What now appears right and wrong about our preseason look at a critical game.
What's at Stake: Florida's chances at an undefeated season could very well be determined by this game. With neither of the other contenders from the SEC West set to face Florida before the conference title showdown in December, the Gators' most serious two threats have to be Georgia and LSU. As a practical matter, Florida's national and league championship hopes remain alive and well if they lose this game; it's hard to see a one-loss SEC team shut out of the BCS title game assuming there's only one undefeated team from the Big XII, Pac-10, Big Ten, ACC and maybe the Big East. If Florida only loses this game and defeats Georgia three weeks later, it still goes to Atlanta with a chance to secure a national title berth. Still, why tempt fate? And let's not kid ourselves -- Tim Tebow didn't just come back for another chance to win it all; he came back to win 14 in a row in a single season. For LSU, it's essential to at least split this game and the Georgia tilt; two losses is likely at least one too many to prevail in the SEC West.
This is an interesting knot to untie here. LSU has already won at least a split between this game and Georgia, meaning the Bengals will control their own fate in the SEC West race no matter what happens Saturday. But the Georgia loss also means that Florida can still lose this game, win out and go to Atlanta. That said, whichever team wins this game could be the front-runner in the SEC and will be a part of the national championship conversation. Florida might be able to do that even with a loss; LSU, unless it then wins out and defeats the Gators in an SEC Chamionship Game rematch, will have a harder time staying in the discussion. So the game is probably still more important to the Tigers.
What Will Decide the Game This Year: John Chavis' ability to stop Tim Tebow. The new LSU defensive coordinator has never defeated a Gator team with Tebow on it but has had mixed results in attempting to stop the QB. Tebow was 14-of-19 for 299 yards, 2 TDs and an interception in 2007, when the Gators annihilated Tennessee 59-20 in the Swamp; he tacked on 67 yards and 2 TDs on 18 rushing attempts. Last year, in a 30-6 Tennessee loss in which the Vols outgained Florida, Tebow was held to 8-of-15 passing for 96 yards and 2 TDs and just 26 yards and no scores on 12 carries. (Tebow wasn't much of a factor in 2006, rushing seven times for 29 yards.) Chavis' defenses have recorded one sack against Tebow.
Well, maybe. That depends entirely on whether Tebow plays, a question that didn't seem quite as likely to affect the outcome of the game in August. But the LSU defense still faces plenty of questions coming into this game. Is it the team that kept Georgia from moving the ball at all during the first three quarters or the one that almost gave up the game in the fourth? The one that stifled outmanned Vanderibilt or the one that allowed 374 yards to Mississippi State and 478 to Washington. If Tim Tebow doesn't play, there are still plenty of Gators on the field who can put points on the board. Can LSU stop them?
Florida Will Probably Win If ... They're as good as we think they are and stay relatively injury- and hubris-free. The schedule to this point isn't grueling and the Gators should be able to focus on LSU.
Injury-free ended up being wildly optimistic. And that injury ended up being enough to distract the team from LSU if they're given to distractions. As far as remaining "hubris-free," that shouldn't have been a problem; there are already plenty of voices out there saying the Gators haven't proven themselves as the No. 1 team in the land yet. But it looks like Florida will probably win if ... Tim Tebow comes back at 100 percent or John Brantley plays competently in relief. Give me credit; there was no way before the season to see a concusssion coming.
LSU Will Probably Win If ... Chavis can replicate his blueprint from last year and LSU can find more offense than the Clawfense did. That won't be as easy as it sounds against the Florida defense this year, but it's doable. By this point, Jordan Jefferson and Co. should be comfortable with playing in the SEC; if they're as good as advertised, the Tigers could make this a game.
The offense has been uneven this year, but Jefferson has looked pretty good (80-of-128, 920 yards, 7 TDs, 2 INTs). If the line can help keep him upright during this game -- he's already been sacked 13 times in 2009 -- and the running game can find some yardage, the Tigers will move the ball. Whether all that can happen and whether it will be enough for the Bayou Bengals to win is still a matter for debate.
Conclusion: Florida has to be favored in every game they play this year, and the skeptic in me still wonders just how good LSU is. Unless LSU is national championship-caliber this year, the best they can hope for is to keep things interesting. Florida wins a close one.
I'm still skeptical about LSU, though not as much as I was before the season. And the Tim Tebow injury adds a wild care to this game that no one was anticipating. Still, I think Florida is just a little better than LSU, no matter who takes the snaps when the Gators go on offense.