GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida has bragged about its offensive line for months.
The 10th-ranked Gators have repeatedly called the unit the strength of the team, a group of guys who have made steady improvement since spring practice in March.
They’re supposedly bigger, stronger and more experienced — and the main reason Florida’s offense has made strides in coach Will Muschamp’s second season.
How the line performs against No. 4 LSU on Saturday will either validate or negate all that chatter.
“You go block this front you’ve done something,” Muschamp said. “They’re very good. They’ve recruited well. They’ve got depth. They’re big, fast and physical.”
Defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are widely considered among the top pass rushers in the country, and mammoth defensive tackles Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson make it difficult for opponents to get much going up the middle. Together, they’re a big reason the Tigers (5-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) rank fourth in the country in total defense.
The Gators (4-0, 3-0) know they will have their hands full Saturday.
They also believe they’re up for the challenge.
“Yes, we’re going against some better athletes,” center Jon Harrison said. “But we’ve come a far ways from last year. We’re more meshed as a unit. We’ve been working this whole offseason for a situation like this.”
Florida’s offensive line certainly has progressed from last season.
The Gators were mostly mediocre up front in 2011, failing to consistently open holes for the running game and giving up almost as many sacks (23) as the offense scored touchdowns (30).
Things reached a low in late November when Muschamp called his team soft — clearly taking a shot at the O-line — following an embarrassing loss to rival Florida State.
The Gators finished 7-6, barely avoiding the program’s first losing season since 1979 and prompting some major offseason changes aimed at rebuilding the trenches.
Muschamp hired offensive line coach Tim Davis to replace Frank Verducci, who followed former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Kansas, and completely revamped the team’s weight-lifting program in hopes of getting bulkier and brawnier linemen.
Through four games, the line has looked considerably better.
The Gators are averaging nearly 225 yards rushing a game, and that includes three games against conference opponents.
Senior Mike Gillislee ranks second in the league in rushing, averaging a little more than 100 yards a game and giving Florida a more versatile ground attack than diminutive backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps did the last two years.
Although Jeff Driskel has been sacked 12 times, eight of them came at Texas A&M and most of those were the quarterback’s fault and not on the line.
But LSU will provide the ultimate measuring stick.
“It’s not that maybe they’re sacking you all the time, but it’s just moving you around in the pocket,” Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “When you start having to move, your eyes become different as a quarterback on where you’re trying to focus and throwing on time and rhythm. It’s disruptive.”
To counter LSU’s front, Pease plans to move Driskel.
“They got speed on the edges and power in the middle,” Pease said.
“You can’t just sit back there and expect to pass the ball every play. So you got to kind of move him around. You got sprint out. You got to roll him a little bit. You got to kind of change where he’s going to be so they can’t zero in.”
The Tigers dominated last year’s meeting in Baton Rouge, holding Florida to 213 yards, getting a sack, intercepting two passes by freshman Jacoby Brissett and winning 41-11.
The Gators failed to sustain drives and didn’t get much going on the ground until the game was out of reach. If things are going to be any different Saturday, Florida’s offensive line could be the key.
“They’re way more physical,” Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter said of his teammates across the line. “They come off the ball and they will hit you. They will definitely hit you. I think they’ll match up pretty well.
“LSU has a great defensive line. Our offensive line has been prepared well and they’re really ready for this game.”
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