No. 6 Florida fell 37-34 to unranked LSU on Saturday night in foggy Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Gators kicker Evan McPherson missed a 51-yard field goal as time expired to send his team to their second loss of the season, knocking them out of contention for the College Football Playoff. McPherson’s miss came shortly after Tigers kicker Cade York hit a 57-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the game to give LSU a late lead and its biggest victory of the season.
Florida has nobody to blame but itself. The Gators appeared to have stopped LSU with just over 2 minutes to go, but fourth-year cornerback Marco Wilson was popped for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for throwing LSU tight end Kole Taylor’s shoe 20 yards downfield after a third-and-10 stop that would have gotten Florida the ball back. That allowed freshman quarterback Max Johnson to lead his team on a nine-play, 36-yard drive that put York in field goal range.
LSU was up 24-17 at halftime, but Florida came out of the locker room on a mission. Heisman Trophy hopeful Kyle Trask led his offense down the field on a four-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with Trask going over the top for his second touchdown run of the day. The Gators came right back and put together a five-play, 81-yard drive ended with a 9-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen from Trask to Kadarius Toney to give the Gators the 31-27 lead.
The third quarter surge came after a lackluster half for Florida. Trask threw a pick six to Eli Ricks, a red zone interception to Jay Ward and fumbled late in the first half (which resulted in a field goal) to thwart what should have been a 2-minute drive. Johnson, making his first career start, completed 21 of his 36 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the best showing of his young career.
LSU started the game with just 54 scholarship players. It played without star cornerback Derek Stingley and lost multiple players to injuries throughout the game. That lack of depth showed at times. Florida did play without star tight end Kyle Pitts, but he was not the lone reason it lost on Saturday night.
Here are four key takeaways from the stunner in The Swamp.
1. It was more than the fog
The thick fog that rolled into The Swamp in the second half had a massive impact on the game. The Gators high-flying aerial attack was neutralized due to the poor visibility and inability to stretch the field. Florida’s problem was bigger than Mother Nature, though. The Gators entered the game 11th in the SEC in rushing (126.22) and eighth in rushing yards per play (4.12). The best way to navigate through the fog is by keeping the ball on the ground, and Florida simply couldn’t do that. LSU’s defensive backfield was especially hard hit by injuries and lack of player availability, but the lack of a passing threat allowed defensive coordinator Bo Pelini to sell out against the run in the fourth quarter. The Gators have been one-dimensional all season, and it came back to bite them in a big way on Saturday night in a game that will go down as one of the biggest upsets of the season.
2. Dan Mullen’s arrogance was costly
Florida’s third-year coach told the ESPN production crew in their Friday meeting that he felt the Gators would get into the College Football Playoff even if it lost to LSU as long as it beats No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. I’m not so sure about that. The CFP Selection Committee is not going to view a loss to a sub-.500 LSU team fondly at all.
There are so many scenarios that would prevent this from happening. If Clemson beats Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game, both will be in. An undefeated Ohio State team would also be in. Would a two-loss Florida SEC champion get in over a one-loss Texas A&M team that not only beat Florida straight up but missed out on the SEC Championship Game because of its place in the SEC West?
My biggest issue with Mullen is that he had this mindset at all. Even if he truly feels this way, he has to know that the margin for error is razor thin. If he didn’t realize this, he’s incredibly naive. What’s more, that attitude will (and did) permeate through the football program whether the coaches act that way publicly or not. It’s arrogance, plain and simple.
3. Trask did NOT cost himself the Heisman
The narrative after this game will not only be the Florida is out of the CFP chase, but that Trask’s chances of winning the Heisman Trophy disappeared in the Saturday night fog. That’s not the case. Well, not yet anyway. He completed 29 of 47 passes for 474 yards and two touchdowns. The two interceptions hurt, but he’s the primary reason why his team had a chance, much less stayed in the game for a full four quarters. He has his chance for a Heisman moment in the SEC Championship Game against No. 1 Alabama. That’s easier said than done, of course. But an upset over Alabama will be a great final act in his record-setting story.
That wouldn’t pack the same punch as it would have if the conference title game served as a play-in game for the CFP. A lot of voters are prisoners of the moment, though. Ballots are due Dec. 21 — two days after the season ends. Will an upset have an impact — especially if Trask has another 400-yard performance? Of course. Trask still has a chance to put on that glass slipper.
4. The QB battle is on in Baton Rouge
It’s been a lost season for LSU, but coach Ed Orgeron found a budding superstar under center. Johnson stabilized an offense that fell off of a cliff after Myles Brennan went down with a season-ending injury in early October. Orgeron bounced between Johnson and fellow true freshman TJ Finley for the last five games, but Johnson was in complete control in the upset win over the Gators. He was 12 of 19 for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, shocking a Gators team that was as flat as a three-week-old soda in the hot Florida sun.
Now, what? Brennan isn’t going to get “Wally Pipp’d” and lose his job due to injury. After all, he threw for 1,112 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions in three games this season. This is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark season.
There is too much talent on LSU’s roster to be mediocre for two straight years. Orgeron now has the foundation to build back the culture of competition that he needs to get this program back to a championship level. National titles are won in the offseason just as much as they are during the regular season. A battle at the quarterback position between two potential stars has a tendency to filter through the locker room and make the entire program better.
LSU wants that. LSU needs that. Johnson and Brennan have created that.