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Perspective Piece: LSU-Florida

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 4, 2006

Want to gauge how quickly Urban Meyer is remaking the Florida program and, along with it, the culture of the SEC? Simple: watch his team play LSU on Saturday in the Swamp.

If you look back over the years when the Gators were referred to as "Mighty" in a semi-official way, you'd recall that those were the years when Steve Spurrier changed the culture of SEC football by turning it from a Pat Dye league into his own pass-happy league. When you change the style of play in a conference, you know you're winning championships and forcing opponents to adjust to your methods (not the other way around). The Spurrier years, which put defenses on their heels and changed the way SEC ball was played, often dished out the pain to LSU teams in particular. The best Florida football seasons--the record shows--were marked by a thumping of the Bayou Bengals. A 56-13 thrashing of LSU in 1996 sent Florida on its way to a national title. A 41-9 joyride in 2000 washed away the bitter taste of an upset loss to Mississippi State the week before, propelling the Gators to their last SEC title. A 44-15 romp in Baton Rouge in 2001 showed the country how good the Gators were, and in a fair world, it would have helped Rex Grossman claim the Heisman Trophy. Emphatic wins over LSU coincide with successful seasons in Gainesville.

It's no surprise, then, that ever since Spurrier left his alma mater, Florida has a 1-3 record against LSU, with the lone win (a 19-7 triumph in Baton Rouge in 2003 against the eventual national champions) being one of those aberrational occasions when the planets are properly aligned and the body snatchers invade the planet for four hours on a solitary Saturday afternoon. LSU hasn't destroyed Florida on the scoreboard, but the Tigers have--in recent years--proven to be a much more athletic and physical team than Florida. Last year's 21-17 Tiger win in Death Valley--Urban Meyer's first personal taste of the rivalry (ditto for LSU boss Les Miles)--had to rate as one of the most deceivingly lopsided four-point wins in the history of the sport of football, not just the college game. Turnover after turnover came generously from the Tigers' hands, and yet the Gators failed to top 21 points against LSU for the fourth straight season; just as alarming was the fact that despite being plus-five in the turnover department, Florida was minus-five minutes (and change) in time of possession. LSU was that dominant at the line of scrimmage. When you withstand a minus-five turnover margin, you're a much better team.

So as 2006 comes across the calendar, this LSU game looms large for the Gators. Yes, it's big for Les Miles' team--which has to keep pace with Auburn and hope Tommy Tuberville's crew stubs its toe on at least two occasions--but the focal point of this contest is clearly the team in the home blue shirts.

Why will this game be so revealing about the status of the Florida program under Meyer? The Gators' rivalry with Tennessee--staged in mid-September--is so early in the season (much like Florida State-Miami) that the annual pressure cooker prevents the Gators (and the Vols) from playing their best football. (The same goes for LSU and division rival Auburn; few would say that either Tiger team played extremely well in all phases on Sept. 16.) Florida demonstrated noticeable advantages in speed and interior line play against the Vols, but turnovers and a generally nervous emotional state eliminated Florida's advantage. The Vols--sensing their opening--dramatically elevated their level of play in the game's middle stages to take a two-possession lead, but in the money quarter, the Gators made all the key plays to pull out a 21-20 win. That game was a sign of Florida's increased mental toughness under Urban Meyer, and it pulled the Gators through the early portion of their 2006 schedule. But now comes October, always the "big boy month" for Florida. Whereas the Tennessee game is always about handling nerves and early-season rust in the Gator camp, October brings the measuring-stick games, the defining kinds of moments that will tell Meyer exactly how much progress he's made in developing the Florida program to this point.

This Saturday's LSU game--by virtue of being the first of three major throwdowns for the Gators this month, followed by Auburn and Georgia--is the occasion when Florida is still something of an unknown quantity in the college football world. As a result, the date with the Bayou Bengals represents the Gators' biggest proving ground, and therefore the truest and most authentic measure of Florida's overall skill set. Whereas September was a test of Florida's mental toughness, October will challenge--and reveal--the full range of Florida's capabilities as a team. It's no longer a matter of merely being tough enough; no, now is the time when America finds out just how potent, productive and polished the Gators are after a year and five games of football under the watchful eye of Meyer, the "it" guy in college football. Anyone who wants to gauge Meyer's short-term impact on Florida football (the long-term impact is another discussion for another day) will need to pay attention to the afternoon's proceedings. The home folks certainly hope that on a day when the nation--and a prodigiously talented LSU team--will take the measure of Meyer's men, the result for Florida will echo the name of the town hosting this game: Gainesville.

Indeed, we'll all see how many gains Urban Meyer has--or hasn't--made when this one's over.

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