GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — LSU and Florida were two of the more formidable defenses in the Southeastern Conference — and the country — the last five years.
They had NFL draft picks at nearly every position, highly touted underclassmen waiting in the wings and versatile schemes that proved to be too much for most opponents to handle. The Tigers and Gators ranked third and second, respectively, in the SEC (behind powerhouse Alabama) in total defense in three of the last four years.
Things sure have changed in 2014.
Both teams are having a difficult time equaling their recent defensive success. The Tigers gave up more than 1,100 yards in losses to Mississippi State and Auburn. The Gators were picked apart through the air by Kentucky and Alabama.
As strange as it has been to see LSU and Florida falter on defense, they might just look fairly stout when the Tigers (4-2, 0-2 SEC) and Gators (3-1, 2-1) play Saturday night at Florida Field. That’s because both teams have been even worse on offense.
“This defense has given great effort and energy, and they’re really making tackles,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “So if you want to see some really quality efforts, it’s there.”
The results were missing in the last two conference games.
Mississippi State gained 570 yards against the Tigers, and Auburn totaled 566. Quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Nick Marshall each passed for more than 200 yards and each ran for more than 100 yards.
Miles made a few personnel changes this week in hopes of finding a fix.
“We’re kind of all in agreement where we’re headed there, and I think it’s a very small shift,” Miles said. “But I don’t know that we’re going to toss anybody to the side and not count on them to be very significant as we go forward.”
Florida coach Will Muschamp already made a few defensive adjustments, and his unit played its best game since the season opener last week at Tennessee. The Gators gave up 233 yards in the 10-9 victory over the Volunteers.
Muschamp said both teams are dealing with ramifications of losing so many defensive players to the NFL in recent years. The Tigers had 14 defensive players drafted over the last three years, and the Gators had their best pass rusher and both starting cornerbacks leave school early after last season.
“You can’t recruit, in my opinion, to replace that that quickly,” Muschamp said. “It’s very difficult to overcome those, but nobody wants to hear that. At the end of the day, I can say it for Les. He can’t say it. It’s hard. It’s hard to replace that. It’s hard to recruit for that.”
Aside from defensive lapses, here are some things to know about the LSU and Florida matchup:
UNRANKED MATCHUP: Coming off a 41-7 loss at Auburn, LSU is unranked for the first time in six seasons and trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in league play since 1999. Florida also is out of the Top 25 poll, making Saturday’s game the first meeting since 1989 that both of these teams were unranked.
QB QUESTIONS: Florida’s quarterback situation is somewhat settled after a tumultuous week. Who LSU starts is still unclear. Florida’s Jeff Driskel was benched at Tennessee and looked like he might be demoted, but freshman Treon Harris was suspended indefinitely while authorities investigated sexual assault charges made against him. The woman withdrew her complaint Friday, but Harris is unlikely to play. So Driskel, who has regressed this season, is back in the spotlight. It’s unclear whether LSU will go with sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris, but both are likely to play.
JONES SLOWED: Florida running back Matt Jones, arguably the team’s most consistent player, has been slowed by a swollen left knee and could be limited. That could be a break for LSU, which has surrendered 600 yards on the ground in two conference games. With Jones hurting, the Gators expect sophomore Kelvin Taylor and freshman Brandon Powell to get more work.
HANDING OFF: The Tigers have been solid on the ground, averaging 211.5 yards rushing. Freshman Leonard Fournette leads the way with 364 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams also are averaging about 5 yards a carry. The fewest running plays LSU has called in a game this season is 35.
WORTON’S RESCUE? Florida’s offensive woes include Driskel’s poor decisions, some protection issues, repeated wrong routes and at least 15 dropped passes. The Gators are counting on freshman C.J. Worton to help. He missed the first four games with a broken hand, but will make his collegiate debut Saturday.