The No. 4/3 LSU Tigers are undefeated on the 2012 campaign, hold a two-game winning streak in the annual series and boast an 18-game regular season winning streak, all of which will be on the line Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when they are visit the No. 10/11 Florida Gators.
Yet while LSU has gotten the best of Florida in each of the last two meetings – fighting hard for a 33-29 victory in The Swamp in 2010 before thrashing UF 41-11 in Baton Rouge, LA last season – Gators head coach Will Muschamp still sees Saturday’s showdown as simply his team’s next against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
“This counts as one game,” he said Monday during his weekly press conference. “It doesn’t count any more than that. They’ve got a good football team, certainly a team that we’re looking forward to playing. We got a great opportunity sitting in front of us here at our home stadium at 3:30 p.m. That’s the way I look at it.”
The opportunities Florida is faced with include legitimizing its top-10 national ranking, earning the team’s first victory against a top-five team in the regular season since Oct. 10, 2009, and taking back The Swamp by defeating a rival with an above- .500 record at home for the first time since Nov. 28, 2009 (Florida State).
Accomplishing those feats on Saturday will be a tough task for the Gators, especially considering how talented the Tigers are on offense, defense and special teams.
“The thing that jumps off the film at you, as every year with LSU, is the physicality of their football team in all three phases and how they play the game,” Muschamp said. “They’ve got an outstanding staff and some really good football players.”
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Where Florida must find success early and often is with its offensive line, a unit that is much improved from a year ago but has yet to face a defensive front seven as ferocious as the one it will this weekend.
“If you block this front, you’ve done something,” Muschamp said. “They’re very good. They’ve recruited well. They’ve got depth. They’re big, fast and physical. There’s no question, if you’re able to put a hat on this group and get some movement [it would be an accomplishment].
“Being able to run the ball consistently is going to be key in the game. You can’t get into a one-dimensional game against these guys because they’re going to be able to rush the passer, and they’re going to get you off the spot pretty quick as far as the quarterback is concerned. Staying balanced in what you do is going to be very critical.”
That’s not to say the Gators have not taken some major steps from where they were a year ago. Muschamp said Monday that his program is “much better” than it was last time these two teams squared off. He added that he gets excited to see Florida progress each week and thinks the positive momentum will be a key heading into the game.
“We’re much deeper, more mature, more experienced. I think we’re stronger. We handle adversity a lot better. When you play games like this, there’s going to be some adversity in the game,” he said.
“I think anybody that was a part of watching us and a part of our organization last year to this year will notice a night-and-day difference between our football team. I think we’ve made tremendous improvements in a short period of time. I think we’ve addressed issues in our program that we need to shore up.
“Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not. So I’m not trying to say that we’ve arrived in any stretch of the imagination. But I do think that we’ve improved and I think we’ve addressed some things that we needed to address.”
Starting fast and standing at 4-0 through four games, the Gators are exactly where they were record-wise one year ago. However, that team had not faced the adversity that Florida already has this season (two road games against tough SEC opponents), did not have the momentum that UF does this time around (consecutive come-from-behind road wins), and had not yet learned to play up to Muschamp’s standards.
A year later, the Gators have another huge opportunity in front of them, just like they did when Alabama came to Florida Field in 2011. This time, Florida looks to be much better equipped to handle one of the nation’s top teams.