No. 5 LSU's high-octane attack awaits test vs. No. 7 Florida

Gators will enter Death Valley on Saturday night to face the Tigers

By Brett Martel, AP sports writer
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Left photo: Joe Burrow #9 of the LSU Tigers throws the ball during the first half against the Southeastern Louisiana Lions at Tiger Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Right photo:…

BATON ROUGE, La. - The grin on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow's face broadened as he was asked to consider how much the fifth-ranked Tiger's passing game had evolved since they lost at Florida one year ago.

"How long do you have? It's not the same offense,'' Burrow began. "We've put up the most points through five games in SEC history. We have explosive play makers all over the field.''

If Burrow has any doubters, they apparently don't set odds in Las Vegas. LSU (5-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) opened as a two-touchdown favorite over No. 7 Florida (6-0, 3-0), despite the fact that the Gators will enter Death Valley on Saturday night leading the nation in interceptions with 12 and leading the SEC in sacks with 26.

"They're the best defense we've played. It's not even close,'' Burrow said of the Gators. "They have first-round guys all around the field.''

The game presents a compelling test for the Tigers' new, up-tempo spread offense. While LSU averages SEC highs of 571 yards and 54.6 points, only one of its previous opponents -- Texas -- has been ranked this season.

Then again, LSU has played football for 126 years and its offense never has looked like this .

"They're looking at the players they have ... and what fits that talent,'' Florida second-year coach Dan Mullen said. "They have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it. They have great skill players in the perimeter and they have a veteran offensive line. In that case, why not spread her out and try to go score some points?'' 

LSU coach Ed Orgeron has talked of transforming the Tigers' attack since taking over in 2016. They'd begun passing more by last season, but Burrow said losses of 27-19 at Florida and 29-0 against Alabama "probably'' raised the urgency to move toward a more cutting-edge attack. Now running backs are as likely to catch a short pass out of the backfield as get a handoff and Burrow routinely has four receiving targets on the line of scrimmage.

"Watching all the offenses around the country, we needed to make a change,'' Burrow said. "We weren't going to be able to compete for SEC titles, national championships, if we didn't.''

It helped that LSU had a tall, athletic, accurate passer with tons of experience. Burrow spent three years at Ohio State before moving to LSU as a graduate transfer in 2018. Burrow's leadership and advanced understanding of football schemes as a college defensive coordinator's son made him an ideal candidate to drive the transformation.

"They trust me enough to put my ideas in the game plan,'' Burrow said. "They trust me enough to make checks at the line. So I've kind of evolved into a line-of-scrimmage quarterback.''

Here are some other prime story lines in this top-10 matchup:

Historical animosity 

Burrow sees Florida as LSU's chief rival, even though the Tigers annually play for the "Golden Boot'' with Arkansas, meet Mississippi in the "Magnolia Bowl'' and have had numerous high-stakes encounters with Alabama. 

"I don't like `em very much. I know they don't like us very much, and that's kind of been the talk around here,'' Burrow said of the Gators. "You just kind of have to keep your emotions in check in a game like this.''

LSU outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson questioned Florida's character, mentioning video he's seen on social media of ``their guys punching our guys after the plays.''

"I've just observed things that don't need to be happening,'' he said. "So, we just know how things are going to go.''

Defensive reinforcements

The Gators are expected to be at full strength on defense, while LSU's health also appears to be improving on that side of the ball.

Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga is scheduled to return after missing the last three games with a sprained left ankle. Zuniga suited up last week, but didn't play against Auburn. Mullen said they preferred to give him another week to heal. The senior has 18 1/2 sacks in 39 games.

LSU expects to have defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence and pass-rushing linebacker Michael Divinity back after Chaisson returned last week.

Running Gators

While Florida quarterback Kyle Trask could be affected by a left knee injury that he played through last weekend, LSU's Orgeron said he remains focused on containing a Gators ground game led by Lamical Perine, who has rushed for 327 yards and four touchdowns and had an 88-yard TD against Auburn .

"Florida has run the ball on us the last two years very, very well,'' Orgeron said. "My biggest concern right now is stopping the run.''

High stakes

This matchup at the season's half-way point will give the winner more credibility as a contender for a College Football Playoff bid.

"Those first five games were nice to kind of get our confidence going, but this when the real season starts,'' Burrow said. "I don't need any more motivation than a night game, 5 vs. 7, to kind of propel yourself into the national title conversation.''

 

AP Sports Writer Mark Long contributed from Gainesville, Florida.

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