Florida and LSU are two teams many predict to be the top challengers to Alabama and Georgia this season. While one is a legitimate threat, the other is primed to take a step back in 2019.
The college football season is approaching, so that means it’s time to get ready with some win totals. SI Gambling will be rolling out our favorite over and under bet for each power conference using current win totals available at New Jersey sportsbooks (FanDuel, DraftKings, William Hill). After unveiling our picks in the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, it's now the SEC's turn.
Florida: 9 (Over +110, Under -130 at FanDuel)
Clobbering Florida State to end the regular season and Michigan in the Peach Bowl capped off an impressive 10-3 record in Dan Mullen’s first year at the helm. But let’s pump the brakes before saying that the Gators can compete with Georgia atop the SEC East in 2019.
Let’s examine last year a little closer. Florida went 3-0 in games decided by one score, and that’s not including a 37-27 win over Vanderbilt in which the Gators trailed 21-3 in the second quarter and Vandy star tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn left due to injury in the first half. Florida had the seventh-best turnover margin in the country (+12), however that was aided by recovering an insane 75% of opponent’s fumbles. That’s the big reason why Bill Connelly’s expected turnover margin for the Gators was 5.2, so definitely expect regression in that department this season. Additionally, all of those takeaways were a major help to the offense, as the Gators ranked sixth in average starting field position.
Florida returns a good amount of production on both sides of the ball, but the one position that features huge turnover is the offensive line. The Gators have to replace four offensive linemen that racked up a whopping 141 starts. Those four (Martez Ivey, Jawaan Taylor, Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson) started a combined 51 games last season.
That unit excelled in pass protection, ranking first in the country in passing down sack rate last season, per Connelly. The OL was certainly a big boost toward Feleipe Franks’s breakout campaign under center, in which he threw for 24 touchdowns versus six interceptions.
When Franks was pressured, though, positive developments rarely happened. He completed 25.3% of his throws (which was dead-last among qualified Power 5 quarterbacks) and had a 62.3 passer rating (53 out of 64), per ESPN’s David Hale. Breaking in four new starters along the offensive line will open things up for opposing pass rushers. Honestly, I’m not ready to completely trust Franks yet, and the Gators would need a very strong season from him to reach double-digit wins in 2019.
Losing Jachai Polite and Cece Jefferson to the NFL hurts, but ultra-aggressive DC Todd Grantham still has senior Jabari Zuniga and Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard to rush the quarterback. A C.J. Henderson-Marco Wilson duo potentially gives Florida the best starting cornerbacks in the SEC.
But with Grantham loving to dial up blitzes often, that made Florida’s defense vulnerable to explosive plays (68th in IsoPPP in 2018) and third-down conversions (53rd). The Gators will be a force on defense, but ultimately one of the best ways to become elite is to limit big plays. Under Grantham, defenses tend to be more “boom or bust,” as Florida’s defense made big plays, but also surrendered them (tied for 51st in plays allowed for at least 40 yards).
Then there’s the brutal schedule. The Gators play Auburn then travel to LSU and South Carolina in three consecutive weeks. After a bye week, they force Georgia in Jacksonville. The season starts and ends with non-conference in-state showdowns against what should be improved Miami and Florida State teams. There’s also potential landmines on the road against Missouri and Kentucky.
It would be very surprising to me if Florida ended up with 10 wins in the regular season. The Gators would likely need Franks to play like a borderline Heisman candidate, and I don’t think he has that in him when being protected by a revamped offensive line. Expect a small step back in Mullen’s second season.
PICK: UNDER 9 Wins
LSU: 9 (Over EVEN, Under -120 at FanDuel)
Here’s an SEC team besides Alabama and Georgia that I’m fully buying the hype on. Against a very tough schedule last season, the Tigers won nine contests over FBS opponents by an average of 16.2 points. LSU now returns 16 starters, with quarterback Joe Burrow highlighting the eight returnees on offense.
The Ohio State transfer’s numbers didn’t jump off the screen in his first season in the Bayou, but he really came on strong to close the year. In a Fiesta Bowl win over UCF, Burrow averaged 11.6 yards per attempt and threw for four touchdowns in a game where LSU showcased a high-flying offense.
With LSU bringing in Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady to be its passing game coordinator, Burrow has a good shot at a breakout campaign. Besides his NFL resumé, Brady also was a graduate assistant under former Penn State OC (and current Mississippi State head coach) Joe Moorhead, where the RPO part of Brady’s background comes from. The RPO element is crucial since it’s an offense Burrow is quite familiar with and since the quarterback is a legitimate threat with his legs—he ran for 100 yards against Texas A&M, 96 vs. Ole Miss and 66 vs. Georgia.
It also helps Burrow that four offensive linemen who started double-digit games and six of his seven top targets are back. While Nick Brossette is gone at tailback, junior Clyde Edwards-Helaire and No. 2-ranked RB recruit John Emery Jr. make for a high-upside duo. Granted, LSU was not very efficient running the ball last season (ranking 81st in Connelly’s rushing S&P+), but Burrow manning the RPO will open up more opportunities for the ground game.
The defense figures to be one of the best in the country under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, even despite the losses of Devin White and Greedy Williams. There’s elite talent on all three levels, headlined by an elite secondary. All-American Grant Delpit and junior JaCoby Stevens are the two starting safeties, but Aranda utilizes them all over the field, creating essentially positionless players who give offenses headaches. Cornerback Kristian Fulton is one of the best cover men in college football, and the group adds top-3 overall recruit Derek Stingley Jr. to the mix.
Senior defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence and redshirt sophomore pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson (who missed last season after going down in Week 1) are absolute forces in the front seven, and LSU has three inside linebackers who are on the Butkus Award watch list.
LSU has an enormous showdown at Texas in Week 2, but I think since this game is being played early in the season, the experienced Tigers have a big advantage going up against a Longhorns team that has to replace a ton of starters. Traveling to face Alabama will likely be the only regular season game where LSU is an underdog, but at least the Tigers get a bye week before that showdown. LSU also has to face Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M, but all of those contests come at home.
At even money, I think taking LSU over 9 is definitely worth the risk, as this is the team that has the best chance of preventing another Alabama-Georgia SEC championship game.
PICK: OVER 9 Wins