SEC Football: Two Games, One Lesson

Tonight the Florida Gators face a spotlight game against a UT school wearing orange. But in looking at the titanic Tennessee tilt and getting a feel for this big-league ballgame, one would do well to look at a different showcase game involving another UT school with orange as its team color. That would be last week's game involving Texas and Ohio State. In a number of ways, Gators-Vols eerily resembles Longhorns-Buckeyes, and the more connections you make, the more you can identify the pressure

First of all, Texas-Ohio State fundamentally fit preconceived perceptions of the game, which --- for once --- were actually accurate. The Horns were going to be powered by Vince Young, one way or another, and Texas was going to need a clutch play from a receiver at some point along the way. Or at least, so went the prevailing wisdom. Believe it or not, the pregame wisdom turned out to be legitimately wise after all. Texas had a very predictable and definable set of needs and characteristics, and 60 minutes of combat affirmed those qualities. With Texas, what you saw is what you got last Saturday.

For Ohio State, though, uncertainty --- not predictability --- ruled the pregame buzz last weekend. True, there was no solidly established number one quarterback (the way Chris Leak is at UF), but there was uncertainty about how well OSU's quarterback would play, and moreover, about the style or manner in which OSU's quarterback would operate on the field. Would Troy Smith be a runner, or a thrower? Would he be tight, or liberated? Would he be dynamic, or tame? Would he come up big, or small? That was one wild card for the Buckeyes.

Flowing from that dimension of uncertainty was an even larger question: would Ohio State's offensive coaches verticalize their passing game and open up their offense, or would they feature simplified packages and conservative play calls to rely on their defense in a home night game? Would relentless attacking or ball security be the major theme and emphasis of the night for Jim Tressel? Having watched the game, it's clear which approach Tressel favored, but going in, no one fully knew. It was up to Ohio State to choose a style of play that would dictate to the nature of the contest, and that choice had clear implications for the kind of game that unfolded.

When you look at all those dynamics, then, and shift your attention to the intensity of the present moment and its focus on the SEC East showdown that's been so eagerly anticipated, you can see how one UT school mirrors another. Just as easily, you can appreciate how Ohio State's predicament is Florida's predicament as well.

Tennessee, like Texas, is the predictable team going into this showdown. What you see is what you're likely to get with a Philip Fulmer-coached team. You're going to see bubble screens from Randy Sanders, you're going to see ball security featured heavily in the Vols' method of offensive attack, and you're going to see an emphasis on pounding the rock to try and loosen up the passing game for Rick Clausen and/or Erik Ainge. You're going to see Gerald Riggs, Jr., featured in a Swamp road game for the Vols the same way Travis Stephens was featured in 2001. You're going to see Tennessee attempting to make life easy for a member of the Clausen family who, going into this game, is not expected to do a great deal in Gainesville (but who, like Casey, could easily prove skeptics wrong, especially if Riggs and the hosses up front make his life easier and his jersey free of grass stains, just as his brother's jersey was unstained four painful years ago). Tennessee is the steady straight man in this theatrical performance, much like Texas was against the Buckeyes.

Florida, on the other hand, is the unpredictable, more multi-dimensional and layered character in this act, full of mystery and intrigue. Much like Troy Smith, Chris Leak will face a tension in this game between running and passing, between using athleticism and brains to make plays, between improvisation and structure within Urban Meyer's spread option.

Speaking of Meyer: this game will demand that Florida's coach walk a very fine line, a very tight rope. This being a September game, Meyer will want to be somewhat judicious and percentage-conscious in the kinds of plays he and Dan Mullen select, to ease Leak into the game and keep him comfortable. It's a fact of life in the entire college football industry --- and therefore, in the coaching profession as well --- that quarterbacks have to be given some degree of simplicity in early-season (that means September) game plans. At the same time, though, this is also a win-at-all-costs kind of game, which means that in certain spots, Meyer and Mullen will need to be creative, bold risk-takers with Leak, challenging their on-field leader to make daring plays and first-rate reactions.

Florida is the team that has options in terms of what style it wants to play, and just like Ohio State, the choices UF's coaching staff makes will resonate throughout the rest of Saturday night's game. Keep this larger framework in mind as you watch the Gator-Vol game unfold. Meyer will set the tone, and Tennessee's braintrust of Fulmer, Sanders and defensive coordinator John Chavis will really begin to coach on Saturday when they react to what Florida does.

So in putting UT against UF, it's a lot like the other UT against Ohio State from last weekend. The UT schools are the predictable ones, while Florida and the Buckeyes are the wild cards with the abundance of choices, but therefore, the strategic dilemmas and uncertainties as well.

Ultimately, when you get past comparisons between last weekend's showcase college football game and this weekend's five-star fistfight, the unit that will ultimately make the difference, for better or worse, is Florida's defensive front. Whenever the Gators have made UT quarterbacks truly uncomfortable for extended periods of time, UF has won this rivalry. Conversely, whenever UT quarterbacks have been virtually untouched, as a by-product of both good Volunteer rushing offense and piss-poor Gator pass rushing, the Vols have owned the recent editions of this SEC clash.

There's your guide for what to watch on Saturday. A final word to the Gators? Try this: don't underestimate this Clausen at the Swamp the way the previous one was four years ago. Expect your opponent's best shot, even if a number of indications don't seem to suggest as much.

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