A showdown in The Swamp

Last season's game was one of epic proportions so Saturday's battle between No. 3-ranked LSU and No. 12-ranked Florida has a lot to live up to when the Tigers and Gators take the field at 7 p.m. CT.

Florida is led by its 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, while LSU will have a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first career start on the road in what is arguably one of the most unfriendly environments in America for an opposing team.


Florida’s offense has gotten more production from other players over the first five games, but it all still starts with Tim Tebow. If Florida is going to defeat the Tigers then Tebow is going to have to come up big.


The junior from St. Augustine, Fla. has completed 79 of 128 passes for 1,025 yards and eight touchdowns. He threw his first interception of the season last week against Arkansas which snapped a streak of 203 straight passes without a pick. That mark was the third-longest streak in SEC history.


What earned Tebow all of the hardware he picked up on the awards tour in 2007 was his combination of running and passing. But this year, Urban Meyer isn’t running his big quarterback nearly as much.


Compared to last season and over the same amount of games, Tebow has run 28 fewer times for 276 fewer yards, and his touchdown scampers dropped from eight to only two in 2008.


Last season’s outing in Baton Rouge was Tebow’s worst performance as a Gator in a 28-24 loss to the Tigers. He connected on only 46 percent of his passes for 158 yards with two scores and an interception, to go with 67 yards rushing and a touchdown on 16 totes.


LSU got some pressure on him and sacked him twice and hurried him five more times, but the Tigers may need to get more of a pass rush on Saturday.


That is a lot to ask considering the Tigers have two starting defensive tackles that are not 100 percent health-wise in Ricky Jean-Francois and Charles Alexander. This week we will get a good look at just how deep LSU is down in the trenches.


On the other sideline is Jarrett Lee, who will be making his first road start. The young signal caller got a taste of life on the road against Auburn and he passed that test in leading LSU to a come-from-behind win.


However, The Swamp is a different animal and there have been several young quarterbacks that fell apart in that venue.


It will be critical for LSU to give Lee time to throw and for Gary Crowton to call some easy passes in the early going to give him some confidence.


Lee enters the game with 643 yards and six touchdowns against three interceptions, and his passing rating is second in the league (146.5) behind only Tebow (148.0).


How Lee handles the crowd noise and stays composed will be a key to LSU’s success on offense but just as important, if not more, will be the play of Charles Scott.


Scott is fifth in the nation at rushing with 133.8 yards a game, which is more than all of Florida’s running backs combined.


The junior from Jonesboro, La. is running behind an offensive line that checks in averaging 6-5, 293 pounds, and has been creating some huge holes.


Scott’s powerful running style has been too much for the opposition and he’s flashed enough speed to break several big runs. LSU hasn’t thrown to its running backs a whole lot but Arkansas running back Michael Smith did make some plays against Florida’s linebackers in last week’s loss.


Hitting some swing passes and screens would be a good way to get Lee some confidence early, and LSU hasn’t really used that middle dump-off screen to the backs much this year.


The Gators, on the other hand, have struggled to find someone other than Tebow or Percy Harvin to consistently, and effectively, run the football since Meyer has been in Gainesville.


Emmanuel Moody was expected to give the running game a boost when he transferred from USC, but he has not looked like the game-changer many thought he would be.


Chris Rainey leads Florida with 220 yards and averages a team-best 44 yards a game, but Tebow has nearly twice as many carries as his 31. Jeffrey Demps and Harvin are second and third, respectively, with 178 and 177, followed by Tebow with 157.


Some attribute the rushing numbers to injuries that Florida has had up front on the offensive line, but it clearly has more to do with scheme from my point of view.


The Gators will get a boost this week by the return of offensive linemen Jim Tartt and Marcus Gilbert, who have both practiced this week, but neither will start.


Florida’s offensive line has been good in pass protection despite having to go with so many different rotations, and has allowed only seven sacks and six quarterback hurries on the year.


The Gators also have the biggest offensive line that LSU’s front will face this year averaging 6-5 and 313 pounds.


While the Gators are getting their health back down in the trenches, the same can’t be said for LSU on the defensive side of the ball.


Ricky Jean-Francois is battling a groin injury and his status is still up in the air, and then Charles Alexander is still fighting a sprained ankle.


That makes LSU not nearly as formidable up the middle considering that Darry Beckwith will be seeing his first action since injuring his knee against North Texas.


Les Miles has talked about playing more zone against Florida to try and neutralize the Gators’ speed in the receiving corps, so if that plan of attack is carried out then LSU will need to get a good push with its front four.


Tyson Jackson (12 tackles, 2 TFLs, .5 sacks) and Kirston Pittman (11 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) need to load their A-game up on the plane and bring it to Gainesville, because if Tebow has time to sit back there and throw then it’s going to be a long day for the LSU pass defense.


The area that has most people concerned is LSU’s linebackers matched up with Florida’s backs out of the backfield after Mississippi State exposed that unit two weeks ago.


Beckwith will help in run support but LSU will be playing a lot of its dime defense, so expect some new wrinkles from Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory after the off week.


Florida’s receivers have a wealth of speed and have some advantages matching up with Danny McCray and Chad Jones, but I expect to see a little more of Patrick Peterson in the secondary on Saturday as the coaches may try and bring Jones closer to the line.


Harvin (19-284-3) and Louis Murphy (17-257-2) are the big play threats, but Aaron Hernandez (13-140-2) has been making plays and creates matchup problems from his tight end spot with his size.


LSU’s pass defense is ranked 8th in the conference at giving up 191.75 yards a game and it will be put to the test this week against Florida’s speedy playmakers.


Florida has a decisive edge at quarterback but the Tigers return the favor with a strong running game that is second in the SEC at 206.5 yards a contest.


Both offenses are at the top of the conference in scoring, ranked 1st and 2nd, respectively, with Florida having a slight advantage at 36.0 points a game compared to LSU’s 35.5.


LSU is tops in the league in total offense, picking up 427.25 yards a game but Florida isn’t far behind coming in 3rd at 390.2. When you factor in LSU’s competition compared to the Gators though, that stat is skewed from this vantage point.


If Jean-Francois and Alexander were both healthy then the battle in the trenches would tilt LSU’s way, but even though the Tigers are deep at that position, there is still a drop-off in talent.


Florida’s defense is 4th in the country, yielding only 11.4 points game, and the Gators are +8 in turnover margin, while LSU is -2.


Turnovers are going to play a factor in this one as well as field position, and Brady Dalfrey (38.9 avg.) has to a good job of kicking away from Brandon James, who has already returned two punts for a touchdown and averages 20.5 yards a return.


Along with having one of the top return men in the country and a kicker that is perfect on the year in field goals in Jonathan Phillips (6-6), the Gators have the SEC’s leading punter in Chas Henry with an average of 45.5 yards a punt.


Expect Meyer to do some directional kicking to keep the ball out of Trindon Holliday’s hands. The junior speedster averages 25.1 yards a return and has already broken several long ones, including one for 92 yards and a score.


However, Holliday has muffed several punts and with turnovers expected to play a huge role in this one that is cause for concern.


The Gators will be fired up and will come out looking for a big play early to keep the crowd and team fired up, but after the quotes that ran in the Orlando Sentinel about Jean-Francois and the Tigers wanting to take Tebow out of the game, keeping everyone fired up should be the least of Meyer’s worries.


If LSU can withstand the early barrage from Florida then this should still be a close game by the time the fourth quarter arrives.


Scott will run on Florida and after this one his name will be mentioned by more national media pundits as a Heisman contender.


Turnovers and field position is what this one will likely come down to though, and Florida has the edge in both departments.


The Tigers will hang tough and make this one an exciting game, but Florida will finally put together an impressive performance on both sides of the ball.


Our call is Florida wins a close one 27-23 with a late LSU turnover coming into play.

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