Is Florida the best test for LSU?

EDITORIAL - A look back at what Florida games in years past have taught us about the Tigers.

The middle of October has presented a familiar scenario to the LSU football program over the last few seasons. Heading into their annual showdown with Florida, the Tigers are usually still wondering what kind of team they have. Whether LSU gets off to a slow start or fast one, it is usually assumed the Bayou Bengals set the tone for the remainder of the season with their performance against the Gators.


But do they really?


LSU's 4-1 record is nothing to frown upon as the Tigers head to Gainesville, Fla., but this team has yet to show they're capable of handling the week-to-week rigors of the Southeastern Conference. The Florida game marks a three-week stretch of league games for the Tigers, and the third road game in five weeks awaits the Tigers after their second open date on Nov. 2.


While the evenly spaced out breaks in LSU's schedule will help in regards to injury, it could prevent the Tigers from building the all-important momentum a young, transitional team such as this one needs in order to build upon its success.


Of course, momentum also has a way of going against you. Just as easily as the Tigers get on a hot streak, they could also grow cold. Florida certainly found that out at Ole Miss last weekend, falling 17-14 to the Rebels.


"I don't think what happened today (Florida losing to Ole Miss) has any affect on what we need to do because we can't really control any of that," said LSU coach Nick Saban. "We need to get our players ready to play against a team that has been the dominant team in our league for several years."


Just last season, the Florida game was the second SEC contest of the season for LSU after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 forced a postponement of its league opener against Auburn. The 14th-ranked Tigers had fought valiantly in a loss at No. 7 Tennessee, and a home date with No. 2 Florida would show whether LSU was ready to challenge another of the conference's top teams.


"Florida's certainly going to be as good as these guys," Saban said after the loss to Tennessee. "They have as much team speed. So we're going to have to do a much, much better job of running offense."


LSU failed to improve in that regard due in part to being without LaBrandon Toefield and losing Rohan Davey to injury in the second quarter. The Tigers also gave up a Gator-record 464 passing yards to Florida quarterback Rex Grossman in a 44-15 defeat. 


But the Tigers rallied back the following week for a 29-26 comeback win at Kentucky – one considered important toward solidifying team chemistry. And after a home stumble against Ole Miss, LSU ran off six straight wins to claim the SEC crown and its first Sugar Bowl trophy in 34 years.


So while the Florida game showed the definite need for improvement from the Tigers' pass defense, the game by no means signaled an end to LSU's 2001 season. Much to the contrary, the Tigers survived the humbling home loss and proved to be a very capable team.


The 2000 LSU-Florida game was another one-sided affair in favor of the Gators. Coming into that game, the Tigers were 1-1 in the SEC following a loss at Auburn and an overtime upset win against No. 11 Tennessee. An injured Davey engineered the win over the Volunteers but wasn't physically able to keep LSU in the game with 12th-ranked Florida a week later. Josh Booty took most of the snaps in a 41-9 loss at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.


"We had too many guys out there today that had the look," Saban said following the game. "I don't know if you know what the look is, but I call it the brook trout look. You know what the brook trout look is? How many people fish in here? You catch a fish and look at it, and it just gives you that blank stare. We had some blank stares out there today, and that's not good when you want to play with intensity."


Since the 3-3 Tigers had also fallen to an underdog Alabama-Birmingham squad, there was room for doubt among Tiger fans still reeling from back-to-back losing seasons.


But again, the Tigers' performance against Florida would not provide an accurate assessment of the team's potential.


LSU bounced back to post a shutout of Kentucky (34-0), an upset of No. 13 Mississippi State (45-38 OT), the first home win versus Alabama since 1969 (30-28) and strong road win at Ole Miss (20-7).


The Tigers failed to end the regular season with a win, losing 14-3 to Arkansas, but provided an exciting 28-14 victory over No. 15 Georgia Tech in their Peach Bowl backyard.


Davey provided a much needed spark for the Tigers against the Yellow Jackets and was instrumental in the upset of Tennessee had their struggle. But Booty, who couldn't keep pace with Florida's torrid offense, proved up to the task for most of LSU's stretch run.


LSU's effort in a 31-10 loss to eighth-rated Florida in 1999 was commendable at the time, but the same couldn't be said for some of the play calling during the rain-soaked contest in Tiger Stadium. The Gators overcame the conditions to make timely big plays and hand LSU the third of its eight-straight losses that would result in the termination of Gerry DiNardo.


In the exception to the point we're trying to make here, the '99 Tigers would continue to be plagued by misfortune, poor execution and questionable decisions from the sideline. Some think the damage to LSU's team's chemistry took another full season to repair.


The '98 LSU team, a very highly regarded unit in the preseason, gave No. 6 Florida quite a challenge in their night game at Gainesville, but the Gators rallied for a 22-10 win over the No. 11 Tigers. From that point on, the defense of Lou Tepper provided little challenge to opposing SEC offenses in a 4-7 campaign.


The Tigers' performance against Florida in this game was sort of an anomaly when compared to most contests in 1998. Against the Gators, LSU's offense had its lowest production over the entire season, as the Tigers usually were able to engage their foe in shooting matches until they just ran out of bullets.


So does LSU's upset over top-ranked Florida in 1997 hold true to the pattern? If you consider that the No. 8 Tigers fell flat, 36-21, in a loss to unranked Ole Miss in Baton Rouge the following week, you'd have to think it does. LSU went on to dominate in wins at Kentucky (63-28), at Alabama (27-0) and versus Arkansas (31-21), but had to avenge a regular season loss to Notre Dame (6-24) in the Independence Bowl (27-9).


If there's anything to be gained by LSU's experience over Florida over the past five years, it's that one game doesn't necessarily determine the outcome of the season for the Tigers. Had they come away from Virginia Tech with a win and faced Florida unbeaten, we would then be talking about a game with national championship implications.


But the Tigers and the Gators are both teams with blemished records who still have a lot at stake over the rest of 2002. A loss for either team Saturday would make reaching those goals a bit harder, but we've seen that the Tigers are capable of recovering from setbacks over the past two years.


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