Through five weeks of the season, Dan Mullen has just one blemish on his record as the head coach of the Florida Gators: a 27-16 loss to current AP No. 13 Kentucky in Week 2. Since that loss, Mullen has guided the Gators to three straight wins, including an upset of his old squad, Mississippi State, last week.
Now comes the big test. The No. 5 LSU Tigers descend upon the swamp this Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS for the next chapter in this rivalry. The Tigers enter with a defense ranked 12th in the country in scoring, giving up just 15 points per game. The Gators defense has been stingy in its own right, though, allowing opponents only 14 points per outing. To get some insight into that matchup, the Red River Rivalry and more, we caught up with CBS Sports college football analyst Danny Kanell. (Editor’s note: This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
CBS Local Sports: Want to start with a couple of the biggest games on the docket this week, first in the Big 12, the Red River Rivalry with Texas and OU. The Longhorns have rebounded from their opening loss to Maryland with four straight wins, thanks largely to their defense, giving up just over 16 points in that span. Now they face Kyler Murray and a high-powered OU attack. How do they look to slow them down?
Danny Kanell: This is an offense that you don’t stop, you just hope to slow them down and contain them somewhat. That has to be Tom Herman and Texas’s goal. Go out there, try to get some stops, try to get some turnovers, but also at the same time you can’t get too down if you do give up some big plays.
Kyler Murray has really flourished in this system, and there are weapons all over the place. It has to be a game with the mindset going in of: ‘we’re going to do our best, we might give up a couple of big plays, but we have to try to force turnovers and get stops in the red zone.’ That’s how you hang with Oklahoma’s offense.
CBS Local Sports: On the other side of the ball, it looks like Sam Ehlinger is starting to get more comfortable. What improvements have you noticed from him this season?
Danny Kanell: One of the most important things is that he’s been the starter. He’s been the guy and no longer has to worry about looking over his shoulder and wondering if Shane Buechele is coming in on the next series. I think that has done wonders for his confidence out on the field. It was a big statement when they lost their opener to Maryland, Tom Herman didn’t flinch. He said ‘You know what, Sam’s our guy, we’re going to stick with him.’
I think that’s what has allowed him to go out there and play and really flourish in this system. He is a better match for Tom Herman’s system and what he wants to do than Shane Buechele is. He can tuck the ball and run with it, but he’s also developing into a really nice passer and making much better decisions with the football. His touchdown to interception ratio is 9-2, which is exactly where he should be.
CBS Local Sports: In the SEC on CBS game of the week, #5 LSU is in the swamp to battle #22 Florida. What’s the matchup to watch out for in this one in your opinion?
Danny Kanell: Feleipe Franks versus the LSU defense. I know a quarterback can’t take on an entire defense, but I’ve really been impressed with Dan Mullen and the job he’s done with Feleipe. He has been getting him more comfortable in the system, and you’re seeing him making better decisions with the football.
But this is one of those games where you know LSU has athletes all over the field, you know you’re going to get hit and it’s going to be a physical game. You can’t try to do too much. I want to see if Feleipe Franks can continue to play at a high level in a stressful environment. Even though it’s a home game, he’s going to be under duress because of that pressure-filled LSU defense. But I think he’s up to the task. I kind of like the Florida Gators playing at home in this game. You saw the win against Mississippi State, the enthusiasm that they had for their coach. I think they feel like they’re on to something special.
CBS Local Sports: Curious to get your thoughts on the other QB in this game, Joe Burrow. He’s drawn a lot of praise for his play so far. What do you think of the job he’s done for the Tigers?
Danny Kanell: I think Joe Burrow has been a perfect fit for what they’re trying to accomplish at LSU. It’s really not that much different than it has been in years past, but you have a guy that is making really sound decisions with the ball. You look at his stats, and they don’t jump out at you. It’s not like they’re throwing for 300 yards per game. They’re just asking him to play that game-manager role, which shouldn’t be an insult to anybody.
I think that term sometimes is misconstrued as saying that a guy is not a very good quarterback. But Joe Burrow is doing a very good job of doing what they ask him to do. His breakout moment, for me, was in the fourth quarter of that Auburn game. He orchestrated the drive on the road to bring them back and put them over the top to win that game. I thought that spoke volumes about his development as a quarterback.
I also think we forget that this was a guy who was in Columbus trying to win a quarterback job in the spring. He didn’t have the advantage of a full spring practice schedule and spring game, so he’s still learning and getting more comfortable in this offense. I think they’re going to be able to put a little bit more of a workload on Joe Burrow’s shoulders the longer the season goes on.
CBS Local Sports: You’re on the call in Memphis when the Tigers meet UConn on CBS Sports Network. Both teams are looking for their first conference wins of the season, but the Huskies defense has been really suspect this year. Do you see a way for them to slow down what can be an explosive Memphis attack?
Danny Kanell: I don’t. I wish I could try to sell you on UConn’s defense, but the one thing I will say is they have played some really good teams. That’s something that we don’t really pay attention to on their schedule. But this defense has been historically bad. It’s on pace to be the worst in the history of college football, which is pretty atrocious. They’re averaging allowing 663 yards per game.
So, for Memphis, you’re probably licking your chops, and I love these types of games as a player, because you say, ‘Hey, let me get my stats, take the bench and put on the baseball hat in the third quarter and try to enjoy the second half. But the challenge for Memphis is, you can’t take UConn lightly. You have to make sure you go out there early and set the tone. I picture this as a game where Darrell Henderson continues his roll as he has against every defense this season, which has him near the top of rushing categories in college football.
CBS Local Sports: Looking at the overall landscape, as we near the midway point of most teams’ schedules, which four teams do you think have the best shot at the playoff?
Danny Kanell: I think you’re seeing a separation of powers. There has been a select handful of programs that have really established themselves as the powerhouses. It’s Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. They have firmly established themselves at the top of that list. Then you have Georgia, who’s trying to knock on that door. Notre Dame just had their second big signature win of the season against Stanford. Oklahoma is also right there waiting to get in.
It’s starting to seem like there are these tiers in college football. You have the top tier with these programs that look almost certain to be in the playoff at some point. Then you have these other teams that are going to be fighting for that fourth spot in the playoff. That’s what makes it fascinating as we get into the second half of the season and get down to some of the conference schedules. There is not a lot of margin for error. If you lose one game, you’re probably going to be toast, because there’s another team waiting to step into your slot.
CBS Local Sports: In a similar vein, which team has surprised you the most through five weeks?
Danny Kanell: Notre Dame has been a surprise. I didn’t see many people talking about them to be a playoff team. And, if they get through the test this weekend at Blacksburg against Virginia Tech, I think they are sitting in the driver’s seat controlling their own destiny. Some of the teams remaining on their schedule aren’t as good as we thought they were coming into the season, Florida State and USC especially. If they get through this test in Blacksburg, I think there’s a great chance that they run the table. And with their schedule, an undefeated Notre Dame is in without question.
I give a lot of credit to Brian Kelly for making the switch at quarterback from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book. They’re defense is also one of the better defenses in the country. They have a really nice mix of what they’re doing offensively and defensively.