Gators have plenty to play for against LSU
The annual rivalry between Florida and LSU typically involves some juicy October storylines, a top-25 matchup and SEC title implications.
Not this year.
The No. 6 Gators (8-1) have already clinched a spot in Atlanta for the league championship game, the unranked Tigers (3-5) have lost three of their lost four and this year’s rescheduled game is completely inconsequential.
So, too, were Saturday’s makeup contests for No. 2 Notre Dame (Wake Forest) and No. 3 Clemson (Florida State), which is why the ACC canceled both to give the Irish and Tigers a week off before the conference championship Dec. 19.
Two more top-five teams, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Texas A&M, won’t play this weekend due to COVID-19 cancellations. UF, meanwhile, will take the field Saturday night in a game that — for all intents and purposes — doesn’t matter.
Don’t tell that to the Gators, though.
They still have plenty to play for.
“I think the biggest thing is guys are self motivated. This is Florida-LSU. This is a big football game,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “If you have a problem getting up for this game, that’s a you problem.”
After all, LSU is one of the more intense rivalries on Florida’s schedule. Prior to last season, the last five games had all been decided by one score. The Tigers won by two touchdowns in 2019 on their way to an SEC crown and national title.
That 42-28 loss, a game in which UF held a 28-21 second-half lead, still eats away at the players.
“I think it’s at the top,” defensive end Zachary Carter said when asked where the LSU rivalry ranks for Florida. “That definitely left a bad taste in our mouth last year and we’re coming out ready to dominate this week.”
It’s Senior Night in The Swamp, providing even more incentive for the team. A group of 27 seniors will be honored prior to kickoff, including 16 scholarship players who helped revive the program from a 4-7 record and coaching change in 2017.
The Gators are looking to send those seniors out with a bang.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but being where we are now, I think it was all worth it,” safety Donovan Stiner said. “ I knew what type of talent we had. So I was always really confident, even when we had a down year. I felt like we would turn that around.
“It was really tough, but looking back I feel like we're all blessed. We went from being 4-7 to winning the Peach Bowl, winning to the Orange Bowl, now we're in the SEC championship.”
Five of the 16 scholarship seniors taking Steve Spurrier-Florida Field for the final time Saturday were members of the 2016 class, including two-star quarterback Kyle Trask. They experienced Atlanta as true freshmen, but haven’t been back since.
When UF coach Dan Mullen took over in 2018, he told the players if they bought in and believed in the new staff, they’d be competing for championships again.
"When Mullen came in here, we were coming off 4-7 so we had that whole December off. So he kind of just broke us down and rebuilt us,” left tackle Stone Forsythe said. “This year we can leave a footprint of playing 10 SEC games (during) a COVID year … just kind of having the younger guys know what it is to win.”
With a victory over LSU, the Gators would go undefeated at home for the second year in a row. That hasn’t happened since 2005 and 2006, when Mullen served as Florida’s offensive coordinator.
Since returning as the head coach, he’s put an emphasis on winning in Gainesville.
“No one wants to lose in their house,” running back Nay’Quan Wright said. “That’s what Coach Mullen preaches. He wants us to stay undefeated in The Swamp.
“I think we’ve been doing a good job with that. This is the last game that’s going to be in The Swamp, so we want to keep it rolling.”
UF should roll past the Tigers, who will have a new quarterback under center. Max Johnson is expected to make his first career start, replacing fellow true freshman T.J. Finley after he was benched in losses to Alabama and Texas A&M.
“They have two talented, young quarterbacks, but they are young,” Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They've had a couple of skill guys opt out, but when you look at the guys that are playing, they're young and you can see the talent.
“From that standpoint, we understand that they have skill, they have speed. Really it's more about us executing to our ability, playing our game and playing to our standard. If we do that, I think we should be fine.”
Trask and his receiving corps should have success against the LSU secondary, which ranks last in the SEC in passing defense. Nonetheless, Johnson wants to see more offensive efficiency from his unit after back-to-back three-and-outs at Tennessee and three possessions inside Vols territory with zero points.
“It was awful,” Johnson said of the performance. “We definitely need to improve. …This is a big game. Florida-LSU is as big as it gets in college football. They have a ton of great players, guys that played against and know each other and want to go perform at a high level. Our guys are looking forward to that challenge, and our seniors get to play their last game in The Swamp.”
2020 Florida seniors: Austin Perry, Brad Stewart Jr., Brett DioGuardi, Brett Heggie; Clifford Taylor IV, Donovan Stiner, Erik Askeland, Jack Ruskell, Jacob Finn, Jean Delance, Jeremiah Moon, Kadarius Toney, Kyle Trask, Kyree Campbell, Marco Wilson, Marlon Dunlap Jr., Michael Weir, Nick Oelrich, Nicolas Sutton, Quaylin Crum, Rick Wells, Shawn Davis, Stewart Reese, Stone Forsythe, Tedarrell Slaton, Trevon Grimes and Trey Thompson.
Who: LSU (3-5) vs. No. 6 Florida (8-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850