One month into the 21012 football season #10 Florida sits at a perfect 4-0, but the Gators face their biggest test of the season on Saturday, when they square off against #4 LSU in the Swamp. Inside the Gators has the very latest on the match up in this Game Week Breakdown. Guerry Smith breaks down LSU with his answers to five burning questions as well previewing five Tigers players Gator fans should keep an eye on this weekend.
BURNING QUESTIONS: Guerry Smith provides answers to these
five burning questions
1) Where has LSU proven most vulnerable in its ugly wins over Auburn and Towson State?
Pass protection has been a trouble spot for the Tigers, something Florida's tough defense can exploit. The problems started when left tackle Chris Faulk, a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, went down with a season-ending knee injury in practice the week before the Washington game. His replacement, Josh Dworaczyk, allowed two sacks against Auburn and was benched for the Towson State game, forcing All-SEC right tackle Alex Hurst to move to the left side. True freshman Vadal Alexander took Hurst's vacated spot, and the Tigers gave up four sacks and six plays for negative yardage in a lackluster 38-22 win. They have allowed 11 sacks in four games. Coach Les Miles may return Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior coming off knee surgery, to left tackle against Florida, or he may stick with the lineup he used against Towson State. Either way, LSU is vulnerable.
2) Can quarterback Zach Mettenberger still be the savior LSU fans thought he would be?
Not likely, but it is still too early to discount him. Despite solid statistics, Mettenberger has demonstrated a scattershot arm, missing receivers in bunches at times. He was a pedestrian 15 of 27 for 169 yards with no touchdowns in LSU's only road test against Auburn. At some point, Miles' staff's ability to develop quarterbacks has to come into question. The last LSU quarterback to have a big year was JaMarcus Russell, who threw for 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2006. Current NFL QB Matt Flynn completed only 56.3 percent of his passes in 2007, and the Jordan Jefferson/Jarrett Lee combo platter struggled mightily the past few years. LSU wins by playing great defense, running well and having its quarterbacks make few mistakes. As bad as they were, Lee and Jefferson still combined for 20 TD tosses and only five interceptions a year ago. Mettenberger has lost three fumbles in the last two games. He has a rocket arm, but his decision-making and game management remain suspect.
3) Where do the Tigers miss Tyrann Mathieu the most?
The Honey Badger's kick returning ability is impossible to replace, putting more pressure on LSU's so-so offense to produce. Mathieu's kickoff return for a TD against West Virginia and his spectacular punt returns for scores against Arkansas and Georgia changed the momentum of all three games during LSU's 13-0 start last year. His replacement, Odell Beckham, brought back a punt 70 yards for a score against North Texas in the 2012 opener but has done next to nothing since then, averaging about 5.0 yards per return. Beckham and Michael Ford have not broken any long kickoff returns. The Tigers don't miss Mathieu in the secondary as much as you might think. Yes, he was a turnover machine in the first half of 2011, but after serving a one-game suspension at midseason, he was not the same player upon his return. He actually got picked on a bit in man-to-man coverage.
4) Is LSU's defense as nasty as it was last year?
Pretty much. The Tigers don't have Mathieu's ball-hawking or the tremendous one-one-one coverage ability of Morris Claiborne, but their secondary is still formidable and their front seven is ferocious. This is a deep, fast, big, strong group. Although the offense was awful in the 12-10 win at Auburn, the defense stopped Auburn for losses on 14 of 52 snaps and sent the War Eagles backwards on four drives. Washington quarterback Keith Price completed 17 of 36 passes for 157 yards and zero touchdowns against the Tigers. Towson State moved the ball fairly well, but LSU was disinterested in that game from start to finish. The Tigers rank fourth nationally in total defense (217.8 yards), ninth in rushing defense (83.0 yards) and sixth in pass efficiency defense, limiting opponents to 50 percent completions with eight interceptions.
5) How good is LSU's running game?
It's hard to judge at this point. The Tigers average 229.6 yards on the ground and had 182 against Auburn, but they have not faced a defense as good as Florida's. Although first-string tailback Alfred Blue suffered a season-ending knee injury in week 3 against Idaho, LSU still rotates three quality backs in Kenny Hilliard (366 yards, six TDs, 6.9 average), Ford (224 yards, 5.9 average) and Spencer Ware (164 yards, 5.1 average). Hilliard and Ware are power backs. Ford, who led LSU in rushing last year, is quick. Only Alabama could slow down LSU's ground game a year ago, but with the decline in the offensive line, the Tigers may not be as consistent this season.
FIVE TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Here's a list of five Tigers players Gator fans will want to keep an eye on
Smith Says: Montgomery is almost unblockable off the edge. He had nine sacks a year ago and already has 6.5 tackles for loss this season. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Wee after terrorizing Auburn.
2) Kevin Minter, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior middle linebacker
Smith Says: Minter has improved significantly from a year ago, when he made tackles but few big plays. He already has 5.5 stops for loss, two more than his total for all of 2011. He also has broken up three passes and leads the Tigers in tackles with 34..
3) Eric Reid, a 6-foot-2, 212-pound junior free safety
Smith Says: His numbers have not been dominant-26 tackles, one interception, no forced fumbles --but Reid is one of the most talented safeties in America. He could turn the game with one big play after a slow start to the season.
Smith Says: He is still prone to running the wrong route, but Beckham is the Tigers' biggest game breaker on offense. He is averaging 17.9 yards on 16 catches with two touchdowns. His best asset is his ability to make people miss him in space.
5) Brad Wing, a 6-foot-3, 197-pound sophomore punter
Smith Says: Wing became infamous after his taunting penalty negated his own touchdown on a fake punt against Florida last year. He is unbelievably good at pinning opponents inside their own 10-yard line and is a major weapon in low-scoring games.
FIVE FAST FACTS
1) This is the fourth time LSU and Florida have met as top-10 teams, all in the last seven years. Then No. 1 Florida beat No. 4 LSU 13-3 in Baton Rouge in 2009, then-No. 1 LSU beat No. 9 Florida 28-24 in Baton Rouge in 2007 and No. 5 Florida beat No. 9 LSU 23-10 in Gainesville in 2006. The Gators lead the series 30-25-3 and are 14-11-3 in The Swamp.
2) LSU is 47-0 under Miles when it rushes for more than 100 yards and holds the opponent to fewer than 100 yards rushing. If the Gators can't run, they will have no chance against the Tigers. Last year, Florida managed 113 yards on the ground to LSU's 238 and lost 41-11 at Tiger Stadium.
3) LSU's version of Andre Debose is senior Russell Shepard. Both arrived at their schools as expected superstars and neither has lived up to his billing. Shepard, a senior, caught 14 passes for 190 yards a year ago. Although he finally has made some big plays this year, they came against Idaho (33-yard reception) and Towson State (78-yard TD run).
4) LSU has three players from Florida -junior wide receiver Kadron Boone from Ocala, sophomore defensive tackle Ego Ferguson from Mims and redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrard Randall from Hollywood. Boone leads all Tiger receivers with three TD catches among his 10 receptions. Ferguson has five tackles. Randall won't make the travel squad. Florida has no one from Louisiana.
5) LSU is 30-3 in its last 23 games while Florida is 21-12. This is a huge opportunity for the Gators to re-enter the national picture for the first time since losing to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game.