LSU Review / Alabama Preview

In the most embarrassing and disappointing loss of my Gator lifetime, Florida inexplicably forfeited their chance at the Playoff with a 37-34 loss at the Swamp to LSU.

The reasons for the embarrassment are myriad:

– LSU, even with a complete roster, is not a good team in 2020 – a team gutted by graduation, loss of coaches, injuries to multiple starters, and Covid opt-outs

– The Tigers came into this game with only 54 scholarship players (vs. the 85 allowed), 4 starters left the game with injuries, and their best player, CB Derek Stingley, was benched for the game

– LSU started true freshman QB Max Johnson, and once again a crap Todd Grantham defense that blew assignments and couldn’t even get lined up pre-snap made a bad QB look like a seasoned veteran

– LSU placekicker Cade York won the game with a 57-yard FG……in the fog……the longest in school history  

– Kyle Trask had 3 turnovers – a pick 6, another interception on a freak play, and a strip sack the fault of poor pass blocking……completely out of character, but he still overcame most of that, accounting for 4 TDs

– Florida wasted a career day from Kadarius Toney, who had over 200 scrimmage yards and single-handedly tried to will the offense to a win

– The Gator defense was horrific; allowing over 400 yards to an offense that was bereft of talent, playing multiple true freshmen, and lacking any playmakers

– Marco Wilson……it’s tough to call out a single player, but he was roasted most of the game in coverage, and made the most bone-headed play I can recall with his shoe-throwing unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that cost the Gators the game

– Finally, the Gators had everything to play for……and bottomed out; this was the epitome of a team loss – players and especially coaches

Dan Mullen did the team no favors with some terrible playcalling in the red zone, continually refusing to run the ball enough while asking Trask to force some things.  To double-down on his arrogance, he didn’t even let Kyle Pitts suit up for the game.  I understand that he didn’t practice all week, but he warmed up pre-game and said he was ready……at least have him play some limited snaps in the red zone to open up things even more for Trask and the other receivers.  Coach Hevesy continues to roll out mediocre O-lines and refuses to replace underperforming players in favor of seniority.  Todd Grantham should be fired the second the SEC Championship Game ends – enough of his dated and easily-read schemes and blitzes that even QBs right out of high school can pick up.

This is a program-damaging loss for Mullen.  He has built up a lot of goodwill from Gator Nation by turning around the fortunes of the football team up until now, but this result is inexcusable.  It ends any Playoff talk; it causes discussion across the country not just by those knowledgeable of the game of football but even casual fans and media that show what a crap fest this game was; and it gives some important current and future recruits pause, wondering if the coaching staff as currently configured can win a title.  Sitting in the Champions Club with some long time, knowledgeable, patient fans, watching them shake their heads is bewilderment, and hearing them say this is the worst loss they have witnessed in 30, 40, 50 years……that’s all you need to know.

Florida somehow has to try and regroup and find a way to emotionally recharge for the SEC Championship Game this Saturday against Alabama.  I can only hope the leaders of the team can rally the players back from such a crushing loss and play well against one of Nick Saban’s best teams in years.

The Crimson Tide offense is the best in college football, with both an excellent running game and a deadly, deep-strike passing attack.  Stars such as WR DeVonta Smith, RB Najee Harris, and even QB Mac Jones deserve their accolades, but the engine for that offense is the offensive line, which will have at least 4 starters and even some backups playing in the NFL after this season or in the near future.  OT Alex Leatherwood and center Landon Dickerson are perhaps the best at their positions in the country.  WR John Metchie and TE Jahleel Billingsley are dangerous targets as well – just overshadowed by the other stars.  Talk about a matchup nightmare for a struggling Gator defense – it’s going to take the performance of a lifetime just to hold the Tide to under 40 points, and I just don’t see it happening.  The D-Line is good enough to get some stalemates at the LOS and try to slow Harris down somewhat, but the coverage by the back seven is so bad that unless Grantham actually does something completely new they likely will get shredded all night.  Perhaps it’s a simple 4-3 with minimal changes or wrinkles; perhaps playing a nickel or dime defense all game and daring Bama to be patient by running the ball would bear some fruit; perhaps the pass rush will be lights out and force Jones off his spot and to move in the pocket.  Anything that might work often enough to allow the Gator offense the chance to at least keep the game competitive for a half or 3 quarters would be a blessing.  But it’s unlikely, just as unlikely as Grantham straying from his outdated blitz packages and late calls that leave guys out of position at the snap.  I’ve given up on the hope of forcing some turnovers, which the defense has been terrible at all season. 

The Gator offense has to not just move the ball, but score touchdowns and not settle for field goals – a lot.  Somehow the right side of the O-line has to be upgraded, which means personnel changes.  For some of the LSU game the O-line was, from left to right, Richard Gouriage, Ethan White, Brett Heggie, Stewart Reese, and Stone Forsythe.  I would not have moved Stone to RT – he has been a good blind-side protector of Trask all season.  Switch the tackles and insert Josh Braun at RG, and you may have something.  Both Reese and Jean Delance are playing hurt, and are even less effective now – they have struggled in some capacity all season .  Go with the usual lineup, and you’re courting disaster against a strong and fast Alabama front seven.  The Tide’s D-line is not as good as past seasons, but still solid.  The real playmakers on their defense are in the back seven – LBs Dylan Moses and Christian Harris, CBs Daniel Wright and Malacai Moore, and safety Jordan Battle.  This group rarely blows an assignment, so it’s imperative that the Florida blockers give Trask time to be patient, make his reads, and deliver the ball accurately.  There’s no doubt in my mind that if the Gator skill players play their best, they can give any defense trouble and score a lot of points.  Pitts and Toney have to show out, and every receiver and running back needs to take advantage of even the slightest room to make plays.  But will the O-line give them the chance?

Both teams boast strong special teams.  Alabama actually has a decent placekicker for the first time in a decade in Will Reichard, who has yet to miss a kick this season – but has not had a single pressure situation.  Jaylen Waddle was the best kick returner in the country before his season-ending ankle injury, but don’t sleep on anyone – especially if DeVonta Smith continues in that role.  Neither punter is especially good – they are rarely used……but at least Florida’s Jacob Finn has done a good job the past month at placing kicks inside the 20 yard line,  Evan McPherson missed a tough, game-tying kick against LSU, but still is one of the best in the country…..hopefully he bounces back with a strong game.  Toney is always a threat on returns, and perhaps he can generate a quick strike if given the opportunity.  Dan Mullen has shown he isn’t afraid to take chances on special teams, and I expect something from deep in the bag of tricks if the situation is favorable.

It’s going to be incredibly hard for the Gator staff to keep the entire team focused and prepared.  Maybe they can, but I wonder if some guys might already be starting to check out mentally and looking ahead to the NFL Draft, or simply have lost the belief they can win this game.  I can only hope the team comes out fighting and plays a spirited game – even if it’s just to play for pride and to try and wash away some of the stink that will stay with them long after the LSU debacle.  The Gators need to bounce back and show the country what a great team they can be.with a complete effort – even if it’s just not enough against a better team.  Maybe……maybe if the Gators somehow get this game into the 4th quarter within one score, the pressure will have an effect on Alabama……but that’s a huge ask.

Prediction: Alabama 49 Florida 27