SEC FOOTBALL: Putting It In Perspective

In the first several hours after Saturday's cathartic, feel-good, 16-7 win over the Tennessee Volunteers in a battle for SEC East superiority, any right-thinking person --- fan and journalist alike --- should have emphasized the momentousness of the moment for the Florida Gators and acknowledged the occasion as the breakthrough it was.

(Photo by Glenn Danforth)

A big-game victory at the Swamp had been a long time coming, not to mention a big game without crippling turnovers, fourth-quarter fatigue, special teams nightmares, or prevent-defense disasters. Beating Tennessee and its world-class defense deserved to be the first, second and third focus of immediate post game discussion.

But now we come to Monday of Kentucky week, otherwise known as "post-Tennessee week." This means it's time to begin the necessary process of identifying key weaknesses that were exhibited in the Vol game, which will enable Urban Meyer and his very able staff to either adjust to those weaknesses or correct them.

The obvious weaknesses that Meyer will have to adjust to (as opposed to correcting or surmounting) are the huge losses to Andre Caldwell and Ray McDonald. Losing one sparkplug apiece from the receiving corps and particularly the defensive line --- where UF's bread was buttered against Tennessee --- will demand careful attention, to say the least. But beyond the realm of injuries, the much bigger weakness --- the one that has to be managed with extraordinary finesse and care --- is this spread option offense in the hands of Chris Leak.

Let's be clear: against a defense of Tennessee's caliber, a low-point total is nothing to be ashamed of, especially in victory. Just as clear, however, is the fact that Florida didn't score an "exciting" 16 points, but a rather bland 16, with six points coming gift-wrapped off Tennessee turnovers. Florida's offense amounted to just two drives, a very different kind of frustration compared to the Doug Johnson era, when the Gators --- though often able to move the ball in big chunks --- would self-destruct or short-circuit in key situations, particularly in the red zone. To put the point in a simpler way, "not all low-scoring offenses are created equal." The offense of Meyer and Leak was turnover free but impotent; the offense in the Spurrier-Johnson years was often unpredictable, but usually more in the direction of being potent and turnover-rich. If Meyer had a quarterback who could light it up but was prone to commit a big turnover, there would be a different set of challenges ahead. But what we have in front of us is a turnover-free offense that lacks devastating quick-strike capability at the present moment, and if the SEC is to be conquered, that will simply have to change.

If things are to change, Meyer and Dan Mullen --- while trying to figure out how Chris Leak can become a better steward of this sophisticated offense --- need to consider the wisdom of crafting several plays a game in which a bolder and more willing runner can initiate the kind of speed-toward-the-boundary action that Meyer wants from this offense. Inserting Josh Portis just for a few run plays a game, or using some of Steve Spurrier's favorite run plays --- the X-quick and the reverse mini-option --- can put runners in situations where they can outrun or outflank defenses.

It's undeniably true that Leak will need to learn more about this offense and gain a greater comfort level within its framework before it's all said and done. From that (legitimate and unassailable) perspective, Leak simply needs his reps and touches, and Kentucky could be the get-well-tonic that enables UF's quarterback to develop greater sharpness before a daunting, make-or-break October comes along, with roadies to Alabama and LSU and the neutral site bash at the Cocktail Party. But giving responsibility to Leak isn't the number one priority for Meyer and Mullen; the top goal for the Gators' offensive braintrust is to make this offense appreciably more potent and effective, and any change-of-pace running plays that can be incorporated into this offense --- even if they don't involve Leak --- are likely to give the Gators more options over the course of a game.

Kentucky might be the kind of game where you don't want to show much for the Crimson Tide, your subsequent opponent, but eventually, there will come a time when Meyer and Mullen need to give opposing defenses more to think about. Brodie Croyle isn't likely to stink up the joint the way Tennessee's quarterbacks did on Saturday, and when a good opposing offense puts up a mildly imposing number --- such as 20 points --- on Florida's superb defense, Meyer will need to know that his offense can score 24. Saturday's 16 was good enough against a sputtering offense held in check by a ferocious Gator line and a smothering blue-shirted secondary, but that same kind of performance just won't cut it in October and November. For the Gators to get better, Leak's improved feel for the offense can't be viewed as a magic bullet, because part of Leek's natural football instincts are geared toward conventional dropback passing. If Leak isn't personally willing to run more, Meyer and Mullen need to design plays where backs or receivers do the bulk of the running, and Leak merely initiates the play. Saturday's reverse to Andre Caldwell was a case in point, and guess what? It scored UF's only touchdown.

In summation, then, it could come down to this for Florida's offense: whereas Steve Spurrier came up with "ball plays" geared toward tricky passing, Meyer's ball plays might be trick runs that take pressure off Chris Leak while still offering the promise of home-run potency and potential. And while the grab bag might not (and frankly, should not) be opened this weekend in Lexington, Meyer and his staff can begin to think about the variations, wrinkles and exotics he can use later in the season to build from his basic spread option packages.

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