TIM TEBOW is back at practice. Will he play or won't he? And what is the impact on the Gators if he doesn't play?
First, let's clear up one concern. John Brantley is not a weakness. Not only has Brantley seen more than a little playing time already this season; he has played well, throwing three touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Is he comparable to the greatest college football player since Jim Thorpe? Well, no. Who is?
On the other hand, he is an elite passing quarterback who will likely play in the NFL. Knowledgeable SEC fans have no doubt heard one analyst or another opine that Brantley may be "the third or fourth best passing quarterback in the SEC."
He might be the best. We'll see next season.
Ryan Mallet has certainly impressed at Arkansas, but only for half of one season. (And incidentally, while it's fashionable to knock Tebow's throwing motion, he is a very accurate passer with a strong arm.)
Rivals.com ranked Brantley the No. 3 quarterback in the 2007 national recruiting class, behind Casey Clausen and Mallet. He was the Gatorade 2006 National High School Player of the Year. Given a choice, Urban Meyer prefers to recruit kids who have played on championship high school teams. Brantley fits the mold, having guided his high school team to the Florida State 2B Division Championship.
And one last Brantley nugget: Brantley and Tebow are both coached this season by the estimable Scott Loeffler, the former Michigan quarterback tutor to Chad Henne, Brian Griese, and that Tom Brady fellow. (In an odd twist, Loeffler recruited Mallet to Michigan before both were obsoleted in Ann Arbor by the arrival of Rich Rodriguez.)
1. Brantley has played significant time already this this year and played well.
2. Brantley has an elite pedigree and is a winner.
3. Brantley is superbly coached.
Now, back to Mr. Tebow. there is no way to know, at this moment, whether Tebow will play or not. He practiced in pads but without contact today, splitting snaps with Brantley. He will no doubt lobby hard to play, but the decision appears to lie with an objective measure of his performance on various cognitive tests, compared to preseason baseline scores. We won't know until we know.
There's no question that Tebow would be missed in those third and three situations. But the prospect of Tebow roaming the Gator sideline in street clothes is not to be taken lightly, either.
Surely you can imagine the ESPN video highlights of an inspirational Tebow on the sidelines. You know he'll do it, if necessary. And you know it will work. It always does.
Frankly, if you're LSU and Les Miles, you might rather see Tebow out on the field Saturday night. Why? Because the last thing you want is the Gators elevating Mr. Tebow to temporary "Gipper" status.
The Gators are the deeper, more talented, and more experienced team, and they are anxious to avenge the 2007 war in Death Valley, one of college football's most memorable games and a game many current Gators played in. No need to add fuel to the fire.
So from LSU's perspective, you might say this game is a version of "pick your poison."
Of course, LSU can win this game. The Gators have the most talented team in the SEC and probably the nation, but six or seven different SEC teams can beat just about anybody on a good day if a few breaks go their way. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, and, maybe once again by next year, Tennessee.
Of these, Alabama is superbly coached and has more than its fair share of good athletes, but the LSU Tigers are always the scariest team the Gators face.
LSU teams just seem to always come up with a patchwork of athletes with just crazy physiques and talent—big gangly guys whose jerseys don't seem to fit quite right. While they might seem like just another SEC team in the Swamp or between the hedges, in Death Valley on a Saturday night they dial it up a notch.
LSU's problem is that they don't have 22 of these guys right now while Florida has probably three dozen or more.
Incidentally, don't get too carried away with all the pooh-poohing of Florida's wide receivers and lamenting about the loss of Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. Percy Harvin missed five full games last season, including the SEC championship game against Alabama. The Gators won all five.
And Louis Murphy's aura has grown in his absence. He was an outstanding Gator receiver, but the idea that he was a focal point of opposing defensive planners is simply revisionist history. Louis Murphy and Riley Cooper are very similar in physical build, speed, route running and pass catching ability.
So who wins it?
Well, Florida typically plays three kinds of games:
1. The "hell unleashed first quarter" game...
...during which the opponent starts slow and commits a mental mistake or two. Or three. Self-inflicted suicide. Florida's speed and talent shell-shock the opponent. Next thing you know, the score is 28-0 at the end of the first quarter. The remaining three quarters of these games are usually an afterthought.
2. The "we'll see what they do and adjust" game...
...during which the opponent does not commit any major blunders and Florida's first quarter offense is a series of pre-scripted probes: a dive here, an option there; no attempt to blow the game open, just cautious probing to get a feel for individual match-ups and the opponent's defensive game plan. Contrary to all the talk about running up the score, this is the true Urban Meyer M.O. The offense opens up during the second and third quarters.
3. The war...
...like the 2007 LSU-Florida game. The 2008 SEC championship game. The 2009 national championship game.
The opponent is talented, well prepared and shows up to play. Four quarters of brutal hitting ensue and the opponent draws blood. Florida wins these games because once a battle of attrition starts, Florida is big, strong, faster across the board, extraordinarily well coached and extraordinarily well conditioned. And too, there's a reason Urban Meyer likes to recruit kids with championship experience.
A repeat of the 2007 LSU-Florida war seems unlikely because LSU just doesn't have the same talent depth to go toe-to-toe for four quarters this time around. And Florida does.
The hell unleashed first quarter is dependent upon the opponent's state of mind and is impossible to predict. A good guess is that with the home field advantage and LSU's last two victories against Mississippi State and Georgia—which can be fairly considered character building exercises—this sort of game is unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Door No. 2—the cautious opening followed by a methodical dismantling of LSU's defense—seems most likely. This would be a low scoring first quarter, something like 7-3 or 3-3, followed by a burst from Florida during the second quarter and a comeback by LSU in the second half, with the Gators winning comfortably.
A guess? 31-24, Florida. And the final score will look closer than the game actually is.
Pick your poison.