Ask LSU junior cornerback Tharold Simon if No. 4 LSU has played to its ranking yet, and the answer is an emphatic “no.”
“We haven’t proven we’re one of the best teams yet,” Simon said.
The Tigers (5-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) get a chance to prove it Saturday, when they travel to Gainesville, Fla., to take on No. 10 Florida (4-0, 3-0 SEC).
By the time LSU toughed out a 12-10 road victory at Auburn two weeks ago, the Gators had already racked up a trio of impressive league wins behind a stingy scoring defense.
Florida owns a pair of SEC road triumphs, grinding out a 20-17 victory at Texas A&M and pulling away from Tennessee, 37-20, in Knoxville, Tenn.
Now, the Gators welcome an elite opponent into The Swamp, a location that has been a terror to the Tigers and coach Les Miles during his tenure.
LSU is 1-2 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium under Miles, and the lone win was a 33-29 thriller in 2010 that required a controversial fake field-goal toss and a game-winning touchdown pass with six seconds to play.
“If you enjoy classic college venues, and if you enjoy the SEC, this is as good as it gets,” Miles said. “Quality opponent on the road and it’s loud, so I think it’s a great place to play.”
But LSU is coming off a 44-11 rout against Florida in 2011, one that included a Jordan Jefferson jump pass and a taunting penalty on Tiger punter Brad Wing during a fake punt.
Simon says those memories will fan the flames of an already tense rivalry.
“We know they’ll be ready for us after the way we beat them last year,” he said. “We’re prepared for the worst from the crowd and the best shot from their team.”
Simon and a relatively green LSU secondary will have to deal with a revamped Florida offense, led by sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
Driskel has completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 698 yards and four touchdowns with one interception this season.
But his biggest contribution has been in the clutch, spurring a comeback win at A&M and helping the Gators tally the final 20 points against the Volunteers.
Florida has outscored its opponents 34-0 in the fourth quarter this season.
Complementing Driskel is senior running back Mike Gillislee, who is averaging 101 yards per game and has scored five touchdowns.
Under Pease, the Gators have moved from a sweeping spread attack to a multi-dimensional motion offense.
“I don’t think they’re necessarily more or less physical, they just run more downhill now,” said LSU junior linebacker Luke Muncie, who will play after missing the Towson game with a stomach ailment. “It’s a different style of running that uses the tight ends well.”
The Gators will meet an LSU rush defense that is third in the SEC, allowing 83 yards per game.
But the Tigers are fresh off their worst defensive performance of the season, surrendering 22 points and nearly 300 total yards to Towson.
Miles said the LSU offense needs to aid the defense more, and that starts with pass protection.
Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been sacked 11 times this season as an LSU offensive line reeling from injuries has adjusted to new positions and a different quarterback.
Mettenberger was erratic in his first road start at Auburn, fumbling twice while throwing for 169 yards and no touchdowns.
“I would expect the thing that we need to take from our first road experience is how we played in the second half and that we started fast,” Miles said. “If there are two things that I would like to have from the first road game, that would be it.”
LSU got some good news Wednesday, as injured fullback J.C. Copeland practiced and is expected to play against the Gators.
“We are pleasantly surprised that J.C.’s injury is nothing major,” Miles said. “[His knee] didn’t swell, and it’s not very tender.”
Copeland has been an integral part of an LSU rushing attack averaging 229 yards per game.
The Tigers, who have played 15 true freshmen and a dozen other first-time contributors, won’t have to fill Copeland’s position, but that youth still marks LSU as a wild card in road games this fall.
Even after two weeks of fumbles, struggles and sloppiness cemented that status, LSU players say Florida will be the true proving ground come Saturday.
“It’s no different than any opponent,” said LSU sophomore offensive lineman La’el Collins. “You just look at it as a harder test. Everything is turned up a notch now. Prove yourself or go home.”