GAINESVILLE — Forget all the future pros who will be on the field in Saturday’s primetime showdown between No. 7 Florida and No. 5 LSU. The most important NFL influence on the biggest college game of the weekend will be on the sidelines.
NFL legends Peyton Manning and Drew Brees both have a role in the schemes and systems that will decide which team remains perfect after a heated matchup in Death Valley.
The roots of LSU’s remarkable offensive transformation begin with Brees and the Saints.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron had always been impressed with the Saints’ offense and the future Hall of Fame quarterback. So in the summer of 2018, Orgeron asked some New Orleans staffers to come down to Baton Rouge to teach him their red-zone and no-running back packages. Because Orgeron also wanted to learn about run-pass options, the Saints brought along a little-known, up-and-coming offensive assistant: Joe Brady.
“He did a tremendous job, a big-time job,” Orgeron said.
The big-time job Brady did in that presentation got him a big-time job after the season, when Orgeron hired him to be the Tigers’ passing game coordinator. Brady could take passing concepts from Brees and the Saints, mesh them with the RPOs taught to him by current Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead and create a cutting-edge system.
“It was a natural fit,” Orgeron said.
It was a natural fit for what Orgeron wanted, but it was a philosophical overhaul from LSU’s ground-and-pound past.
In 2013, LSU had a pair of future Pro Bowl receivers (Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry), yet only 17 teams in the nation passed the ball fewer times than LSU. This year? The Tigers are almost perfectly balanced (188 passes, 184 rushes).
It’s unfair to start comparing quarterback Joe Burrow to Brees, but he’s playing like a potential first-round pick and justifying LSU’s wholesale shift under the 30-year-old Brady.
“They have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “They have some great skill players on the perimeter, and they have a veteran offensive line. In that case, why not spread it around and try to go score some points?”
The Tigers are definitely doing that: Their 273 points are more than any SEC team has ever scored through five games.
But Burrow and the Tigers haven’t yet faced a defense as good as UF.
Although defensive coordinator Todd Grantham isn’t afraid to call risky rushes like the safety blitz that clinched last year’s win at Mississippi State, he also likes to pressure with only four defenders. The challenge for the quarterback is finding out which four defenders will be chasing him.
Grantham said his belief in disguising rushers dates back to his tenure as the Colts’ defensive line coach from 1998-2001, when Indianapolis was breaking in a young Manning.
“He never could beat the Patriots for a long time,” Grantham said. “And I’d sit there at practice and watch, and he never could figure out where the fourth rusher was coming from.”
Opposing quarterbacks are still guessing.
Last week against Auburn, Grantham sent linebacker Jeremiah Moon from the far side on third down. Quarterback Bo Nix scrambled and spun himself into a devastating 22-yard sack.
Last year against Burrow and LSU, Grantham put five defenders on the line of scrimmage before dropping two back into coverage. A linebacker became the fourth rusher by blitzing from Burrow’s blindside. Burrow forced a throw, which safety Brad Stewart intercepted and returned for a touchdown to clinch the biggest win of Mullen’s first season.
Whether his Gators can earn an even larger one Saturday hinges on whether the defensive philosophy that frustrated a future legend can disrupt an offensive system influenced by another all-time great.