Cory Mccartney
Thursday October 8th, 2009

Just for a moment, try to forget the 24-hour will-he-or-won't-he-play drama surrounding Tim Tebow. We'll get back to the Florida quarterback soon enough. With or without Tebow, top-ranked Florida (4-0, 2-0 SEC) will face its toughest test this season as it heads to Death Valley on Saturday night to battle No. 4 LSU (5-0, 3-0 SEC).

The Tigers have owned Saturday nights at home, winning their last 32 games, including 21 straight under coach Les Miles. Since 1960, LSU is 211-59-4 on Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium, with its last loss coming on Nov. 16, 2002 against Alabama. Home turf is a daunting advantage for the Tigers, and Miles, who's played college ball before 100,000-plus fans in The Big House, says LSU's atmosphere is unmatched.

"Every play is followed at a snap-by-snap excitement like I've never seen before," Miles said. "Our guys enjoy [playing at night]. The announcement [by public address announcer Dan Borne] of 'Saturday Night in Death Valley' is quite an announcement."

Could Death Valley be where the Gators suffer their first loss? Or will an LSU team that has lived dangerously be exposed? Of course, those aren't the most pressing questions on everyone's minds.

1. The $1 million question: Will Tebow play? According to Florida coach Urban Meyer, we'll have to wait "until the foot hits the ball down there" to find out. Meyer said Wednesday that the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner will be a gametime decision as he tries to come back from a concussion suffered during the Gators' win at Kentucky on Sept. 26.

If Tebow can't play, Meyer will turn to redshirt sophomore John Brantley, who is 22-of-30 for 232 yards and four touchdowns this season, and is more like Arkansas drop-back quarterback Ryan Mallett than Tebow. Meyer has balked at the notion that he's trying to keep LSU guessing as to which quarterback the Tigers will face, saying "Is it an advantage, us not telling? I'm not worried about that right now."

You can't blame Meyer for trying to keep the Tigers guessing, though Miles says he'll prepare for the offense and not a specific quarterback.

"We feel whichever quarterback takes snaps, they will operate that offense," he said. "It's an imperfect time; certainly you don't know exactly the characteristic of the quarterback taking the snap."

I have a feeling Brantley will start. Not having Tebow on the field could take away some of the glitz of the matchup, but his presence may not be worth the risk. Tebow isn't the kind of player who sits back in the pocket and sidesteps contact; he has built his reputation on being a glutton for physical punishment. As gifted as Tebow is, a lack of preparation could force him to open himself up to more contact.

There's another reason to consider in keeping Tebow on the sideline. While Florida's perfect record is on the line, it could still win the national title with a loss. If the Gators were to lose in Baton Rouge, they could still redeem themselves in the SEC title game, should they win the East division, and make the national title game. Having Tebow on Dec. 5 in the Georgia Dome is worth more than trying to rush him back from a serious injury in the second weekend of October.

2. LSU's lack of a pass rush could prove costly. After 14 years at Tennessee, longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis joined Miles' staff last December. So far the results haven't been impressive. The Tigers rank 40th nationally in total defense, 41st against the rush and 101st in sacks. Last week against Georgia, LSU was dominant for much of the game but then allowed 13 fourth-quarter points. Now, the Tigers faces a team that leads the SEC in scoring, rushing yards per game and total offense.

LSU has found other ways to be productive, despite the lack of sacks. The Tigers have eight interceptions and are 13th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. But against Florida, Chavis' crew has to find a way to create conventional pressure. As great as Florida has been on offense, it has given up seven sacks in four games.

"I would like to get more production in the sack area," Miles said. "I like the position our defense puts our team in. Yes, we need more sacks but not at the cost of overall production."

Still, the defensive front has proved to be the Tigers' weak spot. If Florida controls the line of scrimmage, it won't matter if it's Brantley or Tebow at quarterback, the Gators will be able to take advantage of a deep and dangerous running game with Jeffrey Demps (10.9 yards per carry), Chris Rainey (8.4) and Emmanuel Moody (10.4).

Chavis has had some success against Meyer in the past. His Tennessee teams held the Gators to 277 yards per game in four meetings, but the Vols lost all four games.

3. Jordan Jefferson, the spotlight is on. While he won't generate the kind of attention his SEC West cohorts Mallett (Arkansas), Greg McElroy (Alabama) or Jevan Snead (Ole Miss), the Tigers' sophomore quarterback has quietly gotten off to a strong start, throwing for 920 yards and seven touchdowns with just two interceptions -- a vast improvement from a year ago when Tigers quarterbacks threw 18 interceptions. Jefferson is also coming off a tough road win in Athens, in which he led LSU on a game-winning 13-play, 88-yard drive.

But Jefferson will face his toughest test yet against Jermaine Cunningham, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes and the rest of Charlie Strong's veteran defense, which is giving up 7.2 points (ranked second nationally) and 212.7 yards (first in the nation). LSU's offensive line has been inconsistent in pass coverage, allowing 13 sacks through five games, including six against Georgia.

He is the unquestioned heart of the Gators' veteran defense, but what makes Spikes so dominant? I asked Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. Here's what he had to say:

"Blessed with great size, instincts and a degree of physicality unmatched in college football, Spikes is among the rare defensive players capable of taking over a game.

"Positives: Prototype size for the middle. Reads the action and shows little to no wasted motion in getting to the ball. Aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage, but rarely is fooled by misdirection or play-action. His best attribute is his overall physicality. An explosive, wrap-up hitter who loves to intimidate the opposition. Can separate the ball from the ball-carrier. Experienced stand-up blitzer. Good initial burst upfield and has the closing speed to make the big play when opportunities present themselves. Good use of hands to disengage from blocks as a pass rusher. Good bend around the corner. Will be projected as an outside linebacker in some schemes due to his ability to rush the passer. Alert in coverage. Good ball skills to make the interception.

"Negatives: Prone to over-aggression. Attacks the line of scrimmage, leaving open potential cut-back lanes for backs with NFL-caliber vision and acceleration. At his best moving forward. Questionable straight-line speed and agility for coverage. Relies on reading the quarterback's eyes when in coverage. Protected a bit by the aggressive scheme, talent around him."

Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.

Florida 27-10. Tebow issues aside, the Florida defense is going to chew up Jefferson. --@metamarshall

Florida 24, LSU 14. Tebow or no Tebow, the gameplan should remain the same for the Gators: get the ball into the hands of Demps, Rainey and Moody, and take advantage of what may be the weakest LSU defensive front of the Miles era. The Tigers' Saturday night magic won't be enough here.

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