COLUMN: Proving time has arrived

On one side of the Florida game were North Texas and Idaho. On the other side are South Carolina and Alabama. Clearly stakes are high for LSU this weekend in Gainesville.

I guess sometimes not knowing breeds more anxiety.

Two years ago we knew, warts and all, who LSU was by the time it reached the Florida game.

Having already escaped a second-half meltdown against UNC in the opener, slid past West Virginia on the strength of a Patrick Peterson punt return and goofed its way past Tennessee in a laugher of an ending, LSU was imperfect, but opportunistic in 2010.

Les Miles' bunch carried on that theme when they marched into The Swamp at 5-0, ranked 12th in the country, and left, one bouncing over-the-head fake field goal later, at 6-0, ranked ninth.

Miles' response afterward, and I paraphrase: "They didn't like us at 5-0. Let's see how they like us at 6-0."

Last year the Tigers' identity was even more well-established by the sixth game of the season. LSU was the top team in the land, having already fended off ranked foes in Oregon, Mississippi State and West Virginia, all away from the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium. The Bayou Bengals were locked and loaded.

So it wasn't exactly a shocker when No. 1 LSU pasted Florida 41-11 in Death Valley as the Gators trotted out a true freshman at quarterback in front of a host of rabid fans and an even hungrier defense.

Now, days away from the 2012 installment of LSU v. Florida, there are a lot more questions and a lot less certainty surrounding what this Tiger team is.

Yes, they've put up 41 points twice and even a 63-spot against Idaho. And the Tigers thoroughly beat a Washington team that went onto win at Stanford and is now ranked.

But LSU has also looked flat, uninspired and, at times, lost (especially on offense), struggling in first halves against North Texas, Idaho and Towson. And the purple and gold, dealing with a rash of injuries and even more penalties, were just barely able to eke out a 12-10 win at Auburn against a group of Tigers in even worse shape.

So LSU fans enter Week 6 of this campaign with shoulders shrugged, but fingers crossed, as the Tigers get set to invade Ben Hill Griffin Stadium again.

Not knowing is the hardest part, especially considering the implications of the game.

Suddenly-improved Florida, now up to No. 10 in the latest polls, represents a line in the sand for LSU in the 2012 schedule. On one side were teams perceived and treated as lay-ups. That part's past. On the other side are some of the best teams the toughest conference in America has to offer. That part's already emblazoned into the minds of ever Tiger supporter. For that matter, every Tiger player.

"We still have a lot of room to improve, but it's really going to be an attitude thing and a gut-check this week to see how guys respond," quarterback Zach Mettenberger said earlier this week. "We're not particularly playing well these past five weeks, and Saturday is really going to be the game of the year. It's the biggest game of the year.

"It's really going to be the set point for the rest of the year if we can go out there, play like we want and get the win. It's going to show a lot of these guys on the team that we can get it done."

Leave Gainesville with a win, and the outlook certainly will be rosy, as Mett points out, leading up to home contests with South Carolina and Alabama and a road test at feisty Texas A&M.

Do the opposite, and the Ole War Skule will be likely be heading toward its worst season since 2009, when the Tigers finished 9-4.

The Florida game looms as a tipping point in LSU's season and can at once be the catalyst pushing this Tiger squad toward 11-1 or 8-4. We'll know a lot more by Saturday night.

And I think for many, their heads and guts are sending conflicting messages about the game. Our heads should be telling us that LSU can't win, not with the way it's been playing, the holes on the roster brought about by injuries and suspensions and, of course, trekking to Gator Country.

But then there's that hunch, that gut feeling that LSU, a team that's won so much lately and still has a number of SEC scalps in its bag from a year ago (including Florida's), can get it done on talent and some kind of Les Miles pixie dust. Again, we won't know until Saturday night if LSU is able to flip the switch against this top-notch opponent.

What we do know is the stakes are high. In the past that's brought the best out of Miles' Tigers. For their sake, given the murderer's row coming up in the schedule, it needs to happen one more time.

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