The Florida Gators travel west to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to battle the Louisiana State Tigers in Death Valley. I asked Jared Brodtmann, beat reporter for LSU’s student newspaper, The Reveille, some questions before Saturday’s rivalry matchup to provide a better picture of the Tigers’ team.
Obviously, this LSU team has struggled quite a bit over the first half of this season. What do you think the biggest reason for the poor performance is and how do the Tigers turn it around?
Brodtmann: If you can look past the Kentucky game, where the defensive front was completely outmatched by the Wildcats’ hulking offensive line and phenomenal run game, the LSU defense has not been catastrophically bad. They put together a great performance against Auburn at home, where Bo Nix got the best of them at the right moments in the end, but LSU held them to 24 points. They have their rare miscommunication issues in coverage, but new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones has improved from the abysmal performances of last year.
The biggest problem for LSU, and one that has shown no signs of improving through six games, is the offensive line. Ed Orgeron made it publicly known how badly he wanted to bring back all five of his starting offensive linemen from last year, and he succeeded in that goal. However, they have been nothing short of awful. The rumors of Max Johnson having no time to throw that emerged from fall camp proved to be true, and even worse for the Tigers, they cannot get a run game established. Orgeron fired offensive line coach James Cregg in June and hired Brad Davis to take over, but not much change has been seen on the field.
Somehow, LSU has to find a way to get their line working cohesively, because their offense’s ability to put together drives and score at the level needed to win depends on it.
Is Coach O on the hot seat? If so, what does he have to prove over the second half of the season to remain as head coach of the Tigers?
Brodtmann: The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer could be made into an ESPN 30-for-30 about how this era of LSU football both rose and fell so quickly.
With the talent and resources LSU has, the good will built up by the magical 2019 run has run out. LSU has nothing but difficult matchups ahead of them, so things could unravel very quickly if the current trend continues. Press conferences this week have been intense, with Orgeron stating that he has not been informed that his job status is in peril, but the writing is on the wall for the program. I think it’s overwhelmingly favored that he will be fired at least at the end of the season, if not sooner.
The SEC did LSU no favors with its schedule the rest of the way, facing five ranked opponents in the next six weeks after playing back-to-back ranked teams the last two weeks. If you had to predict this team’s record right now, what would it be and why?
Brodtmann: In better news, the Tigers still have a game against ULM, so the team should be good for one more win!
Beyond that? I’m not sure. At the beginning of the year, Arkansas was looked at as a game to win at home, but with the injuries and underperformances for the team as well as the tremendous job Sam Pittman has done at getting his team to progress, I would be surprised if LSU is favored in that game.
There’s five more SEC games on the schedule: Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M at home, and Ole Miss and Alabama on the road. I think LSU will manage to win one of the home games (if I had to pick, most likely Arkansas), but that would be it. That adds up to 5-7, missing bowl season. Yikes.
How would you describe Max Johnson’s performance so far this season? Where do you think his ceiling is?
Brodtmann: Johnson is a talented quarterback. QB mobility is no longer an advantage in the conference anymore; it is a requirement, and Johnson’s best moments are when he’s extending plays with his legs and finding his athletes in space. He has the tendency to underthrow deep balls, which I would say is his weakest attribute, but he’s intelligent, competitive, and a solid quarterback that serves LSU’s offense well. If he can find more consistency with his accuracy, both on short and deep throws, he can be more than an average SEC quarterback for the future.
I think his ceiling is capped by the offensive line play right now, but he has the potential to be a three-year starter if he can hold off the other talented quarterbacks. Garrett Nussmeier is waiting for a chance behind him with a huge arm, and the No. 1 Pro QB in the class of 2022, Walker Howard, is set to enroll early and get started this winter with the team. The ensuing quarterback battle between the three will be fascinating.
This team has been ravaged by injuries, specifically in the secondary. How does LSU overcome these injuries Saturday against the Gators?
Brodtmann: Ugh, the injuries. While not the end-all be-all cause of LSU’s problems, it definitely has not helped. Just to list the few players who have been injured for the year/long period of time:
LB Jared Small
QB Myles Brennan
DE Andre Anthony
CB Derek Stingley
WR Kayshon Boutte
CB Eli Ricks
DE Ali Gaye
That’s not mentioning the numerous players who have had to deal with nagging, week-to-week injuries and have missed games. The ailments have been staggering.
The secondary in particular will have its struggles, as LSU is somewhat thin at the position group. However, perhaps the brightest spot of LSU’s defense this season has been the development of Cordale Flott. Flott played on the 2019 team as a freshman and has grown into an impact defensive player in his junior year. He’s forced fumbles, interceptions, and big tackles when LSU has needed it the most this year. With Stingley and Ricks patrolling the outside before, Flott was mainly playing in the nickel position. Now with the injuries, he will move to the number one outside position. Freshman Sage Ryan will have to step up in the cornerback room too.
In truthfulness, it’s going to be difficult for a team with so many injuries and outside noise to overcome and win at home. Holding Florida to 350 yards of offense should be a reasonable goal.
What effect do you think the LSU fans at Tiger Stadium will have on Florida? This is a team that had 115 penalty yards in its loss to Kentucky at Kroger Field. Can the Tiger fans rattle Emory Jones and the Florida offense?
Brodtmann: I don’t believe so. At 11 A.M., in a disappointing season, where LSU will not be favored, I don’t expect the normal Tiger Stadium to be present when so many already assume Orgeron will be fired and the season will end mercifully. The students and die-hards will go and be loud, but I don’t see it being something Florida, a veteran SEC team, can’t handle.
Who is the X-Factor on offense for the Tigers? Defense?
Brodtmann: Before last week, the offense was Kayshon Boutte’s world. He was the engine that made LSU go and was on pace to contest for DeVonta Smith’s SEC single-season touchdown record. He has now been ruled out for the remainder of the season, a devastating blow to the sputtering offense. Now, other receivers will have to step up, and I project the most involved to be Jack Bech.
Bech, a freshman, has been Johnson’s second favorite target this year behind Boutte, tallying 22 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown. He is most dangerous in the middle of the field, where he tends to be overlooked by coverages as he winds through the defense with crossing and stick routes. I think if LSU is going to move the chains on Saturday, Bech will be the most frequent one to do so.
Defensively, I’ll pick Damone Clark. After a subpar 2020 season, the senior linebacker has rebounded with force this year as LSU’s clear leading tackler. The box-to-box linebacker the team was missing last year has re-emerged in Clark, with 68 total tackles on the season, leading the SEC and ranking second in the nation. He’s been a relentless pursuer of the ball, and the captain of the defense, representing the treasured #18 jersey. The defense should go as he does.
Who is one player Florida fans should keep an eye on entering Saturday, whether for their play or their story?
Brodtmann: This FEELS like a cop-out, but it really isn’t. Cade York.
He may be the best kicker in the country, and Florida knows all too well how good he is after draining the game-winning kick in the fog last year. He was the preseason All-American kicker this season and hasn’t missed yet. In his next chapter against the Gators, keep an eye on him if he gets a chance to sneak in and stick a dagger in visiting Florida, because college football knows he’s good for it. He’s LSU's most NFL-ready player!
Game and score prediction
Brodtmann: Despite Cade York’s greatness both on the field with his kicking and off the field with his Velveeta NIL commercials, LSU will be overmatched in this game. I expect Florida’s run game to keep LSU’s defense honest, and with the emaciated secondary, Emory Jones will have plenty of opportunities to make throws. Florida always knows how to get after the quarterback with strong pass rushing, and Zachary Carter, the SEC’s leader in sacks, will lead the Gators right into the backfield where they will feast. I think Florida will win and cover.
Florida 38, LSU 16
Contact Michael Hull at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.
Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer.