BATON ROUGE, La. – The prospect of lining up against Florida apparently brings back some bad memories for LSU's Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham declined multiple interview requests leading up to Saturday afternoon's clash between the No. 17 Gators (4-1, 3-0 SEC) and 10th-ranked Tigers (5-1, 2-1) in Death Valley, even though he's having a stellar season.
He's coming off one of the best games of his career, making nine catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns in a victory at Mississippi State last weekend. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards with 228.2, averaging 21.1 yards each time he touches the ball. He's even returned a missed field goal a 100-yard touchdown.
The thing is, about this time last year, Beckham had one of the more frustrating days of his career in Gainesville, Fla. He fumbled following a deep catch — a turnover which cost LSU one of its best scoring chances on a day when points were precious in a 14-6 loss to the Gators. Beckham then refused to speak to reporters for more than a month afterward.
Now comes Beckham's chance to exorcise some demons, but he'll have to do it against one of the best secondaries in the nation.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger even warned that the Tigers would have to prepare "very hard" to be mentally prepared for "just how intense this game is going to be."
Cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves III are among the standouts on a Florida defense that has yielded only 152 yards passing per game, the sixth lowest average nationally. Purifoy had a sack, a forced fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown in last week's 30-10 win against Arkansas. Hargreaves, a freshman, leads the team with three interceptions.
"They're all very talented players," Mettenberger said of Florida's defensive backs. "But at the same time, we have some very talented players on the perimeter for us at receiver and I think we can complete some balls on them."
Likewise, Florida defenders understand they may be in for one of their toughest tests this season.
"They definitely go up and get the ball no matter if they are covered or not," Gators safety Jaylen Watkins said of LSU's receivers. "Mettenberger is going to put it right on them and give them a chance to get it every time, too. We've got our work cut out for us this week, but this is what we look forward to as a secondary."
Here are five things to watch when No. 17 Florida takes on No. 10 LSU Saturday:
HIGH STAKES: LSU likely cannot afford a second conference loss if it hopes to catch unbeaten Alabama for the SEC West crown and remain a BCS contender. Florida would remain in contention in the SEC East even with what would be its first league loss, but its second overall defeat would dampen the Gators' BCS hopes. "This is kind of like an elimination game," LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow said. "It's like we're both playing for our lives right now."
DYNAMIC DUO: Beckham and fellow LSU receiver Jarvis Landry are making a case to be the best receiving tandem in the nation. Through just six games, they've combined for 77 receptions for 1,302 yards and 13 TDs. "I don't know if they'll be the best, but they are definitely in the top two tandems we will see this year," Watkins said.
MURPHY'S LAW: An unfortunate injury to starting quarterback Jeff Driskel hasn't hurt the Gators that much — at least not yet — because of the steady play of second-string QB Tyler Murphy. Since taking over for Driskel in the third game of the season, Murphy has completed 39 of 54 passes (72.2 percent) for 530 yards and five touchdowns against only one interception. "He's a guy that's very athletic. He's a guy that can throw the football," LSU coach Les Miles said, adding that Murphy "plays smart and does what the coaches ask him to do."
CATCHING HILL: Even if Florida manages to slow down LSU's passing game, the Gators still have to worry about running back Jeremy Hill. He is averaging 118.8 yards on the ground, also is a threat in the short passing game and has scored nine touchdowns.
STINGY D: The Tigers likely will be hard pressed to match their scoring average of 45.5 points per game. Florida's defense has allowed averages of only 217 yards and 12.2 points per game. Through five games, opponents have reached the end zone just six times against the Gators defense.