GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — LSU’s reign as national champion essentially ended months ago. The Tigers have looked nothing like the team that swept the Southeastern Conference and the College Football Playoff last season.
And it goes well beyond their 3-5 record and two-game losing streak. Players are leaving coach Ed Orgeron’s program almost weekly, some opting out, others entering the transfer portal. And amid apparent NCAA rules violations, LSU self-imposed a one-year ban on postseason play Wednesday as part an effort to cooperate with the investigation.
It’s a team in turmoil, one that would like to end its most forgettable season in more than two decades on a high note.
“It’s been challenging,” Orgeron acknowledged this week. “Every day has been fluid. Every day has been new, obviously, with the things that have happened. But I can’t say I’ve been blind-sided.”
The Tigers have two games remaining, beginning with a road trip to face heavily favored and No. 6 Florida (8-1) on Saturday night in the Swamp.
No one should expect the Gators to have any sympathy for their West Division rivals. If anything, coach Dan Mullen’s team is trying to be more efficient and consistent on both sides of the ball — hoping to peak in time for next week’s SEC championship game against top-ranked Alabama.
“I think we can play a lot better than we have,” Mullen said.
The Gators have overcome slow starts defensively and mid-game lulls offensively since blowing out Arkansas 63-35 a month ago. They scored 38, 34 and 31 points in the last three weeks, a number they hope to see move in the other direction against the Tigers.
Florida refused to look ahead to the Crimson Tide, partly because it’s Senior Night for a class that made a smooth and successful transition from Jim McElwain’s underwhelming regime to Mullen’s three-year run that’s included steps forward each season.
The Gators also haven’t forgotten last year’s loss to LSU, a 42-28 setback in which Florida led 28-21 in the second half before eventual Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire led the Tigers to 21 unanswered points down the stretch.
“That definitely left a bad taste in our mouth last year and we’re coming out ready to dominate this week,” Florida defensive end Zach Carter said.
The Gators have the better roster in the rematch, led by quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Kyle Trask, standout tight end Kyle Pitts and big-play receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are 23 1/2-point underdogs after having nine players opt out before or during the season, including receiver Terrace Marshall last week and freshman tight end Arik Gilbert earlier this week. They’ve had another seven guys enter the transfer portal.
“There’s no animosity or strife,” LSU punter Zach Von Rosenberg said. “It’s a hard year and people are trying to figure it out. Is the morale down a little bit? Of course. But that’s because we’re not playing well, and we need to. We need to improve our game, and I hope we can against Florida.”
Added center Liam Shanahan: “Obviously, it hasn’t been a great season by any means, but it’s not over yet. And the guys that are still here, we’re still working hard to try to do everything we can to try to finish this season on the most positive note possible.”
Max Johnson, son of former Super Bowl champion Brad Johnson, has come on in relief of fellow freshman quarterback T.J. Finley in each of LSU’s past two games. Orgeron is considering playing Johnson more — and maybe even starting him — against Florida.
“He looked his best against Alabama. I thought he was crisp,” Orgeron said. “I thought he went through his progression well. His ball came out very well, threw very catchable balls. He can scramble, run. I think he’s tough. He’s a hard worker.”
The Gators have won 12 in a row at home, their longest streak since winning 14 in a row between 2008 and 2010.
Linebacker Jabril Cox, a graduate transfer from North Dakota State, is expected to draw the daunting task of covering Pitts, who has 36 receptions for 641 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“We got to know where that tight end is for sure,” Orgeron said. “He gave us fits last year. Great player.”
Cox, who has two interceptions this season and is among LSU’s leading tacklers with 45, welcomed the assignment.
“Me and him matched up one on one will be great competition,” Cox said.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25