SEC FOOTBALL: Ultimate Cajun Tailgate Party

Your normal LSU tailgating experience is loaded with gastronomic delights. This Saturday's tailgate --- or should we say, "Tail-Gator"? --- has a spread that will stuff the football fan with a buffet table overflowing with meaty, juicy questions about this year's Florida football team.

Georgia is a rivalry game with its own subculture and backdrop --- same for Florida State --- but this LSU game is "pure" in the sense that it's just a really big game between two teams who find themselves in incredibly similar positions.

Let the questioning begin. Chew on all these tasty queries at your stomach's --- and brain's --- risk:

(1) Are these teams, Florida and LSU, clones of each other?

These two teams played virtually similar games on Saturday, didn't they? They both committed illegal blocking penalties on long kick returns, littered the field with mistakes, couldn't get out of their own way in the first half, witnessed their defenses score safeties, and waited until the late portion of the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter to put away less talented and clearly undermanned opponents. Florida led 12-3 at half and wound up winning 35-9; LSU led 9-3 at the break and won 34-6.

(2) Which will win out Saturday (or to put it differently, which will do a better job of avoiding a loss): Florida's impotent offense or LSU's chronically turnover-prone offense?

Chris Leak is ineffective as he presides over an offense that's a transitional work in progress. JaMarcus Russell is erratic as he presides over an offense he knows under the tutelage of veteran offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. Florida struggles but doesn't make huge mistakes. LSU excels but makes the huge mistake. This leads to the next question...

(3) Which will win out on Saturday: Florida finding a scoring punch against a name opponent for the first time, or LSU finding ball security against a name opponent for the first time?

This needs little explanation ... not directly, anyway.

(4) Urban Meyer strategy considerations, part one: Should Meyer be conservative or wide-open in this game?

This is a particularly fascinating question, and it merits more than a knee-jerk answer --- it's not that easy to address. On one hand, you want to mute the Death Valley crowd, keep your troops fresh, and put added pressure on Russell each time LSU has the ball. Field position and time of possession will do this. However, honoring the talent the Tigers possess, there is the competing need to ring up seven on multiple possessions and not think that merely playing field position can give the Gators the upper hand on Saturday. Furthermore, the fact that LSU has consistently blown pass coverages all season long makes it that much more enticing to employ a pass-first approach. Yet, any desire to "pitch it around the ballpark" (as a certain coach used to say) must be tempered by accounting for the health of Chris Leak's shoulder ... especially on a day when that shoulder figures to get hit by LSU's awesomely fast defense. Meyer has some major decisions to make. Speaking of those decisions, we haven't fully covered them....

(5) Beyond the "conservative/wide-open" dilemma (also known as a run-pass quandary), does Meyer look at this game as the ultimate and necessary test of the spread option's maturation (not to mention its viability), or as "one isolated game he needs to win by hook or crook"?

This is an even bigger and more difficult question than the previous one. Yes, Meyer's offense is a work in progress, and yes, he should do as much as he can to establish this offense so that his system can help Florida, his new program, take off again. But there are always times in each season --- not to mention the life of a coach's (and a program's) evolution --- when the emphasis on "the system" has to take a back seat to merely "finding a way to win a big game." I honestly don't know if this LSU game represents that kind of tipping point moment for Meyer. True, I have always believed that expecting Atlanta in Year One was and is an excessive expectation for this team and coach. However, the fact of the matter is that if Meyer is serious about Atlanta and a date in the SEC Championship Game for this particular season, Georgia's win at Tennessee on Saturday means that this game needs to be bagged.

If Meyer thinks that the development of his offense and the teaching of his system constitute priority number one for Florida football, he has a right to do so against LSU and every other first-year opponent for his team. This decision ---whose logic is solid and whose long-term vision is commendable --- should not be held against him, given that college football is a much more impatient world than it used to be. If Meyer wants to stay the course, Gator Nation should understand --- and moreover, appreciate --- the long-term thoughtfulness behind such a decision.

However ...

However, if Meyer wants to have the best chance of grabbing this particular game by the horns, he will want to stop trying to fit a round hole with a square peg. Why? Simple answer: LSU's defense is fast. Very, very fast.

What does this mean? It means Florida's offense will not beat LSU's defense straight-up, doing typical things and relying on plays with a one-way flow. Misdirection, trickeration, confusion, funkification, salesmanship, ball manipulation, sleight-of-hand, Hollywood acting, reversals, disguises, wrinkles, exotics, tweaks, variations, anti-tendency plays, and a partridge in a pear tree. These must be consistently thrown at LSU's defense if Florida wants to score big on Saturday.

Let's keep in mind that the Gators don't have to score big on Saturday --- if they make JaMarcus Russell face long fields with minimal touches of the ball and force the LSU signal-caller to make multiple reads against coverages that Charlie Strong has proven he can disguise and mix with great effectiveness, the Gators could win with a defense-first, special teams-second approach. But if Florida's offense wants to score points and put pressure on Russell in that fashion, the Gators can't win with same ol', same ol'. They need to bait LSU into biting on runs and short passes, only to take advantage of blown downfield coverages or overpursuit to find home-run plays.

The choices are out there for Meyer... whatever he decides to do, he needs to have the right plan and the right situational follow-ups that can make the plan work.

(6) Just how good is JaMarcus Russell, anyway?

This quarterback is an evident physical specimen. He has the gifts, he has the arm, he can see over defensive linemen. But he always turns the ball over in big games. Can Russell avoid the turnover bug this time? Whatever Meyer decides to do on offense --- that's where most of this game's variables come in --- what must absolutely happen for the Gators to win is to force timely turnovers from Russell's mighty but unpredictable right arm.

(7) Just how good is LSU, anyway?

In Bob Davie's otherwise-horrendous call of the Tennessee-LSU game a few weeks ago, he did mention one incredible stat: that in the week following Hurricane Katrina, LSU's players lost an average of seven pounds per player. SEVEN POUNDS! This clearly affected the Tigers' conditioning in the fourth quarter against the Vols, and only now have the rhythms of a typical college football season begun to settle in for the Tigers. Not only is this game perhaps the first really pure and definitive test of Urban Meyer's spread option (Tennessee was a learning kind of game, and Alabama was a game where the Tide were not yet known to be an elite team, so there wasn't the sense of a full heavyweight confrontation that exists for Saturday's tussle in Baton Rouge), but it's definitely the first real, genuine and "normal" test of Les Miles' coaching acumen. This is a contest in which it will be fair to evaluate Miles on the merits of his and his team's performance, whereas the Tennessee game offered so many abnormal football circumstances that the Tigers could not be evaluated in a typical, traditional manner. How good is LSU? Saturday offers the defining test of the Tigers' quality.

There are other questions out there for the asking, but these are the super seven.

Do you feel full now? That's a lot of Cajun food for thought...

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