It’s 12 years later and the circumstances are vastly different, but the pre-game feeling is eerily the same. Back in 2003, when Florida traveled to Baton Rouge unranked to face an unbeaten, 6th-ranked LSU team that would go on to win the national championship, the Gators were coming off a 20-17 loss at home to Eli Manning and Ole Miss. The Gators were reeling at 3-3 and distractions were plenty – heavy criticism of Ron Zook for thrusting freshmen Chris Leak into the starting quarterback role before he was ready and increased calls for athletic director Jeremy Foley to fire the Zooker after an embarrassing home loss to Ole Miss the previous week.
Saturday, both Florida and LSU are ranked in the top ten – LSU (5-0, 3-0 SEC) is #6 while Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) is #8 – and both are considered serious threats to win the SEC championship and represent the league in the College Football Playoff. But just like 2003, Florida travels to Baton Rouge with far too many distractions. Starting quarterback Will Grier has been suspended for the year for testing positive for a banned substance and backup corner Deiondre Porter has been arrested and jettisoned for allegedly firing a .45 caliber weapon in the direction of his pregnant girlfriend. Just like 2003, LSU has no distractions and national championship expectations are spreading among the faithful with the speed of a California wildfire.
When Florida traveled to Baton Rouge in 2003, Leak was coming off a game in which he threw three second half interceptions. Nobody was blaming Leak since he was just an 18-year-old true freshman. Zook, however, was under duress for force feeding his prize recruit. Additionally, Zook had three losses in six games. The guy he replaced (Steve Spurrier) only lost 27 games in 12 years and never once lost three of the first six. Zooker was an unpopular replacement for Spurrier from day one. Five losses in 2002 and three out of six in 2003
Expectations were that Nick Saban and LSU would make short work of the Gators, but a funny thing happened on the way to the blowout. Leak went the distance, didn’t throw a pick and tossed scoring passes to Ran Carthon and Ciatrick Fason. Florida’s defense completely stuffed the LSU running game, held LSU to 3-12 on third downs and played the more physical game. The end result was a 19-7 Florida win, LSU’s only loss of the season.
The Gators executed a conservative but effective offensive game plan and the defense did its part. Fast forward 12 years and it’s what the Gators will have to do Saturday to knock off LSU.
The real difference then was Zooker’s ability to sell the Gators on an us against the world mentality. He convinced the Gators to eliminate what he called “noise in the system” and block out the crowd noise while they were about it. The only team that got rattled that day was LSU, which didn’t score an offensive touchdown.
Jim McElwain has to do what Zook did 12 years ago – convince all 60 players on the travel squad to block out the recent noise in the system, put the distractions behind them and don’t let the crowd have any influence. It’s in Florida’s favor that Mac has been in his share of big games before so he knows the mentality a team has to adapt to be successful in a zoo-like atmosphere where the decibel level is going to be like the takeoff of a 747 for much of the night. He knows all too well what happens if a team is filled with doubt or too distracted to focus in on what’s been successful so far. The Gators are 6-0 for a reason. They can’t let the distractions or the big game stage cause them to lose focus on the things that got them to this point.
It is no fluke the Gators are 6-0 nor would it be a fluke if they came away with a win Saturday night if they follow a psychological game plan similar to the one that worked so well 12 years ago.
Thursday night: 1-0
Last week: 5-1
#6 LSU 24, #8 FLORIDA 14: Even with Will Grier this would be a very difficult game for the Gators to win. When you play a game in Baton Rouge at night, the 102,000 Tiger fans have all day to drink so by the time the game kicks off, they are greased, nasty and loud. Florida can win but to stay unbeaten the Gators have to play a near perfect game. In Gainesville, I’d like Florida’s chances even with the distractions of the week. On the road, I think LSU has just enough of an edge to end the Gators’ joy ride but on this one, I’ll happily be wrong.
#9 Texas A&M 28, #10 Alabama 20: Remember how Alabama couldn’t cover the Ole Miss receivers? The Aggie receivers are every bit as good and maybe a little bit faster. That should be the offensive difference. The defensive difference could be everybody’s nightmare, Myles Garrett, who gets to work on Bama left tackle Cam Robinson. If Garrett is in Jake Coker’s face all day, the Aggies become the odds on favorite to win the SEC championship.
#13 Ole Miss 45, Memphis 35: When this one was scheduled a few years ago, it looked like the kind of easy win that would get the Rebels one step closer to bowl eligibility. That was before Justin Fuente became the coach and Paxton Lynch the QB at Memphis. Now it has trap game written all over it. Ole Miss can’t afford any kind of slip up, not with Texas A&M on the schedule next week. The offenses are probably equal but Ole Miss has a better defense, which should provide the difference. Expect a shootout.
Mississippi State 42, Louisiana Tech 24: The Bulldogs can get bowl eligible by winning Saturday and then next week when Kentucky comes to town. If Dan Mullen gets Mississippi State to 8 wins this season, he’s going to be on a lot of short lists for coaching gigs that aren’t within 10 miles of the end of the earth.
South Carolina 17, Vanderbilt 14: Call this the Battle for the Bottom. The loser is doomed to finish dead last in the SEC East. If South Carolina is bummed out that Steve Spurrier resigned, then Vandy wins. The thought is Shawn Elliott will fire up the Gamecocks and convince them the best way to say thankee to Steve Spurrier is wax the Williams-Brice Stadium floor with the Commodores.
COUNTDOWN TO FIRING DAY: WEEK SEVEN EDITION
EXTINCT SPECIES LIST
1. Tim Beckman, Illinois
2. Dan McCarney, North Texas
3. Randy Edsall, Maryland
4. Steve Sarkisian, Southern Cal
ON LIFE SUPPORT
1. Mike London, Virginia (1-4): The way the schedule stacks up, there isn’t a game remaining that Virginia will be favored. The folks in admin would be smart to remember the adage “What must be done eventually should be done today.” The Cadavers are -7 point faves to knock off Syracuse this week. All London has to do is win six more games to keep his job. Donkeys might fly first.
2. George O’Leary, UCF (0-6): When O’Leary gave up the interim AD job back on Monday, he essentially ended any chance he has to name Sean Key as his successor. Key will land a job somewhere in a hurry. George will be put out to pasture, maybe as soon as Sunday if Shirley Temple blows UCF’s doors off Saturday.
3. Kyle Flood, Rutgers (1-4): The real question at Rutgers is who gets fired first: AD Julie Hermann or Flood? Both of them need to hire outstanding real estate consultants to unload their houses.
4. Darrell Hazell, Purdue (1-5): What happened last week has everything to do with why patience has worn so think with Hazell. One week after playing Michigan State to a virtual standstill, the Boilermakers got blown out by 28 points by Minnesota. The faithful think the Boilers should be playing with a lot more consistency and they’re right. If the Boilers don’t win four of their final six it will take a miracle of healing the blind proportions for Hazell to get another year.
5. Paul Rhoads, Iowa State (2-3): By the time the first quarter is over Saturday when TCU stops by for a friendly scrimmage, people will be checking Wikipedia to see which happened faster: the French surrendering in either of the two world wars or TCU hanging five touchdowns on the Cyclones.
6. Trent Miles, Georgia State (1-4): When you’re (A) 2-27 for your career and (B) a -13.5 point road dog to a bad Ball State team, maybe it’s a sign that you should take that real estate course that teaches you how to make money flipping houses.
7. Al Golden, Miami (3-2): The AD says Big Al will be evaluated at the end of the year. When an AD says that it’s the equivalent of saying, “If he doesn’t win enough games, we’ll fire him at the end of the season.” Big Al needs to go 6-1 the rest of the way. Virginia Tech comes to town Saturday.
ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST
1. Norm Chow, Hawaii (2-4): This would be a winnable game for the Norm and his merry band of Rainbow Warriors if the game were played in Honolulu where they could count on jet lag taking its toll on the boys from the mainland. In Albuquerque, it’s win #4 for New Mexico and another milestone on the way back to respectability. Mike Locksley darn near did to New Mexico what Norm is doing to Hawaii and it isn’t pretty.
2. Kevin Wilson, Indiana (4-2): He’s hanging on by fingernails but a win over Rutgers gets the Hoosiers within one game of bowl eligibility and with Maryland and Purdon’t still on the schedule, a 7-win season is possible. Seven wins will get you fired at Florida. It buys you two more years at Indiana.
3. Doug Martin, New Mexico State (0-5): The Aggies expect to get thrashed when they’re playing for a paycheck, like last week against Ole Miss. They’re back in the Sun Belt this week and life will be just as rough at Georgia Southern. My Favorite Martin has dialed up 15 straight losses but he works cheap and is willing to coach in a graveyard.
4. Paul Petrino, Idaho (1-4): The Vandals have two more chances to win football games this year and one of them is this week against fellow Sun Belt bottom feeder Troy. Petrino can lose this one and stay employed. He can’t, however, lose to New Mexico State in two weeks.
5. Paul Haynes, Kent State (2-4): If Haynes is going to make a case for another year, this is the time to do it. There is an open date this week and 1-win UMass next. If Kent State is 2-5 in two weeks Haynes might start packing up the office because he’s going to be pink slipped no later than season’s end.
6. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado (3-3): Three wins against weaklings don’t offset two blowout losses in Pac-12 play. If Zona blows the doors off the Buffs this weekend, Big Mac might get downsized and start living off buyout money before the weekend is a dot in the rearview.
7. Chuck Martin, Miami Ohio (1-5): The program is a mess and even though Martin has only been on the job two years, the feeling is that the program is moving backward. Just breaking even means winning five of the last six games. Long term real estate investments are not advised.
VERY WEAK PULSE
1. Curtis Johnson, Tulane (2-3): Johnson will probably be on next week’s Endangered Species List after Houston does unmentionable things to the Green Wave this weekend in Nawlins.
2. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt (2-3): Everybody agrees the Commodores are better, but they are 0-3 against the SEC this year and 0-11 since Mason has taken over as HBC. At some point he’s got to win an SEC game. He may never have a better chance than Saturday with South Carolina in such disarray.
3. Willie Taggart, USF (2-3): It … is … alive! USF didn’t exactly shock the world by beating Syracuse last week, but the Bulls did shock the folks in Tampa who have given up on the notion that Taggart can deliver winning football. Taggart still has to go 4-3 the rest of the way with UCF being one of the four. This weekend, the Bulls are at UConn, which is a -2.5 point favorite.
1. Mike Leach, Washington State (3-2): The win over Oregon has the Wazzoo folks thinking maybe The Pirate hasn’t forgotten how to coach. The trick will be winning three of the last seven. If he does that, he’s back in Pullman next year.
2. Butch Jones, Tennessee (3-3): Beating Georgia has the Tennessee faithful thinking they can run the table and finish 9-3. The Vols can’t lose this week because it’s an open date, but Alabama awaits in Tuscaloosa October 24.
3. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech (3-3): The win over NC State helped dial down the heat. Getting to the 7-8 win plateau ensures he’s around next year.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
What are your predictions for Florida-LSU and Alabama-Texas A&M?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I listened to “The Last Waltz” by The Band Thursday afternoon. I do that periodically to remind myself what a great concert and rock and roll band that was.