Saturday Showdown: Old School Vs. High Tech

Saturday is the day the critics have been waiting for ever since that day back in December when Urban Meyer was announced as Florida's football coach. This is the first chance for both the critics and the proponents to determine once again if the SEC is ready for Star Wars. The last time it happened was 15 years ago when in one season Steve Spurrier silenced the critics with his everybody out for a pass offense. Spurrier heard all the negatives. Meyer has heard them, too.

In 1990, the SEC was a conservative league where it was considered a necessity to pound the ball between the tackles and let the defense win games. Spurrier changed all that in one season and it took awhile for the rest of the league to even come close to catching up to what was going on at Florida. Now Meyer is the Florida coach, and he's hearing the same old "it won't work in the SEC" talk about his offense. Meyer will get his first chance to put his offense on display Saturday night before what is expected to be a record crowd in The Swamp and a CBS-TV national audience. The Meyer offense will be a sharp contrast to a Tennessee offense that looks like Tennessee offenses have looked for years.

No one will ever mistake Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer as a high tech kind of offensive guy. He takes an if it isn't broken, don't fix it approach because not much has changed in the past 15 or so years for the Vols. With Tennessee, you know the Vols are going to try to establish the running game between the tackles to keep the safeties occupied and once the safeties are committed to run support, they're going to throw the ball over the top to take advantage of wide receivers who are big, fast and athletic.

Meyer comes in with the spread option offense that is becoming the rage of college football. It's part wishbone, part single wing, part West Coast and part Fun N Gun. It is an offense that is designed to force teams out of what they do best on defense by spreading out the field and making the defenders account for all 11 offensive players by putting the quarterback into the mix as a running element. It's an offense that served Meyer well in stops at Bowling Green and Utah, but because it's never been seen in the SEC, there are critics who say it just won't work.

Fulmer isn't one of those critics. He sees the new offensive scheme at Florida as one that can make a defense look pretty silly.

"They use the entire field with the option and the screens and reverses so they make you defend the field," said Fulmer. "They make you play pretty much assignment football like the old veer or wishbone offense so you have to make sure someone's accounting for the dive, the quarterback and the pitch. They just do a good job of taking you out of the things you like to do.

"It's a good scheme. If you're not careful it will take some of your pursuit away because you are playing assignment football. You get washed up in a wad and all of a sudden you've got people on the perimeter."

The Tennessee formula for offensive success may change a bit each year depending on personnel. The Vols aren't so old school that Fulmer won't factor in a few new plays to take advantage of his personnel, but for the most part, Tennessee success is measured by a big, powerful offensive line that opens holes for what is typically a big back with the power to hammer the ball inside and the speed to cut it to the outside. Meyer thinks the Vols don't fix it approach works so well that there's little need to make wholesale changes.

"I think one thing about their tailback, Gerald Riggs, is he's a big power back but he's also a guy who can get the edge on you," said Meyer. "I think DeShawn Wynn is very similar. He's a power back but you get him out in the open field and he can move. Their offensive line is well-coached, and they're gigantic.

"That's who they are, and they take great pride in that. In the last 10 years, I don't think there has been a more successful team in the country with just wins and losses, so why change?"

Florida's offense will be triggered by third-year starter Chris Leak, while there is a bit of a quarterback controversy going on in Knoxville. Leak has solid credentials the past two years and after two games, he has a 179.6 quarterback efficiency rating on 36-59 passing (69.6 percent) for 539 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. Tennessee could go with either Rick Claussen, a good field manager who isn't flashy or sophomore Erik Ainge, a big pocket passer who showed his arm and poise as a true freshman in last year's 30-28 win over the Gators in Knoxville.

Leak is being asked to run a new offense this year. He operated out of the shotgun last year when he was a pure drop back passer, but in the new scheme, he runs the option and he has to be a running factor to keep the linebackers occupied so they can't offer much help defending the passing game. Fulmer thinks that Leak has made the transition from drop back passer quite well.

"I think he's played very well in the offense in the first game and the second game," said the Tennessee coach. "He looks to me like he's comfortable throwing it down the field and he looks like he's running it very effectively. He looked like a good runner to me."

Meanwhile at Tennessee, Ainge didn't look comfortable in game one two weeks ago against UAB. Claussen came in the game to secure the win for the Vols. Last season Claussen was the third team quarterback when Ainge and Brent Schaeffer both went down with injuries. Claussen came in to get the job done well enough that the Vols made the SEC championship game and he followed that up with a Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M.

Meyer sees the strengths in both Tennessee quarterbacks and he thinks the Vols offense is in good hands no matter which of the two is under center.

"I think Erik Ainge is as talented a quarterback as there is," said Meyer. "I think he's going through some youth issues as far as experience. Anytime you have a couple of picks in the first game, a lot of times in close games that can be the difference. It's the same thing with our quarterbacks.

"With Rick Clausen, all that kid does is win games. All I keep hearing is, 'Yeah, but his arm strength' … his arm strength is fine. Just ask Texas A&M how his arm strength is. He's not very mobile but he's mobile enough to win games."

Call it high tech vs. old school, but Saturday's game will still be determined by the same old things: winning the field position game, making critical defensive stops on third down, protecting the football and avoiding silly penalties at critical times. The outcome of the game may not silence the critics but just like Spurrier's arrival in 1990 signaled a change in the SEC, this game could also be the beginning of a new offensive era in the league.

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