By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the fourth part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
After facing the most veteran coach in the Southeastern Conference in Week 6 at South Carolina, LSU will host the SEC’s only rookie head coach just seven days later.
First-year headman Jim McElwain will take his inaugural Florida squad into Death Valley in Week 7—the SEC-mandated annual date between the cross-division automatic opponents.
McElwain earned the job after turning around Colorado State in three seasons as head coach. He’s also rich in SEC experience, having served as the offensive coordinator of Alabama in some of its recent championship seasons.
After a disappointing 7-5 campaign in Gainesville in 2014, McElwain said he thinks the Gators have the gusto to turn things around and ascend from the middle of the pack back to SEC Championship contention.
But even McElwain concedes it change will not be easy and that 2015 might not exactly be the best season in the storied history of football at the University of Florida.
“I think part of the experience of being in this conference is realizing it doesn’t happen just overnight,” McElwain said. “It’s something that we know, but yet every time we go to work every day, and every time we wake up, our responsibility is to try and go out there and win. There’s never been a game that we haven’t been in that we don’t think we’re going to go out and be successful.”
For the Gators, defense will likely lead the way in year one as McElwain gets his offensive system in place.
Under former coach Will Muschamp, the Gators were annually one of the best defensive groups in the country and regularly sent players to the NFL Draft every season.
The Gators ranked No. 5 in the SEC in total defense in 2014, while also holding foes to 10 or more points in four of 12 games.
Florida returns seven defensive starters, including cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole—arguably the best returning tandem of defensive backs in the country.
“(We did) an outstanding job on defense (under Muschamp), no doubt about it, and a lot of those guys returning have experience,” McElwain said. “We’re going to have to lean on them as we introduce some of these younger guys, but it’s also up to the offense to kind of take some of the heat off them, as well.”
The offense McElwain mentioned was anemic for most of Muschamp’s tenure at Florida, and was ultimately one of the driving forces behind his dismissal.
Florida struggled to consistently move the ball against top competition the past two seasons—getting more inconsistent play at quarterback than even LSU.
The Gators split the reps under center in 2014 with both Jeff Driskel and Treon Harris starting games at quarterback. Neither enjoyed much success. While Driskel had more interceptions than touchdowns, Harris completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes.
With Driskel out via a transfer to Louisiana Tech, one might think the quarterback job is Harris’ to lose.
But Harris will have to earn it.
McElwain said the Gators’ quarterback battle is a two-horse race between the incumbent and highly touted redshirt freshman Will Grier.
“The biggest thing is who’s going to move the football team up and down the field,” McElwain said of his quarterback battle. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
2014 record: 7-5
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Eastern Division)
Spring Game Standout: In a tightly contested quarterback battle between Will Grier and Treon Harris, it was Grier who won the spring. The redshirt freshman completed 8-of-11 passes for 136 yards in Florida’s spring game—a better statistical performance than Harris, who struggled.
Guy you may know: Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is almost a lock to be a First Round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Barring injury or a highly unexpected decline in performance, Hargreaves will be one of the first defenders selected – assuming, of course, that he enters the draft. Hargreaves is only a junior this season.
Fun fact: The Gators just might be the thinnest team along the offensive line in the entire country. McElwain shortened Florida’s spring game, because the Gators had just six scholarship offensive linemen in camp. Florida has several linemen signed in the incoming recruiting class, but the unit will enter the fall as one of the most inexperienced lines in all of major-conference college football.
After taking on the Gators, all eyes in the LSU nation will firmly be centered on a Week 10 collision with Alabama.
Before LSU makes the trek to Tuscaloosa, the Tigers have a non-conference date with one of the best offenses in college football: Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers’ offense returns a quarterback who threw 49 touchdowns passes last year and a halfback who accumulated more than 1,500 yards.
Western Kentucky scored 44.4 points per game this past season—No. 6 in the country.
The Hilltoppers were No. 2 in America in passing yards, racking up 374.3 yards per game through the air. The architect of that offense, senior quarterback Brandon Doughty is back after completing 375-of-552 passes for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last season.
Also returning is halfback Leon Allen after he generated more than 2,000 total yards last season—1,542 as a rusher and 476 as a receiver.
WKU’s impressive offensive arsenal already has folks in Bowling Green thinking the Hilltoppers could be ranked in the Top 25 before the completion of the season.
“I think our guys are ready for the season,” Western Kentucky head football coach Jeff Brohm said. “This is exactly where we want to be. We want some pressure to be put on us to succeed and win at a high level, and I think that is what this program needs to do—continue to move forward and take that next step.”
Offensively, the Hilltoppers are a bear.
With Doughty and Allen back, Western Kentucky returns the best statistical one-two punch in the country—a duo that dominated opponents last season.
The Hilltoppers scored 30 or more points in 12 of their 13 games this past season, a mark which also included seven 40+ efforts, four 50+ efforts and even two 60+ efforts.
Doughty gets a lot of the attention because of his fat stats and NFL prospects. But Brohm said it’s Allen he’d like to see have a big year.
Western Kentucky started last season 3-5 in Brohm’s first season. They won five-straight to close the year. In those five games, Allen had 750 rushing yards.
“If (Doughty) is able to achieve those numbers again this year, we’re probably not winning the way I want,” Brohm said. “He has to understand that winning is the most important thing.”
And to win at the highest level, the Hilltoppers need to play a little defense, too.
For as good as Western Kentucky was offensively this past season, they were equally atrocious on defense, allowing 39.9 points per game.
The Hilltoppers return senior linebacker Nick Holt this season, while also reaping the benefits of a few UAB transfers in defensive tackle Jontavius Morris and T.J. McCollum.
2014 record: 8-5
Conference: Conference USA (Eastern Division)
Spring Game Standout: On a day highlighted by offense and which featured more than 90 combined points scored, receiver Nacarius Fant was one of the stars of the show, catching seven passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Guy you may know: Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty is one of the best in the country, and is a guy who will definitely get looks to play professional football. Doughty’s ascent came out of nowhere in 2014. After having just 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as a sophomore, the quarterback exploded for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last year.
Fun fact: Western Kentucky has a wild family affair on its roster. Linebacker Nick Holt Jr., is one of the team’s top defensive playmakers. His father, Nick Holt Sr., is the Hilltoppers’ defensive coordinator. Topping off the family story is that Nick Holt Sr.’s younger son Ben signed with Western Kentucky this recruiting class and will be a freshman tailback with the team this fall.