SEC FOOTBALL: The inconvenient truth

The truth is always inconvenient --- that's why journalists are hated even on the few occasions when they actually do their job.

The journalist's role is to tell tough truths even when things are sunny, or tell comforting truths even when things seem blacker than black. The aftermath of Saturday's loss to Alabama puts tough truths and comforting truths right next to each other, making for very uncomfortable reading and some very inconvenient realities that won't satisfy the most rabid Urban Meyer supporters or the panicky precincts of Gator Nation who are demanding an overhaul of the spread option, the quarterback position, or both.

Tough truth number one: Chris Leak is not the quarterback for this offense. (Said before, but now affirmed in a powerful way.)

Comforting truth number one: Leak should not have been expected to master this system in the first place, because anyone who watched him the previous two seasons knew he had an aversion to running.

Furthermore, the fact that Leak was schooled in a substantially different style for two years means that this year has, in many ways, been a time when Leak has had to re-learn the position all over again. This is just an unavoidable circumstance that should blunt criticism of Leak as a football player; anyone in his position would likely be in need of extra time to get this offense down.

Tough truth number two: If Georgia beats Tennessee this Saturday (Gator Nation better be rooting hard for the Children of the Checkerboard), UF's SEC East chances are in huge trouble.

Given that Florida beat Tennessee, and given the fact that the Vols will now be even more hard-pressed to win at Alabama on Oct. 22, it is now that much more imperative for the Vols to beat Georgia and set up a scenario in which UF can lose to LSU, beat Georgia, and win the East with two conference losses on the basis of head-to-head tiebreakers against UGA and UT. But if Georgia wins in Knoxville and the Gators lose to LSU, a Florida win in the Cocktail Party would capture the East only if UGA also loses at home to Auburn. Either way, the road to Atlanta just got a lot, lot tougher for a team that needs to beat LSU in Baton Rouge if it wants to feel truly comfortable about its plae in the SEC East race. But if UGA wins this Saturday, the Gators will be on their SEC deathbed.

Comforting truth number two: As brilliant as he is, Urban Meyer wasn't going to strut into the SEC and just roll over people... not with inherited players who were part of a culture of losing over the previous 1-3 seasons (depending on how many years they were with the Gators over the course of Ron Zook's tenure in Gainesville).

Meyer has, frankly, already succeeded in changing the culture surrounding Florida football. Attitudes and work habits have shifted. But the Xs and Os of gamedays, plus the recruiting game, were going to have to bear fruit over a longer period of time. 4-1 is a start that should be unconditionally embraced, even though it lacks style points from the offensive side of the ball. A trip to Atlanta in this particular season would represent an awesome success bordering on titanic overachievement. Whereas Georgia and Tennessee have veteran SEC coaches in charge of stable programs (even if they have more police blotter incidents than Florida by a country mile), the Gators are in a transition year. And anyone who has any football knowledge or human sensitivity knows that this coaching thing is not the easiest thing to master in one year. A tiny little question: what year is this for Mike Shula? Mmmmmm-hmmmmm... his third --- just about the time when a coach proves that he either has it (as Shula seems to) or doesn't (as the Zooker proved with the loss at Mississippi State). This is Meyer's ultimate learning year. By the middle of next season, it would be fair to begin to expect regular peak performances from Gator offenses. But that's a year from now. Relax. Give this coach and this program at least a little time. The rebuilding's not going to happen all at once; it rarely if ever does. That's life.

Tough truth number three: Forget the obsession with offense; if the Gators want to win games this season, by hook or crook, and simply find a way to get to Atlanta-no matter how ugly-they actually need to follow the blueprint that Ron Zook wanted, but which he couldn't implement or coach well enough to bring to fruition.

Zook wanted every game to be close, and for the defense to take over in field position-dominated games in the fourth quarter. The Tennessee win was an example of Ron Zook's philosophy marrying Urban Meyer's attention to details: the framework of the game was Zook's, but the offseason emphases on strength, conditioning, mental toughness, and airtight ball security were all Meyer's. The former coach had the vision, but the current coach actually did the work and exhibited the combination of professionalism and competence that brought the vision to light. In future weeks, then --- think LSU in particular --- the Gators will need to lean on their defense, shorten games, run the play clock inside 5 on every snap in which the game clock is ticking, win first down handily, force turnovers, and --- this might seem cowardly, but better to be a clever, winning coward than a dumb, brave loser --- use ample exotics and wrinkles. If winning games --- and not establishing the spread option system --- is the ultimate key in 2005, Meyer needs to be a tactician and strategist as opposed to a systemic technician and teacher. But if it's more important for him to install this offense and lay the groundwork for 2006 and beyond, he shouldn't change a thing. Obviously, the inconvenient truth lies somewhere between those two polarities, but it's where Meyer lands on that question that will determine Florida's approach for the rest of the season.

Comforting truth number three: Simply stated --- and as hinted at above ---Florida is very much in position to be the kind of team that can grind out games. The Tennessee game proved it. If the defense can learn to be more of a ball-hawking unit, getting one or two crucial and timely turnovers per game, the Gators can win 20-14, 17-13, 16-7 fistfights that might turn the clock back 30 years, but which would be wins just the same.

In the end, you have to go back to that fundamental balancing act: you want to win each game you play, and you want to get to Atlanta this and every year; but if you want to see Florida football lay a firm foundation for the future, Urban Meyer --- in addition to winning --- has to continue to teach and instruct his players. A part of Florida's coach has to tell his players to do whatever it takes to win; but another part of Meyer's mind has to be attentive to the need to get this system in place to the extent that all of his offensive players feel comfortable enough to execute it and win big with it in future seasons.

Life for Meyer --- and for the Gator Nation as well ---is an exciting yet overwhelmingly uncomfortable and in-between kind of existence these days. That's the inconvenient truth of the matter right now, like it or not.

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