Week 7 is here and stacked with some eye-popping matchups that will hold great weight on the potential playoff picture.
First, there’s Michigan, ranked 12th in the AP poll after destroying Northwestern for their third shutout in a row, who hosts their undefeated rival, No. 7 Michigan State.
Also, a dangerous undefeated Texas A&M team, ranked 9th in the AP poll, hosts No. 10 Alabama at Kyle Field, looking to become a viable contender for the SEC West title; however, there’s another SEC matchup on Saturday that I have my eye on after this week’s off-the-field theatrics. I’m taking a trip down to—the real Death Valley?—where we will see a cross-conference battle between two undefeated teams: No. 8 Florida and No. 6 LSU.
Florida, coming off of a convincing 21-3 win against Missouri, are ranked 8th in the AP poll, moving up three spots from last week. After a weekend that ended on a high note for first year head coach Jim McElwain and his Gators, Monday morning their party balloons were popped as Florida announced that their starting quarterback, redshirt freshman Will Grier, had been suspended for the remainder of the 2015 season after testing positive for PEDs when drug-tested.
The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Gators. This week, they face arguably their toughest opponent to date in Baton Rouge.
Florida is undefeated and the front-runner to represent the East at the SEC Championship in Atlanta this December. Grier, who has played in every contest this season and has started every game since week two against East Carolina, had risen as a leader for the Gators, carrying the team in an epic comeback victory over Tennessee.
Now, McElwain will have to hand over the keys to the offense back to sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, who hasn’t played since week two and has been suspended once already this year.
LSU comes into this week ready to host the Gators after a 45-24 win over a weak South Carolina team. The Tigers are ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, moving up one spot after Michigan State dropped for struggling in their win over Rutgers.
This year, LSU is riding the success of their work horse and potential Heisman Trophy winner, sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. Through five games, Fournette has 1,022 rushing yards, leading the nation in almost all rushing categories.
Some analysts predict that the running back’s dominance can’t possibly continue at the current rate he’s going, but anything is possible.
The Tiger’s defense took a big hit after suffering a big loss in the offseason this summer after long-time defensive coordinator John Chavis left for the same position at SEC West rival Texas A&M. Although LSU lost their most important key to their success, head coach Les Miles and his Tigers have continued to get the job done under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and iconic defensive line coach Ed Orgeron.
Keys to the Game
Replacing Will Grier
Coming into the week, I never would have guessed that replacing Will Grier would be a key to the game.
McElwain is a proven quarterback specialist, after coaching average quarterbacks at Alabama to multiple national titles and Garrett Grayson, who was selected in the NFL Draft, at Colorado State last year. He knows how to turn nothing into something and put his guy in position to succeed.
Treon Harris started several games last season and came into this year with a legitimate chance to be the starter before Grier set himself apart in week two against ECU and then was suspended in week three.
Harris has shown he is capable of making the throws, but since being sidelined, the chemistry will have to be rekindled before Saturday. Harris is also a dangerous threat with his legs, which adds another wrinkle to Florida’s offense to help put him in the right situation to lead the Gators to a victory.
Balanced LSU Offense
For LSU, balance on the offensive side of the football is vital to their success as they get deeper into their tough SEC slate of games. If they want to keep making Fournette big holes to run through and continue to run down opponents’ throats, the Tigers must start incorporating sophomore Brandon Harris into their game-plan.
If the Tigers fail to play with balance, they could find themselves upset at the end of the night.
Force QB Mistakes
The two defenses coming into this game aren’t the best statistically, but every elite SEC defense seems to know how to contain the run and force turnovers.
Saturday night, the difference in the game is going to be which defense forces the opposing quarterback to make the most mistakes. I don’t expect either offense to play mistake free, so whichever quarterback can manage their offense and limit their mistakes will get the victory.
Players to Watch
Brandon Harris, LSU Sophomore Quarterback
The Tigers, as well as the rest of the country, know that Leonard Fournette can’t keep carrying the team on his back week-in and week-out all alone. Against a Gator defense that has the ability to slow down the run, LSU will have to put more faith in Harris to pull out a victory over Florida.
Even though he hasn’t had to throw the ball down field all season with the game on the line, Harris has showed to be an efficient game-manager, throwing 610 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. A quarterback that doesn’t make mistakes and puts his team in position to win every game is nice to have, but this week Harris will have to show off his arm a little bit more.
Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida Junior Cornerback
It isn’t very often that I will make a defensive player a player to watch, but if you’ve ever seen Hargreaves play, you understand why. The Gators have the definition of a lock-down corner in their junior leader. Hargreaves has tremendous talent and is a proven difference-maker, already recording three interceptions this season, matching his single-season total, and 19 tackles in only five games played this year.
The Tampa native is the top defensive back prospect for the NFL Draft this year and will have to continue to play at that level for the Gators to get a win in Tiger Stadium.
As I’m writing, the line is at LSU -6.5, but before Florida’s Will Grier was ruled out for the rest of the year, I was slightly leaning towards the Gators to win this game.
Tiger Stadium is proven to be one of the toughest environments in the nation to come out on top. On a crisp Saturday night, Death Valley is never a place that an SEC team wants to be scheduled, but don’t think the Gators won’t come ready to play.
Florida will slow down the monster in Leonard Fournette, but LSU will be ready with a game plan to counter the Gators attempt to stop the run and let Brandon Harris throw over the top. This will be a back and forth football game, no doubt, but in the end, the loss of Will Grier will prove to be too important as McElwain’s offense will struggle. After all, Death Valley is ‘where dreams come to die’.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports