LSU heads to Florida as a 23 1/2-point underdog

Graduate transfer Jabril Cox had a Pick 6 TD in his first game as an LSU linebacker in this year's season-opener vs. Mississippi State

The taste of defeat wasn’t one Jabril Cox had acquired during his four-year stay at North Dakota State where he was part of 57 wins and three FCS national championships.

When more than 40 schools expressed interest in having him transfer for one final season, Cox thought spending a year as a graduate transfer at reigning national champion LSU made the most sense.

Not only did he believe he would continue to win games at a high rate but Cox – a 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker with designs of playing in the NFL – could gauge his talent against some of the nation’s best players in practice at LSU and by competing in the Southeastern Conference.

The experience has been anything like Cox may have expected, but the native of St. Louis quickly put into perspective the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic in which 23 1/2-point underdog LSU brings an uncharacteristic 3-5 record into Saturday’s SEC clash at sixth-ranked Florida (8-1) at 6 p.m.

“This helps me. It mostly humbles me knowing how to lose and how to come back and feeling that hunger again.,” said Cox, who has started in all eight games this season and has 45 tackles along with 4 1/2 tackles for loss and two interceptions. “At North Dakota State, we barely even felt a loss. Just having this season is something I’ll always keep within me and just know that I always have to continue to work hard and strive to continue to be at the top.”

Starting center Liam Shanahan is another player that after starting his career at Harvard where he played guard and tackle, seized the opportunity to make the competitive leap from an Ivy League school that finished as high as third place during his career to LSU that was accustomed to winning at a high level and competing for national championships.

The Tigers need to win out over their final two scheduled games, beginning with Florida and followed next week at home by Ole Miss, to avoid their first losing season since 1999.

Moreover, the school announced Wednesday that it had self-imposed a one-year postseason ban and would not be eligible to participate in a bowl game this season.

“Obviously, all of the fans are frustrated and that’s understandable,” Shanahan said. “It’s been an especially trying year after coming off last year. We haven’t done the best job that we could have this season. Yeah, there was still a drop off from last year. But there’s no reason to be doing what we’ve been doing this year, so we have to improve and finish on this season strong.”

LSU, which had a leading receiver opt out of the season for the second straight week, finds itself on the final chapter of Top 10 trilogy that’s included losses to fifth-ranked Texas A&M (20-7) and top-ranked Alabama (55-17).

A week after losing junior wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., who opted out after the A&M game, the Tigers no longer have the services of true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert, who opted out Tuesday.

“There’s no animosity or strife, it’s a hard year,” LSU senior punter Zach Von Rosenberg said. “People are trying to figure it out. “Is the morale down a little bit? Of course. That’s because we’re not playing well, and we need to. We need to improve our game and I hope we can this week against Florida.”

LSU’s expected to start its third different quarterback of the season where true freshman Max Johnson would make his college debut against Florida which is riding its longest home win streak (12) since 2008.

“We’re still in the season,” Shanahan said. “It hasn’t been a great season by any means, but it’s not over yet. The guys that are still here, we’re working hard to do everything we can to finish this season on the most positive note possible.”

The bigger issue is for a beleaguered LSU defense that ranks 124th nationally in pass defense (313), 114th in total defense (469) and 95th in scoring (33.4).

Florida counters with one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses that ranks 10th in scoring (42) and 12th in total offense (502.9).

Quarterback Kyle Trask is a Heisman Trophy hopeful and is fifth nationally in passing efficiency (193.1) and is tops in touchdown passes with 38. He’s completed 230 of 322 passes for 3,243 yards with only three interceptions and leads an offense which has recorded 400-plus total yards in seven straight games – the most in 19 years.

Wide receiver Kadarius Toney tops the Gators in receiving with 53 catches for 649 yards and eight TDs, while tight end Kyle Pitts, despite missing two games, has 36 receptions for 641 yards and 11 TDs.

“Coach (Ed Orgeron) has been doing a good job in telling us to keep fighting,” Cox said. “Everything that’s happened in the past has happened, we just have to look forward.”

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