrived at the fundamental realization so many of his fellow coaches – inside and outside the SEC – have failed to make: You can’t beat Nick Saban on Saban’s terms. You have to beat Saban with something different from what he wants or is used to.

LSU and Orgeron saw the light and pursued offense, not defense, as the primary gateway toward elite status in college football. This has not been the modus operandi at LSU. It wasn’t under Miles, despite a national title and a 2011 runner-up finish. It wasn’t under Saban in 2003, when the Tigers won it all.

LSU did develop a high-octane offense in 2013 under Zach Mettenberger, but that was the exception which proved the rule. LSU hasn’t generally had dynamic passing quarterbacks, and it hasn’t had the innovative approach to offense needed to get the most out of its still-position talent.

Until now.

From 1990 through 2001, LSU-Florida featured an old way of doing things against a new way. LSU was the bearer of the old way, Florida the new under Steve Spurrier, who transformed the way offense was played in the 1990s SEC.

In 2019, Florida is the bearer of the old way. LSU is the bearer of the new way.

Joe Burrow is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. His receivers are the best in the country – they torched the Texas secondary in a huge Week 2 victory. LSU can now legitimately claim to be on the same plane as Alabama because it has the offense it lacked in previous years.

Does Florida want to muck up this game? Of course it does. Yet, precisely because LSU has made the changes it needed to make, and has evolved in step with the times in college football, it will be exponentially harder for the Gators to play this game the way they want to.

We all know what Florida has to do, but the agility of Ed Orgeron has made it that much harder for the Gators to win this game.

We will see if the old ways prevail on Saturday night, in the same Tiger Stadium where Jacob Hester won the 2007 game by sheer force of will, and where the Gators won a 19-7 grinder to spoil LSU’s perfect season.

Maybe Florida has a 2003-style surprise to offer the Tigers.

Just don’t expect that to happen.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Florida Gators

Gators QB Trask shows more growth in key win Saturday

Matt Zemek

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Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

It was messy. It wasn’t the immaculate performance Kyle Trask delivered for the first two and a half quarters against LSU the week before.

This game against South Carolina on Saturday felt like a return to reality for Trask, who is a capable quarterback but doesn’t have as many tools in the toolbox as the man he replaced, the injured Feleipe Franks.

We have seen many examples over the years of college football programs – even those led by elite coaches – not picking the right quarterback for opening day of the season. These programs and coaches stumbled onto the superior quarterback after benching the Day 1 starter or watching an injury force their hand.

Nick Saban picked Blake Barnett over Jalen Hurts at Alabama a few years ago

Clay Helton of USC picked Max Browne over a man named Sam Darnold.

In 2005, West Virginia started the season with an average quarterback named Adam Bednarik. He got hurt… and Pat White entered to completely change Rich Rodriguez’s career and the direction of the West Virginia program.

Yes, it is sometimes true in college football that the original starting quarterback wasn’t the best quarterback for the team.

It is not true with Florida.

Franks did not play well in this year’s opener against Miami, but Franks – at full health, able to expand the field with his scrambling and give the Gators’ offense more options for moving the ball – still offered more upside than Trask. This is not a criticism of Trask; at the very least, you don’t have to interpret it that way.

One can simply acknowledge that Franks was the starter for a reason. Trask was thrown into a very uncomfortable spot.

He handled it well, but he still had to live with his limitations. So did Florida.

This marked a prefect prelude to Saturday, on the road, in a roaring Williams-Brice Stadium. This was a microcosm of Trask’s 2019 season.

He was thrown into an uncomfortable position. Not everything was working well for him. Yet, his team needed him. He had to somehow find an answer in the midst of a challenging situation.

Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, facing third-down pressure against an upset-minded opponent, what would Trask do? How would he respond?

The answer could not have been better for him, Dan Mullen, or the Gators.

Trask threw strikes in the fourth quarter. He threw them on the equivalent of a 3-2 count with runners in scoring position and two out… after racking up a high pitch count and having hitters work counts against him all game long.

Trask made so many bad reads through the first three quarters of this game. Dan Mullen was barking at him. The Gators’ offense sputtered against an in-form South Carolina defense which had made winning plays against Georgia and was rightly feeling confident that it could make those same plays one week later versus Florida.

The challenge wasn’t simply for Trask to play better; it was to block out the negativity from the first three quarters and provide the calm leadership of a team in dire need of stability.

Trask obviously needed to improve his reads and responses, but just as important was the need to provide a strong presence which would radiate through the huddle, anchoring Florida in a time of trial.

Trask answered the bell. It was in many ways a better outcome for Florida than if everything had gone swimmingly from opening kickoff to final gun.

THIS kind of win, not a drama-free joyride, truly prepares the Gators for the “Cocktail Party” against Georgia.

THAT is the game in which a smooth ride would be greatly appreciated by Gator fans… but they needed a triumph over difficult circumstances first.

They got it on Saturday. Kyle Trask conquered his doubts and his flaws, not just the Gamecocks.

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Florida Gators

Gators latest reunion with Muschamp defining one

Matt Zemek

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The one time the Florida Gators maxed out on the gridiron this decade did not come from Urban Meyer in the 2010 season, his last in Gainesville.

It did not come from Jim McElwain, despite the fact that Mac is the only UF coach this decade to win the SEC East.

It did not come from Dan Mullen, even though Florida’s only New Year’s Six bowl win this decade (formerly known as a BCS bowl) was produced by Mullen last season against Michigan.

No, the best Florida football season this decade was authored by Will Muschamp, the man the Gators will face on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.

Yes, it is true that Muschamp’s tenure at Florida was generally a failure because of the rock-bottom nature of his other three seasons on the job. Yet, in 2012, everything fell into place for Muschamp. He not only crafted an 11-1 regular season which was accompanied by a top-five finish in the pre-bowl polls; he won in a manner Will Muschamp likes to win: with defense.

It figures, then, that Muschamp’s biggest win at South Carolina – knocking off No. 3 Georgia, Muschamp’s alma mater, Between the Hedges in Athens – was built by a defense which continued to make one big play after another.

The Gamecocks continued to bother Jake Fromm, and when a Georgia receiver bobbled a pass, South Carolina was there to pluck the interception and change the flow of the game.

It was a Muschamp masterpiece, forged in the face of all sorts of limitations, chiefly the injury to quarterback Ryan Hilinski. South Carolina had to survive on offense, avoiding a huge mistake, and then hope that its defense could continue to stand on its head and carry the team home.

That is exactly what happened.

South Carolina won without scoring a touchdown in overtime. It won in spite of a missed 33-yard field goal which would have won the game. It won despite the offense getting shut out in the second half of regulation.

It was the ugly kind of win which was common for Florida in 2012.

Muschamp is aiming for the best two-week sequence of his tenure as the Gamecocks’ head coach. Beating his alma mater, Georgia, and his former employer, Florida, in consecutive games would give Muschamp a set of memories to last a lifetime.

Winning these two games might also be enough to save his job.

Standing in the way are the Gators, who might be thinking about the plays they didn’t make against LSU, or dreaming about beating Georgia in a few weeks.

Florida can’t worry about what it failed to do, and it can’t win a game which hasn’t yet arrived on the schedule.

This game might define Will Muschamp’s future. It definitely defines Florida’s present-day reality.

The past several Florida teams – mostly under McElwain but also last year under Mullen – were prone to letdowns against one or two beatable teams on the schedule. If Florida is to return to the 2012 heights established by Muschamp, and to the high standard consistently set by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, this is the game Dan Mullen has to win.

Sure, everyone will focus on Georgia, a game whose importance requires no explanation. However, the difference between a decent 9-3 season and an excellent 11-1 season is built not just on beating Georgia, but on winning games such as this one.

Florida’s defense – smoked by Joe Burrow and LSU – now faces a much more manageable opponent when it lines up against the South Carolina offense Some teams are too good. LSU and Burrow are playing at an elite level The Gators just need to tip the cap to the Tigers. It happens.

That loss isn’t a bad loss, but it will be a much bigger problem if the Gators don’t learn from it. This South Carolina game will show of Florida can adjust and mentally reset, or if old demons are still haunting Gator football.

This game is defining for former Florida coach Will Muschamp. It will also define where the Gators stand, how well they carry themselves, and what they are capable of achieving this year.

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