LSU, Florida, with reversed identities, meet in crucial SEC clash

Florida coach Will Muschamp was determined to develop a tough, physical team that could go toe to toe with Southeastern Conference heavyweights LSU and Alabama.

He got just what he was looking for when the Gators outmuscled the Tigers 14-6 last season in Gainesville, Fla.

No. 17 Florida has continued on the path Muschamp embarked on two years ago and arrives in Tiger Stadium for Saturday’s rematch against 10th-ranked LSU with the No. 1 defense in the SEC.

But a funny thing happened along the way — the Tigers discovered a passing game, in fact the top-rated one in the SEC.

“It’s crazy how much things have changed in just a year,” LSU guard Trai Turner said.

Physical, defense-oriented Gators vs. pass-happy Tigers? What in the name of Tim Tebow and Glenn Dorsey is going on around here?

“Based on history, the tables have turned a little bit,” LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow said.

It’s not that Florida (4-1, 3-0 SEC) hasn’t played good defense before or LSU (5-1, 2-1) hasn’t thrown the ball well before. It’s that both teams now have an identity that has been more characteristic of the other in recent seasons.

“This year has changed completely for us as an offense,” LSU running back Jeremy Hill said. “I think we’ve progressed so much more than what we were expecting.”

This will be their toughest test so far as the Gators have the No. 2 run defense and No. 5 pass defense in the country and they have held their past 12 SEC opponents to 20 or fewer points.

“The thing that’s impressed me the most is how aggressively they play the run and how well they tackle in close space,” Hill said.

The Tigers have done just fine on third downs of all distances, leading the SEC with a conversion percentage of 58.3. Zach Mettenberger is the most efficient passer in the conference.

“Zach Mettenberger is so efficient and effective throwing the vertical balls down the field,” Muschamp said. “I think they’re doing what they’ve got to do to win football games, and obviously they have a strength at wideout and at the quarterback position.

“You have to try and make this a one-dimensional game as best you can and understand they’re very effective at throwing the football, and that’s where they’ve hurt some people.”

Mettenberger has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the past two games, which has happened only three other times in school history.

Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. have been the nation’s most productive receiving tandem (77 receptions, 1,302 yards, 13 touchdowns). They and Kadron Boone have caught all 15 of Mettenberger’s TD passes.

“Everybody in America knows about our running game,” Boone said. “We just felt like nobody respected our passing game. I’ve been here for four years now, and coming into games we just knew that teams were going to try and take away the running game and try to make us pass.

“Now, we feel like we’re putting defenses in a situation where they don’t know what they want to do, because we’re passing the ball efficiently and we have great running backs and you can see once they get started they’re hard to stop. Keeping defensive coordinators on their toes is our main goal as an offense.”

LSU has kept its own defensive coordinator, John Chavis, on his toes the past two weeks after a 44-41 loss at Georgia two weeks ago and a 59-26 win at Mississippi State that was a wild 28-23 at halftime.

“Our defense is ready to come out and make a statement,” Barrow said. “We still have a lot to prove to ourselves and to the fan base and to the rest of the country.”

One thing that’s familiar about this matchup is these teams are meeting as ranked teams for the 10th consecutive season.

“This is almost like an elimination game,” Barrow said. “We’re fighting for our lives. We can’t afford another loss.”