Before the season began, this was the game Florida and LSU fans had circled on their football calendars. In a perfect world, if things went just right, the Gators and Tigers would be undefeated and highly ranked for their SEC showdown. The fantasy has played out into a perfect reality. No. 1 Florida (4-0, 2-0 SEC) plays No. 4 LSU (5-0, 3-0) tonight in Tiger Stadium in a nationally televised game that harbors the mystery of whether a star quarterback will play. The game marks only the 11th time in college football history that the previous two national champions have met.
"We're looking forward to our annual battle with one of the most talented teams in the country," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "It's obviously a very tough place to go play, but that's why you come to places like Florida. If you don't want to go play at places like LSU, Alabama and all these SEC schools, you don't come play in this conference. So we have a lot of respect for our opponent, and I think this will be a great game."
For the defending national champion Gators, a victory may have to be secured without Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow, who suffered a concussion against Kentucky two weeks ago and is a game-time decision. If he can't go, redshirt sophomore John Brantley, who has been taking at least 50 percent of the snaps with the first-team offense this week, will make his first collegiate start. Brantley has played in just 12 games, none in such a high-profile setting.
"I still don't know what's going to happen," Brantley said. "It's been a little different, preparationwise, this week. The way I've been watching film hasn't really changed, just my mind-set has a little bit, knowing that I might have to go into Baton Rouge and try to go win a game."
The prospect of Florida using Brantley also has affected the mind-set of LSU, which has had the task of trying to prepare for whomever the Gators start. Coach Les Miles insists the Tigers are preparing for Florida, not Tebow or Brantley.
"We're preparing against Florida's offense, and we feel like whichever quarterback takes snaps will operate that offense," Miles said. "There is enough variability in that offense that gives you enough to prepare for. It's imperfect at times, certainly, you don't know exactly the characteristic of the quarterback taking the snap. But you put yourself in the best position and you see where the offense dictates what the quarterbacks play and you try to predict it."
The last time Florida and LSU met in Tiger Stadium, the Gators led by 10 at the end of three quarters, then had a memorable collapse that included a drive in which the top-ranked Tigers went 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions in the final seven minutes that culminated with Jacob Hester's 2-yard touchdown run with 1:09 remaining to make it 28-24. It was the only lead of the night for LSU, which was 5-for-5 on fourth downs in the game.
Two years later, the Gators are No. 1 in rushing, scoring and total defense in the SEC, and defensive players reminded everyone this week they are a more veteran unit now.
"We feel there is no way that can happen anymore unless the whole team just lays down," junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "Honestly, we feel like if everybody does their job, there's no way anybody can ever do that to us again."
Even if Tebow plays, how well he's capable of performing, and whether the Gators will vary the offense to keep the left-handed passer who likes to run safe, remains to be seen.
"Tim Tebow's concussion will have an effect on the play-calling for Florida for the rest of the year," said CBS lead analyst Gary Danielson, who will call the game. "Subconsciously or consciously, they are going to be aware that they can't afford to lose Tebow. They can't have him take numerous hits. They are going to be watching that he lasts. They will not want to test it again, and it will affect how they call their games from now on."
Meyer said with or without Tebow, he believes the Gators are well-prepared for LSU.
"The last two days have been fantastic," he said. "This team is ready to go play. I think the best team will win. There's two good teams playing, but I know the Gators are going to give good effort."
Miles expects the same from his Tigers. "I think it will be great energy in that stadium," he said. "Both teams are very talented, capable teams. I think it will be great football."
Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes or (813) 226-3389. For developments on Tebow and the Gators, follow her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.