If you're looking for the most important game in the SEC season over the past few seasons, LSU (4-2, 2-0 SEC) vs. Florida (4-1, 2-1 SEC) may be the one worthy of that distinction. It may not be the most heated of games on the SEC schedule from a rivalry standpoint, but the number of players who can play on Sundays makes this must-see television. "What makes this such a big game is the quality of personnel on both sides," said Florida head coach Urban Meyer earlier this week.
This weekend's game was spiced up a bit by the comments of LSU defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, who made it known that the LSU defense would be looking to take out Florida's Tim Tebow should the opportunity present itself. Don't think Ricky's statement was meant in insinuate any foul play on their behalf, but it should serve as extra motivation for the Florida offensive line.
LSU will welcome back Andrew Hatch, who missed their win over Mississippi State due to an injury that knocked him out in the second half of their win at Auburn. Jarrett Lee, who rebounded from a poor first half in that comeback to lead the Tigers on their gamewinning march, is still learning the ropes and will have to once again share time with Hatch under center. Luckily for head coach Les Miles, the young signal-callers have one game in hostile territory under their belts, and they've also got a productive running game led by Charles Scott. Scott currently leads the SEC in rushing, averaging 133.8 yards per game on the ground for the Bayou Bengals.
Florida, while they rank in the middle of the SEC in most major defensive categories, has more than enough athletes on that side of the football to make things tough for the Tigers. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (who leads the SEC in tackles) leads the charge, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap is a pass rusher who is capable of wreaking havoc on opposing backfields. And the sting of their last effort at home, a 31-30 loss to Ole Miss in which the Rebels ripped off some big plays on the ground, should be enough motivation to get them ready to slow down LSU on the ground.
As for the Gator offense, the running game received a nice boost in the form of two freshmen in their whipping of Arkansas last week. Backs Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey were able to make some plays on the ground, supplementing what head coach Urban Meyer already gets from the likes of Tebow and Percy Harvin. The Gators can flat-out fly, but the one thing that's been missing are the big plays from the tight end position. Aaron Hernandez is a capable pass catcher there, but you don't just plug in a guy and fully replace a talent like Cornelius Ingram (knee injury before the season began; out for the year). While LSU leads the conference in total offense, Florida ranks third.
So the Tigers will have their hands full in slowing down the Gator attack, they'll show up in The Swamp with one of the nation's fiercest defensive units. You already know about Jean-Francois on one end of the line, but the defensive end with the best NFL stock? That would be Tyson Jackson, an outstanding athlete for his size who performs well against both the pass and the run. They're just two of the reasons why LSU has the SEC's third-best run defense. But they're only eleventh in the conference in sacks, one reason why the Tigers are eighth in the SEC in pass defense. The air could be an area that offensive coordinator Dan Mullen can exploit in the Florida gameplan.
Key Matchup: LSU secondary vs. Florida wide receivers
Given the lack of sacks for the Tigers and Florida's ability to spread opponents out and put them in one-on-one situations all over the field, LSU's success in limiting big plays through the air will determine whether or not they win this game. There are some other good matchups, most notably the LSU offensive line going against Florida's front seven, but the one clear weakness for either team in this one may be the Tiger pass defense. Also, LSU has only three interceptions on the year, which ranks 10th in the conference.
Who wins the game?
Yes, the Tigers have already won at Auburn. But this is an entirely different animal for a team looking to extend LSU's win streak in night games (games started after 5 PM) to 20 games. Unlike Auburn, the Gators can move the ball down the field through the air and they've got enough weapons to take the focus off of just Tebow. Look for Florida to win this game.