Florida-LSU resume SEC’s best crossover rivalry, with both in dire need of momentum

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida-LSU game is personal for Zachary Carter, the son of a Baton Rouge native raised in Tampa and now a Gators’ defensive star.

Carter recalls watching Tim Tebow take on the Tigers when the rivalry truly found its stride.

Who can forget Tebow’s jump pass in 2006, Jacob Hester’s fourth-down heroics for LSU in ‘07 at Tiger Stadium and the 30-point Gators’ win in ‘08 as impressive as any during their national championship run?

“I grew up in a household watching plenty of Florida and LSU games,” Carter, 22, said. “It is a great rivalry.”

The two schools have met every season in football since 1971 and now square off in the SEC’s best crossover game between East and West division foes.

Since 2006, each program has won two national titles. But even when the Gators and Tigers are not college football’s best, they summon each other’s best effort and expect to do so Saturday at Tiger Stadium.

“It makes it must-see TV,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Great players, great teams that are championship level teams that go in and play a game that comes right down to the wire, it makes it a great rivalry.”

The exception was LSU’s 42-28 win in 2019 when Joe Burrow and the Tigers pulled away in the fourth quarter to continue their unbeaten national title run.

“When I was kicking off to start the game, the ball was vibrating on the tee Tiger Stadium was so loud,” LSU’s Avery Atkins recalled this week.

The crowd’s intensity in Baton Rouge or Gainesville rarely goes unrewarded.

A fake field goal ignited LSU’s 2015 victory in Tiger Stadium, site of a Gators’ goal-line stand a year later after the contentious rescheduling of the game canceled by Hurricane Matthew. A missed extra point by Florida All-America Eddy Piñeiro in 2017 and a throwback pass to Gators’ quarterback Feleipe Franks in 2018 were the difference as the teams traded wins in Gainesville.

Yet, a rivalry full of twists and turns went off the rails during a fog-shrouded, surreal Senior Night last December at the Swamp.

Officials flagged Florida cornerback Marco Wilson for unsportsmanlike conduct after he tossed an LSU player’s shoe 20 yards down field following a third-down stop. The Tigers capitalized to win 37-34 on a 57-yard game-winning field goal by Cade York, who could barely see the ball clear the uprights.

“That was kind of insane, like, smoke coming up out of the sky,” Carter recalled. “It’s like, ‘Man, what’s going on?’ It’s a night game, too, so it was just a crazy environment.”

The scene in the Swamp was akin to Sleepy Hollow. On Saturday, Tiger Stadium could be downright somnolent for a kickoff at 11 a.m. local time.

LSU (3-3, 1-2 SEC) is coming off a 42-21 loss at Kentucky, missing several key players, including All-American cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. (foot) and Eli Ricks (shoulder), and appears to have a lame-duck head coach in Ed Orgeron.

The No. 20 Gators (4-2, 2-2) are 11-point favorites aiming to capitalize on the disarray and prevent their season from spiraling before the bye week and an Oct. 30 matchup with top-ranked Georgia.

“We need the momentum,” senior tailback Dameon Pierce said.

The Gators are pulling out all stops, including a rare appearance in the all orange uniforms donned during the 2016 upset of the Tigers.

“The combo I’ve always wanted to wear since arriving,” redshirt junior receiver Jacob Copeland tweeted Thursday.

Capitalizing on the LSU’s depleted defense and containing quarterback Max Johnson are the Gators’ winning combination.

Second in the SEC with an average of 7.17 yards per play, Florida will unleash the league’s top running game and hope quarterback Emory Jones builds on throwing 4 touchdowns against Vanderbilt.

Johnson, son of Tampa Bay Bucs Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson, stepped in last December to beat the Gators with his arms and legs during his first college start.

Johnson, who is second in the SEC with 17 touchdowns passes, has carried an offense averaging just 83.2 rushing yards (10th).

“He has that moxie,” Mullen said. “He makes plays, he scrambles around, he extends plays. He kind of has a great feel.”

The Florida-LSU game has a feel all its own, too. To Carter, there is nothing like it.

“I don’t know how other people and Gator Nation would rank our rivalries,” he said. “But LSU is towards the top.”

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