Back Inside the Numbers: LSU at Florida

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Inside the Numbers: LSU at Florida

By Jim Johnson
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There can’t have been many people that expected the upcoming clash between Florida and LSU to be as big as it is, coming into the season.

There can’t have been many people that expected the upcoming clash between Florida and LSU to be as big as it is, coming into the season. The Gators were picked to finish third in the East at SEC Media Days, the Tigers fifth in the West. Instead, the former enters the contest 4-1, fresh off a dominant defensive performance at Mississippi State, and the latter, having just beaten Ole Miss 45-16, is one of the ten remaining unbeaten power five teams.

Given LSU’s top five ranking in the AP Poll, as compared to Florida ranking of #22, superficially, it’s easy to assume that Ed Orgeron and company will move to 6-0 ahead of a crucial matchup against Georgia in Baton Rouge. However, if the advanced metrics are to be believed, it’s not that cut and dry. ESPN’s FPI gives Florida a 58.4% chance to pull the upset outright, while S&P+ has it at 54%, favoring Dan Mullen’s group by 1.8 points.

The margins are thin between these two similarly constructed squads. Two solid, underrated, if only above average offenses are both likely to be outmatched by elite defense and special teams.

If there’s anything to split the two on Saturday, it could prove to be quarterback play. Feleipe Franks has been more consistent than Joe Burrow, thus far, but has yet to have a true breakout performance against a worthy opponent. Burrow, on the other hand, just had his.

After completing less than 50% of his throws over the first four games of the season, for under seven yards per attempt, Burrow found a rhythm versus the Rebels, 18/25 for 292 yards and three touchdowns, with a 209.7 pass efficiency rating. Perhaps that game will be a turning point. Jarrett Stidham, for example, struggled early last season on a new team, in a new system, surrounded by new teammates, before ultimately having the best season at quarterback in SEC play. If it truly was more of a learning curve issue than an ability issue, Burrow could prove to be the missing link that will separate this LSU team from all the other good, not great, 8-9 win LSU’s of yesteryear.

Then again, Ole Miss’ pass defense is hardly one of the better ones he’ll face this season, and it’s certainly not close to Florida’s.

In any case, the Bayou Bengals’ passing attack currently ranks 86th in marginal efficiency and 28th in marginal explosiveness.

Burrow’s inaccuracy is the biggest reason for their lack of passing efficiency, but a couple of reliable safety valves have still managed to emerge. Stephen Sullivan, a matchup nightmare listed at 6’7 232 lbs., and tight end Foster Moreau lead their pass catchers in marginal efficiency, and both are yet to drop a ball this season.

In fairness to Burrow, most of the rest of the receiving corps have struggled with drops to varying degrees, but Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase have taken advantage of their opportunities for the most part, each posting notably above average marginal explosiveness ratings. Texas Tech transfer has really been the only disappointment among the wide receivers, so if Burrow has truly turned a corner, he has plenty of talent to work with.

Still, one cause for concern could be the pass protection. It’s been perfectly decent so far, ranking 55th in sack rate allowed, but Florida’s pass rush is one of the best in the country. Saahdiq Charles, who missed the last couple of games, could make his return this weekend. He has yet to allow a sack this season, but has surrendered a pair hurries, as well as two QB hits. If not, Badara Traore will likely continue to take snaps in his stead. Traore and Austin Deculus, who has had to step in for Adrian Magee, have been the weakest links of the protection unit. The interior offensive line, on the other hand, has been quite formidable. Center Lloyd Cushenberry has not allowed a single pressure, while Damien Lewis has given up just one hurry at right guard, and at left guard, Garrett Brumfield, one sack, on QB hit, and one pressure.

Given the sort of trial by fire that the group has undergone with all of the personnel attrition, the pass protection has been about as expected. The run blocking, though, has not been up to snuff. The group currently ranks 75th in standard down line yards per carry and 57th in stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage.

It was easy to look at the raw rushing numbers at the beginning of the season and assume that the blocking was fine, but over half of Nick Brossette’s rushing yards against Miami and Southeastern Louisiana came after contact. As good as he is, that seemed unsustainable in the moment, and has ultimately proven to be.

Now having been exposed by Auburn, Louisiana Tech, and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks, LSU ranks 67th in rushing marginal efficiency, 84th in explosiveness, and 68th in percentage of 5+ yard runs. Brossette’s talent is unassailable, but he can only do so much with such limited assistance.

Even so, he may need to be pretty heavily relied upon in The Swamp, playing a Florida defense that’s greatest strengths are against the pass. The run defense, while good, is not otherworldly, ranking 39th in marginal efficiency and 46th in marginal explosiveness allowed.

The Gators’ defensive line is a playmaking group, but one that can be less than efficient at times, ranking just 59th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage and 55th in standard down line yards allowed, despite sitting in the national top 20 of all D-Line’s in tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles per play.

Jachai Polite, who quietly had a bit of a breakout year as a sophomore, has inarguably been the most dominant force along the defensive front as a pass rusher, but the run defense has been much more of a cohesive effort. Possessing great depth throughout the front seven, Florida now has a combined 11 defenders that have at least one run stuff and have allowed less than four yards per play. Jabari Zuniga leads the unit with four stuffs and -1.8 yards per play allowed, while Polite, even with just one stuff, has the lowest allowed marginal efficiency on the team. The closest to Polite in that respect are Adam Shuler and mountainous 6’5, 343 lb. sophomore Tedarrell Slaton, who also has three stuffs of his own.

Again, however, Polite’s true talents lie in his ability to torment opposing passers. His four sacks, three QB hits, and nine hurries each lead the team. Zuniga is just a half of a sack behind him in that respective category, as well, as hurries, but Shuler is actually second in QB hits. Polite leading the way, Florida’s 12.2% sack rate ranks fourth in college football. More encouragingly than that, though, is that they rank 1st on standard downs, and have not shown much of a need to blitz in order to get there.

That, coupled with upper echelon defensive back play is why Florida’s pass defense ranks 19th in marginal efficiency allowed. Due to their aggressive nature, they are giving up some big plays, which LSU has the athletes to exploit, but the only proven way to decrease explosiveness is to limit efficiency, so while the big plays they do give up sting a little bit more, they’re actually not giving up as a high a volume as their 86th ranking in marginal explosiveness allowed would indicate.

Obviously, losing a player of Marco Wilson’s caliber would hurt any defense, but CJ Henderson and Trey Bean have both stepped up following Wilson’s injury. Henderson has allowed just four catches for 42 yards and no touchdowns, and three of the four receptions were well contested, the receiver jus made a nice play. Bean, just a freshman, has been susceptible to a long gainer here and there, having allowed 97 yards, but those too have come on only four catches.

With Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart both putting together reliable, if unspectacular seasons at safety, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has been the lone weak spot in the secondary. He has allowed 7 catches for 80 yards on 11 targets into his coverage this year, but more concerningly, his tackling seems to have remained poor, having missed 20% of his attempts, according to CFB Film Room.

That could be a mismatch that LSU looks to exploit because it’s one of the few that they’ll have.

Regardless, Florida’s defense holds much of the advantage over LSU’s offense. Todd Grantham’s boys rank 10th in success rate, 17th in marginal explosiveness, 55th in IsoPPP, and 54th in marginal explosiveness allowed. The best part, though, has been how they’ve played with their backs against the wall, giving up merely 2.91 points per opposing scoring opportunity (2nd in the FBS). Comparatively, LSU’s offense ranks 75th in both success rate and marginal efficiency, 84th in IsoPPP, and 66th in marginal explosiveness, while scoring 4.94 points per trip inside the 40 yard line (53rd).

One key for both sides will be the third down battle. LSU is moving the chains on 69.4% of their first and second downs right now (64th), whereas Florida is only allowing such conversions 57.1% of the time (11th). This is especially true in third and short scenarios where Florida’s defense ranks fifth, and LSU’s offense ranks 1st in the nation.

Now, as good as Florida’s defense is, LSU’s is just as strong, if not even more so. More importantly, the disparity between LSU’s defense and Florida’s offense might even be incrementally greater than that of the two groups that we just looked at.

The Tigers have a legitimate superstar at every level of the defense, but for a program that has about as good a claim as any to the title of DBU, one must start in the secondary.

Of those aforementioned superstars, none shines brighter than cornerback Greedy Williams. Arguably the best on the country at his position, the 6’3 sophomore is a truly special combination of size, speed, and length, granting him overwhelming advantages in press-man. Through five games, he has allowed just four uncontested catches on 25 throws into his coverage, an overall 36% catch rate, and is yet to give up a touchdown. Kristian Fulton has been fairly effective as well, allowing 11 receptions on 24 targets into his coverage, although two of those have gone for scores. Kary Vincent and Kelvin Joseph have each allowed one touchdown, and have left a little more to be desired.

However, the star turn of athletic safety Grant Delpit has helped to cover up for some of those occasional mistakes. Another long, gifted athlete, Delpit can do it all. He’s already recorded two interceptions and five total passes defensed, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 run stuffs, three sacks, and a combined four more pressures as a pass rusher, while allowing six completions on 18 throws into his coverage, and no touchdowns.

Helped along by a solid pass rush that, granted, has struggled to finish sacks (53rd in sack rate), but applies consistent pressure (9 different defenders have multiple hurries), LSU’s pass defense ranks 41st in marginal efficiency allowed and 12th in marginal explosiveness allowed.

Star linebacker Devin White has, yet again, been the team’s most productive pass rusher. In fact, there may not be a better pass rushing off ball linebacker in the country than White. His 11 combined sacks, hits, and hurries lead the Tigers, followed by eight from Andre Anthony and seven from Michael Divinity Jr. Obviously, as all three are linebackers, it is that position group that is racking up most of the pass rushing numbers, although defensive end Breiden Fehoko is right behind them with six. But, yes, as indicated by the linebacking corps’ top 25 havoc rate, that’s where the playmakers are.

Because of that, it could be easy to overlook the defensive line play. And, sure, Devin White does lead the team with eight run stuffs, also, but Rashard Lawrence is right behind him, and it is Lawrence that has allowed the lowest marginal efficiency on the team, with Fehoko second, and then White third.

Altogether, LSU’s run defense ranks 27th in rushing marginal efficiency and 26th in explosiveness allowed.

Still, it’s not out of the question for the Gators to win the battle in the trenches. As noted above, it’s the linebacking corps and Delpit making most of the plays. The line ranks a respectable but far from elite 38th in stuff rate and 44th in standard down line yards allowed.

Meanwhile, Florida’s offensive line that many perceived to be a weakness early on, has actually become a strength.

The unit ranks 18th in standard down line yards per carry, 24th in percentage of carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 33rd in sack rate. Left tackle Martez Ivey is the only one who has allowed more than four combined pressures this season, and center Nick Buchanan and right tackle Jawaan Taylor have each allowed just two, and no sacks. Taylor has been a bit undisciplined, penalty-wise, but outside of that has been one of the more impressive blockers in the SEC.

These guys are a big reason why Florida ranks 26th in rushing marginal efficiency, and 34th in percentage of carries for 5+ yards. The running backs are more to blame for their ranking of 66 in marginal explosiveness. Lamical Perine has been the more efficient of the two, but neither he nor Jordan Scarlett have much playmaking ability at the second level. Freshman Dameon Pierce is the only healthy back on the roster that averages more than 4.5 extra yards per carry on such opportunities. He’s actually averaging more almost three times as many yards per second level carry. Suffice it to say, Malik Davis is sorely missed in the backfield.

As far as the passing game, similar to LSU, Florida does not lack for receivers. The question is always whether or not the guy behind center can get them the ball. To date, Feleipe Franks has done a better job of that than expected. With him taking the snaps, the Gators sit at 25th in passing marginal efficiency and 69th in explosiveness. However, while Burrow could blame at least a little bit of his poor completion rate on dropped balls, Franks can’t do that. Despite still holding a sub-60% completion percentage, Tyrie Cleveland is the only one of his six most targeted receivers to have dropped a pass. Then again, Scarlett and tight end C’yontai Lewis have dropped three apiece. In any case, Franks is still more accurate than he was, is taking better care of the ball, and at a certain point it’s hard to ask for much more than steady improvement.

Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain have been his most efficient weapons so far. Swain has been his most explosive, too, with an elite .98 marginal rating. As athletic as Florida’s weapons are, however, LSU’s are comparably so, probably more polished, and committed to limiting big plays. It is imperative that Franks be willing to stick to the shallow part of the field, work underneath, dink, dunk, and stay as patient as humanly possible.

LSU’s defense ranks 54th and 40th in success rate and marginal efficiency allowed, but 7th and 12th in IsoPPP and marginal explosiveness allowed. There going to make Florida earn every yard. That said, Florida’s offense ranks 32nd in success rate and 21st in marginal efficiency, as compared to 61st in IsoPPP and 76th in marginal explosiveness. Not from a talent standpoint, necessarily -- no one matches up well with LSU’s defense that favorably from that perspective -- but simply from a philosophical, stylistic standpoint, this is the sort of defense that Florida should, theoretically, be able to move the ball against. Obviously, the football savant known as Dave Aranda is likely to make some aggressive adjustments, but while Florida’s offense is not better than LSU’s defense, there is, on paper, at least some room to maneuver.

Both of these teams rank in the top 20 in combined special teams S&P+, LSU at #6, Florida at #16. Both placekickers have been pretty lights out. LSU should have the advantage on kickoffs, both there’s and Florida’s, but the Gators project to have an edge in the punt game, including returns.

Both of these teams have also, frankly, been super lucky this year as far as turnovers. LSU has an expected turnover margin of about +1. They’re +7. Florida’s expected margin is about +3. They’re +9. That’s a big reason that both of these teams are also in the top 15 in average starting field position.

There’s really just not a whole lot to separate these programs right now. One could simply look at the head coaches and note that Mullen is far more accomplished than Orgeron, but that superficial an observation lacks context. The only thing Coach O does close to as well as he does in a press conference is pay his coordinators. To say that Florida will be more well coached is disingenuous.

Home field advantage could factor in, but The Swamp hasn’t been THE SWAMP in quite a few years now. Perhaps that will start to change this weekend, but until it does that’s just conjecture.

Next level athletes. Elite special teams and defense. Overmatched offense. This is quintessential SEC football.

As evenly matched and overarchingly similar as these two are, if they switched jerseys at half time, no one would ever even know the difference.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP