The Big Picture: Lessons To Be Learned

In an off-week before a huge game against Florida State, it's worth taking stock of the just-completed SEC portion of the 2005 season. This involves assessing Florida's rivals as much as the Gators themselves.

The place to start is LSU, for one very simple reason: the biggest attribute of this team is not its considerable talent, but its character. That's not just a personal piece of analysis, either: it's the verdict of head coach Les Miles, whose kids had to respond to Hurricane Katrina and then Rita all while thinking about big ballgames against Arizona State and Tennessee. With the College Gameday crew last Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Miles pointedly identified "character" as the main reason why his team is in the driver's seat to make the SEC title game and be installed as a likely favorite against Georgia. Because of early-season adversity, the Tigers had that extra bit of will needed to turn back a considerably inspired Alabama team. So take note, Florida: character counts in a big way in SEC football. Learning from LSU, and not just the USC loss, will be important in 2006. When you consider how LSU needed to convert multiple fourth downs to beat the Gators, it's all the more understandable why Urban Meyer can point to Baton Rouge as a place where mental toughness is a reality.

Georgia is another place the Gators must look to for inspiration. Yes, Urban Meyer can look to Mark Richt in 2001 for guidance, but in 2006, Chris Leak will need to be able to look at the story of someone like D.J. Shockley for added motivation. Like Leak, Shockley toiled without immediate material/on-field success for three years. However, in a senior season loaded with pressure, Shockley --- a quality kid, by all accounts --- took it upon himself to be a leader and rally his teammates regardless of the situation. Shockley had some struggles, but he made big plays when necessary, and as a result, UGA is headed to Atlanta, a place where Leak has played (in a Peach Bowl), but never on the first weekend of December. If Leak can follow in Shockley's footsteps next season, Florida will achieve a long-sought goal: returning to the Georgia Dome.

Third, Florida can look to Alabama for an example of real perseverance. The Tide got beaten and bloodied over the previous few seasons, suffering injuries and the bitter taste of losing while head coach Mike Shula --- placed in an impossible position after the Dennis Franchione and Mike Price dramas --- caught way too much heat in Tuscaloosa. But even while Shula got excessively criticized for the way his team played in 2004, what was undeniably true the whole time is that his players never quit on him. Shula has always gotten his players to battle on the field, regardless of the circumstances, so when Brodie Croyle came back healthy this year, Bama became a force again. If any Gator players doubt how far they can go if they never stop sacrificing for their coach, the example of Alabama should give them needed reassurance. If every Gator buys into Urban Meyer's modus operandi the way the Tide bought into Shula's approach this season, 2006 will be a huge year for Florida football.

We've talked about South Carolina earlier this week, but we haven't talked about Tennessee. The Vols --- unlike LSU, UGA or Bama --- offer the kind of negative example the Gators must learn to avoid, and not emulate.

What went wrong for Tennessee? Infighting, for one thing. Erik Ainge was not a team player, and his bad attitude prevented him from trusting his coaches and teammates as much as he could or should have. Rick Clausen was the team leader who inspired trust throughout the Volunteer locker room, but Clausen lacked Ainge's raw talent and ability. The attitude on the Big Orange made this a stunningly miserable season in Knoxville.

But the other ingredient that sunk the Volunteer Navy this season was old, stagnant thinking on the offensive side of the ball. Randy Sanders showed that bubble screens can only take a man so far, and his inability to cultivate excellence in a vertical passing game came back to haunt him --- and his program --- in a very big way. While Al Borges has enabled Auburn to remain an elite offensive team in the SEC --- despite a transition from Jason Campbell to Brandon Cox --- Sanders has proved to be a man who lived off the leadership and savvy of Tee Martin and Casey Clausen. Therefore, as Meyer and Dan Mullen learn how to grow as coaches and play callers in the SEC, they would do well to see the negative lessons of a story such as Tennessee's, and look at that failure just as much as a success story in Auburn.

The stories of this year's SEC teams are stories that all have something Florida's players and coaches can learn from. The biggest lesson is to not forget the pain of losing --- to Steve Spurrier or anyone else who deprives the Gators of a trip to Atlanta --- but aside of that, there are many other teachable moments for Urban Meyer, moments connected to the rise and fall of other SEC schools. The glories in Baton Rouge, Athens, Tuscaloosa and Auburn offer four distinct lessons: maintaining character, displaying leadership as a senior QB, buying into a coach's approach, and getting creative Al Borges-style play calling. The negative example at Tennessee offers the instructive example of what happens when attitude crumbles and old bad habits remain entrenched.

There are lessons to learn for Florida. In next year's SEC, the Gators will need to learn from their conference brethren even as they learn from their own experiences as well.

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