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The Great Debate: Florida vs. LSU

Before the real main event takes place Wednesday evening between the Democratic and Republican Presidential nominees, with a tip of our cap to USA Today political pundits Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel, Inside the Gators staffers Bryan Holt and Jesse Simonton go back and forth trading barbs, insults and observations about this weekend's Florida vs. LSU match-up.
Bryan: The Swamp hosts its first top-10 match-up in six years Saturday afternoon, and Florida fans should feel confident about their team's chances. Like so many SEC games, this entire contest boils down to two things: Can Florida stop LSU's run game while establishing a run game of its own? It's a tall task. Despite injuries, the Tigers still have the No. 2 rushing attack in the conference. Defensively, LSU touts a line similar to the one that dominated Florida in every way possible last season. But this Florida team is different, led by a more mature and Dan Wenger-free offensive line, a physical rushing attack and a deeper front seven that won't wear down as the game goes on. The Gators are tailored to do the things they couldn't do last season and it will show Saturday.
Jesse: It's quite humorous, really. Three weeks ago, national pundits pegged LSU, along with Alabama, as the nation's elite. Florida, meanwhile, was viewed as little more than a scrappy up-and-comer with questionable talent. Man how things have changed following two pedestrian performances by the Tigers. The Gators drop Texas A&M and Roberto Duran'd Tennessee, and suddenly their flaws disappeared. Has quarterback Jeff Driskel exceeded early expectations? Absolutely. Are the second-half comebacks striking? Totally. Is this a better team the 2011 bunch? Definitely. But none of that means they'll win on Saturday. Competitive and impressive are not synonymous. Florida may be the "hot" team right now, but I'm just not sure this Dan Wenger-less line is actually as improved as people presume. The one stout pass-rushing front UF faced sacked Driskel eight times. Oh, and don't discount all the penalties. Somehow an LSU team with more NFL-caliber defensive talent than any team in the country is being slept on.
Bryan: No one is sleeping on LSU's defense. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks the Gators are going to pick apart the Tigers, and you're certainly not going to find that person right here. Florida doesn't need some Geno Smith/Arena Ball offensive explosion to win this game. This biggest difference in this game is Florida's defense. The winning team in Saturday's game will have less than 30 points, and the Gators are more than capable of riding Mike Gillislee and timely play-action fakes to a 20-something-point outing. Meanwhile, the Tigers sport a battered offense, missing a future NFL left tackle, a starting running back and possibly a top-notch fullback. If the run game can't overcome that, it's up to quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who could be less welcome in Baton Rouge than he is in Valdosta bars if he doesn't make big strides soon.
Jesse: Mettenberger is a legitimate concern, but mostly because there hasn't been that much phony hype since Facebook's IPO. LSU didn't have dominant quarterback play a season ago, yet they were able to ride the poo-poo platter of Lee & Jefferson to the national championship game. The Tigers' run game remains potent, even without fullback J.C. Copeland. Although their line has struggled in pass protection, their quartet of tailbacks still has had plenty of room to maneuver. Piggybacking that, how will the Gators defend a run-heavy offense this season? Florida's been tested in many ways early, but facing a two-back, power team isn't one of them. In 2011, the Gators gave up a combined 931 rushing yards to Alabama (245), LSU (253), UGA (207) and South Carolina (226) -- or 54 percent of its rushing yards allowed all season. UF's front is much deeper in 2012, but you can you say unknowns don't exist? Also, check out this quote from Charlie Weis the week of the Alabama game, and remember, the Gators' offense was riding high after thumping UK: "The reason we have a chance every week is because those offensive linemen are very close-knit." Wow. Sound familiar?
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Bryan: Unknowns do exist, but you can't just assume unknowns are going to translate into mass failure. The truth is, we have seen Florida's base 4-3 defense about as much as Gillislee -- the team's star player -- has talked to the media this season. We're going to see a heavy dose of it for the first time this Saturday and that will showcase maybe the most improved unit on this team -- the linebackers. The Gators have seldom used a weakside linebacker, but Neiron Ball has been quietly solid on the snaps he has played. With Ball, Jonathan Bostic, Antonio Morrison, Jelani Jenkins and -- to a lesser extent - Michael Taylor, Florida has solid 'backer options to throw at the quartet-turned-trio of LSU running backs. Hell, they could even put Lerentee McCray at Will and rotate Jonathan Bullard, Dante Fowler Jr., an improved Earl Okine and others at end to make the front seven just as versatile as LSU's run game. Not even half of these options were there last year.
Jesse: Solid point -- and that's despite you glossing over the offensive line shot. Uncertainty does not guarantee failure, but that wasn't the insinuation. The question is simply can Florida's front-seven do what they couldn't a season ago? We just don't know yet either way. You're absolutely right that UF's pool of defensive talent has expanded -- although I think the line's play, and not the linebackers, is the most improved/impressive. At this stage of the season, Leon Orr, Okine and Bullard are far more certainties than Ball or Darrin Kitchens. In truth, it doesn't matter how many guys the Gators rotate if they don't tackle well -- and the same can be said for LSU's ridiculous front too. In three conference games, UF has missed 21 tackles. Along with a lack of on-field discipline, tackling has been a deficiency that's plagued Florida for two seasons. If the problem persists against the Tigers, we won't even worry about not seeing Mr. Gillislee after the game because he won't be on the field enough.
Bryan: I learn from the best, Simonton. In honor of tonight's presidential debate, I am completely ignoring things I don't want to talk about. Tackling is indeed the wild card here, you're right. If Florida doesn't correct its tackling issues, it will lose and lose badly. In other news, Florida will not win if the entire team pulls a Carlos Dunlap the night before the game this week. The Gators' tackling has been effective when they have needed it to be, and quicker defenders on the edge make the possibility of Marcus Roberson looking Ware in the eyes and wetting himself less likely. Discipline is key, too. Florida can't be as [tries to be nice ... can't] ridiculously idiotic as it was in the first half against Texas A&M and Tennessee and survive an early rush from LSU. It's at this point that one has to put a little blind faith in this staff to rip the heads off players for stupid mistakes. I'll give them the benefit of understanding the enormity of this game and say the second-half Gators from early this season will play a full game this Saturday.
Jesse: Avoiding Modern Age for the next six weeks would definitely be a wise decision. But this team just isn't quite ready. Maybe in three or four weeks it will be, but today we're talking about Oct. 6, not the 26th. LSU is going to be a motivated bunch, a scary proposition considering Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Anthony Johnson are some of the preeminent players in the country. I believe urgency will ultimately reign. Driskel has dazzled, but he's yet to face a defense half as imposing. Inexperience remains an issue he can only curb over time. There's also some subtle, underlining déjà vu reemerging as well. Check the clips before the Alabama game last season, Florida was darn confident then too. Now I don't believe UF is going to get embarrassingly smacked in the mouth this Saturday, but if the Tigers can avoid their recent turnover hiccups, I just don't see the Gators overcoming their offensive line inconsistencies or senseless discipline mindfarts to beat a legitimate championship contender. People are sleeping on Les' Tigers, and I wouldn't do that.
Bryan: Alright, it's prediction time. Florida will win Saturday's game 24-20. Yes, it would be an upset. Yes, saying that is putting confidence in at least a couple of unknowns with this team, but the vibe around BHG is much different than it was last year. To go back to your Charlie Weis point, coaches say stuff like that every year. The team is always closer and better and hungrier than the year before. I'm talking about all of this from what I have seen, not from what I have been fed in a stuffy press conference. LSU's offense is not what it was last season, and that can be attributed partially to injuries and partially to college football being weird. Mix that with an improved Florida defense, and this could only be the third biggest challenge the Gators will have this month. The other side of the ball is another story, but Gillislee is exponentially more equipped to play against the Tigers than Chris Rainey or Jeff Demps were. Florida will do just enough to win, aided by its defense taking advantage of some mistake that Mettenberger will inevitably make. Now it's your turn to piss everybody off, Corso.
Jesse: So you're saying it's not about the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmy's and Joe's? Oh, wait, I'm playing Corso here. Never mind. Yes, I think LSU will trump Florida. The Gators have struck lightening in the second half of ball games, but we haven't seen a complete contest yet. Maybe it's Saturday, I just need to see it, before I believe it. LSU's special teams and ball security aren't what they were a season ago. Mettenberger's got a gun, but so did the Storm troopers. There's injury alarms, but at some point, this loaded Tigers team has become underrated; Truly hard to believe. Florida's win over Texas A&M looks better by the week, but so does LSU's beat down over Washington. Really, I just think LSU's talent, depth and physicality up front will triumph. It's disconcerting for the Gators they're contemplating a change at left tackle the week they face two bookend first rounder's. How healthy is Chaz Green? It'll be close, something like 24-16, but the Tigers will leave Gainesville undefeated.