SEC Football: Rita, Erik A Romp In The Slop?

Florida football fans --- especially after their first win over the Tennessee Volunteers in three years --- can remember with great clarity the Gators' 2002 win in Neyland Stadium. Yes, the second half belonged to Rex Grossman, but the bigger story arc from that game was the chronic inability of Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen --- in his only loss to Florida in three tries --- to hold onto the ball in sloppy and very adverse weather conditions.

Author's Note: First of all, one hopes that Hurricane Rita will spare Texas as much as possible, and that nerve centers of care and support for already-traumatized and displaced Katrina victims --- such as Baton Rouge, site of Monday's Tennessee-LSU game --- will remain as stable as possible in the presence of further potential disruption. Secondly, one must realize that the exodus of College Gameday from the scene and a handful of other events --- such as Tennessee arriving on Monday morning instead of flying in the previous night (due to a lack of hotel space in Baton Rouge, owing to the need to house Katrina evacuees) --- will alter the emotional dynamics of the game and, therefore, the game itself. This is not pleasant, but it's the way it is, and frankly, it's the way it should be. The biggest focus in the state of Louisiana right now is not this game, but the necessary efforts to maintain care for Katrina and, if need be --- scary as it sounds --- provide help for those who might be displaced by Rita. Let the following peek into Vols-Tigers be placed in proper perspective.

Monday, Hurricane Rita have already made landfall somewhere around the Texas-Louisiana border but the brunt of the storm will have already passed. Still, the after-effects of the storm are likely to continue to cause problems for both the home standing Tigers and the visiting Vols. Even if the rain --- which could be substantial --- has subsided, the track will probably be sloppy and ballhandling will be priority number one, two, three, four, five, six, and twenty-four in this game.

So, Erik Ainge, will Rick Clausen give you the inside dish on why bigger brother Casey couldn't pack in the pigskin or lock up the laces?

JaMarcus Russell, you let a ball slip right out of your hands two weeks ago in dry, climate-controlled Tempe, Ariz., against the Sun Devils, making a 19-play drive amount to nothing. Are you and your other dropsies-prone mates ready to squeeze that odd-shaped sucker?

And will either one of you quarterbacks be able to throw the ball with any remote level of precision... that is, if you can safely secure the snap from center?

Furthermore, being reminded of the fact that Tennessee's Kevin Simon dropped a Chris Leak interception early in the second half of last week's game at the Swamp, will any of you defensive players be able to hang onto interceptions or secure fumbles when they come your way? As South Carolina knows from its close loss to Georgia, dropped interceptions can decide games as much as anything.

Ballhandling, on offense and defense, is central to this contest, and the reality of that statement is undeniable.

It's true that Tennessee's mistakes against the Gators were of the mental variety more than physical. Britton Colquitt won't get caught dead throwing a fake punt pass in this game, and punts just might be allowed to bounce instead of risking the chance of a muff. But on kickoffs and scrimmage plays, the ball will need to be handled, and two talented but distracted teams forced to play a game under anything but normal conditions --- in terms of both the prevailing weather and the strong, mixed emotions bombarding the Rita-dominated lead-up to tee time --- will win not based on their skill or physical prowess, but on how well they can hang onto the dadgum rock.

It's unfortunate on a particularly profound level that Rita has taken the emotional juice out of this game, much as it did for LSU's much-anticipated battle with Arizona State two weeks ago. But it's also a stroke of bad fortune that, on this smaller football-only scale, the merits of this game --- which had some intriguing matchups (Skyler Green against the Vols' secondary; Gerald Riggs against the Tigers' front four; beleaguered UT offensive coordinator Randy Sanders against beleaguered LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini; celebrated UT defensive coordinator John Chavis against celebrated LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher) --- will merely come down to who has the better good-hands people.

You won't be able to leave this game with a definitive understanding of who has the better team; games with decent weather define the full measure of raw athletic excellence and quality. On this Monday night in Cajun Country, it all comes down to which team has a better hold on the situation... and especially the football. The Vols and Tigers while try to be the Mother of all Mudders in their fight for SEC survival.

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