More Than Just An An Elimination Game

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — For all practical purposes, this is an elimination game being played Saturday when the Florida Gators face off with LSU in a critical Southeastern Conference matchup at Tiger Stadium. The winner survives and stays in its divisional race while the loser starts making plans for Tampa or Dallas or some other non-BCS bowl outpost.

The mere fact that this is a Southeastern Conference game between ranked teams (Florida comes in at 11, LSU at 10) means the intensity level will already be sky-high when the game kicks off at 3:30 but there is the added pressure of long range implications that make this a midseason gut check. For both coaches this is a progress marker that will determine just how far they have come in the months since there was a regime change. For LSU Coach Les Miles this will either be a one-week reprieve until Auburn until Auburn comes to town next week or the beginning of the inevitable labeling of Les Miles as the 2005 version of the former coach at Florida (See ZOOK, Ronald).

Both Florida and LSU need a win here to stay in the race for a divisional championship (Florida SEC East; LSU SEC West) and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. Both teams have one loss in conference play so there is no wiggle room just the certainty that a win is the equivalent of a tank with limited oxygen and a loss means means only a miracle of Red Sea parting proportions can get you to Atlanta for something other than the Peach Bowl.

It should be a huge advantage for LSU that this game is played at Tiger Stadium, but Florida has historically played well in Baton Rouge (Gators hold a 15-11 advantage in Baton Rouge), not to mention the game will be played in the daylight. LSU could be dubbed Team Dracula since they definitely play their best once the sun goes down. Think back also two years ago when Florida's reeling and barely ranked Gators of the former Florida coach (See ZOOK, Ronald) pulled off the upset of upsets by scoring a 19-7 win over LSU in Baton Rouge while playing with a true freshman quarterback starting his first game on the road. That game was played in the daytime and it turned out to be the only loss LSU suffered on its march to the national championship.

Florida should have an added advantage in that the Gators beat those same Tennessee Vols that were about to go belly up at Tiger Stadium three weeks ago only to get a life line thrown their way when LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell did what he's prone to do, which is jam his brain in neutral at a critical moment. Had Russell's brain functioned properly there in the final seconds of the first half he would have gotten out of bounds and LSU would have kicked a short field goal that would have driven the wooden stake through Tennessee's heart. Instead of a 24-0 halftime deficit and an instant trip to the SEC graveyard for 2005, the Vols rallied from their near-death experience to win improbably in overtime.

It is because of what happened in that game that things have gotten particularly dicey for Miles. He struggled to get a win at Arizona State in game one but he got a Mulligan for that one since the game was played in Tempe and not Baton Rouge because of Hurricane Katrina. The Tennessee meltdown, so reminiscent of the former Florida coach (See ZOOK, Ronald), was followed by two SEC wins, but beating Mississippi State and Vandy earn no points with the fan base although losing to one of those two perennial SEC bottom feeders will earn a quick trip to the former coaches list in the media guide.

It's bad enough for Miles that he is the guy who followed a legend in Nick Saban, but he's playing the Florida Gators, who were just last year coached by Zook, the last guy who tried to follow an SEC legend who had won a national championship. So here we have a matchup between the coach who replaced Zook (See MEYER, Urban) and the coach who stands to be compared to Zook (See MILES, Les) if he doesn't live up to the expectations of his predecessor.

Florida's loss to Alabama on the road in Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks ago took some of the luster off the shooting star that is Urban Meyer but even though Gator Nation isn't particularly thrilled with that 31-3 trouncing, Meyer has a good bit of leeway. No one penciled the Gators in as national title contenders this year and expectations tend to be a teensy bit lower because the previous coach (See ZOOK, Ronald) took the team to three straight five-loss seasons..

Meyer expects to win this year and though he won't make it an excuse, he's not playing with a full deck because the Gators' two-deep isn't exactly brimming with the kind of athletes usually associated with SEC championships and national title runs. Miles inherited a talent base that is unsurpassed in the SEC and may only be exceeded nationally by Southern Cal and Texas. There are no holes on LSU's two-deep roster. No holes equals higher expectations and something close to zero tolerance for Les Miles, a coach who has been described in the past as one who can take bad talent and go 7-4 or great talent and go 8-3.

Should Meyer and the Gators score the win Saturday, they not only stay alive in the SEC East race but set the stage for what amounts to a winner take all showdown at the Gator Bowl with Georgia in two weeks. A loss, while a fatal blow to championship aspirations, wouldn't be the end of the world for the Gators since the expectations are supposed to be higher in the years to come once Meyer has his system in place and a couple of stellar recruiting classes filling out the two-deep charts. Anyone who has followed Meyer's coaching career understands that big things typically happen in year two so a championship in year one would be a truly unexpected bonus.

The stakes are far different for Miles. The fickle LSU fan base hasn't allowed him to forget that he wasn't the first choice to replace Saban. When Saban bolted for the big bucks and glamor of the No Fun League, LSU's fans expected nothing less than a Pete Carrol clone or at least a Mark Richt or Steve Spurrier. A coach with a 28-21 record in four years at Okie Dokie State doesn't exactly give national championship expecting fans the warm and fuzzies.

The fans all sympathize with the disruptive elements of Hurricane Katrina, but you must understand that this is LSU where football may not be bigger than life but it is at least its equal. Never mind that it only took 45 years to repeat that national championship in 1958. Never mind that there's not been another Billy Cannon although they do replay John Ferguson's radio call of the 89-yard punt return to beat Ole Miss in 1959 about forty-leven bazillion times during football season. None of that matters. The way the fans here look at it, Les Miles was given the goose that lays golden eggs and most of the fans think he's coached his first four games like an alchemist.

That perception won't change completely with a win over the Gators because Auburn and Alabama remain on the schedule but a win guarantees at least one week without comparisons to the last coach who tried to follow an SEC legend (See ZOOK, Ronald). Tiger fans are as ready to embrace Miles as they are to hang him in effigy from the nearest tall oak tree outside of Tiger Stadium.

Meyer, meanwhile, will gather back the confidence lost by Gator Nation in Tuscaloosa if he escapes Tiger Stadium with a win. If he loses, it won't be the end of the world. Winning the SEC in his first year could indeed be a pipe dream, but dreamers who have dreamed bigger and less probable dreams have seen theirs come true in the past. So why not this year? It could happen. It might not, but it could.

Whether the Gators win a title this year or not, though, Meyer is in good shape with a fan base that is convinced that this is the right guy for the long haul in Gainesville. Even if he doesn't deliver a championship this year, no one doubts that he will win big for years to come. The same can't be said for Les Miles.

Miles would love to have the room for growth that Florida fans are willing to bestow on Meyer but unlike Urban, he wasn't the first choice ... or even the second or third. If Saban had stayed and it had been put to a vote, Tiger fans would have gladly voted him honorary membership in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost Trinity. No such luck for Miles. If he loses Saturday, the Zook comparisons will be hot and heavy Monday morning and fans might be doing an over-under on how long before Les hits the dusty trail.

And so it is that when Florida and LSU square off Saturday the pressure will be every bit as great as the expectations are high. There will be a winner and there will be a loser when the final seconds tick off the clock. One team will live to fight another day and the other will spend the rest of the season making sure its bowl game isn't the Weedwacker (winner spends one week in Shreveport; loser required to spend two weeks in Shreveport).

For the coaches the stakes are different. For Ron Zook's successor, it's a chance to take another step closer to an improbable dream and to send the Florida fan base into rabid expectation of the faceoff with Georgia in Jacksonville in two weeks. For Nick Saban's successor it is a chance to avoid being declared the next Ron Zook.

THE FEARLESS FORECAST: If Florida protects Chris Leak and wins the turnover battle, it's the Gators game to win. If the Tigers get to Leak and force turnovers, it could be a long day for Florida.

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