A Truly “Scout” Thanksgiving Friday

It’s incredibly fitting that Gator Country is part of the Scout.com family of content providers. Why? Because this Thanksgiving weekend, the Gator Nation gets to do something on a holiday weekend that it hasn’t been able to do in quite some time: scout an opponent.

Thanksgiving Weekend has historically been a time when the Gators, whether in or out of the SEC’s prime pigskin prizefight, have not had to do any scouting. During this particular week in the football season, the Gators’ usual opponents in past SEC title tilts–Auburn and Alabama–have already finished their campaigns. Other SEC schools, for what it’s worth, are playing non-conference rivalry games, which diminishes the ability to make very specific comparisons about the ways in which some teams attack others.

But this year, with the Gators bound for Atlanta, Thanksgiving Friday will give Urban Meyer and his staff a chance to go Hog wild in the film room and scout the bejeezus out of the Arkansas Razorbacks. With Houston Nutt’s team playing LSU–a Florida opponent this season–Meyer and mates will be able to spend some time on Friday dissecting the ways in which Arkansas attacks the Bayou Bengals on both sides of the ball.

The Hog-Tiger tilt will put Arkansas under the microscope in a number of ways. First of all, the game is a trap game, given that it comes before the December donnybrook in the Dome against the Gators. Arkansas is technically–though marginally–in the national title race, but it’s very possible that some Hogs will be looking ahead to the prospect of claiming the school’s first-ever SEC title. The game against LSU will show the nation how mentally tough Arkansas is in the role of the heavy, as opposed to the underdog (see encyclopedia entry, “Rutgers versus Cincinnati, November 18, 2006” for details on how different life is when you’re the hunted and not the hunter).

But beyond the psychological angle, Meyer and his brother brains will be very interested to see how the Hogs stack up physically and tactically against a loaded team such as LSU.

Most people outside of the Florida staff–in the Gator Nation and across America–will be waiting to see how Heisman contender (or perhaps, one should just say, “ticket to New York contender” after Troy Smith’s performance against Michigan last Saturday) Darren McFadden performs against the Tigers’ defense. More specifically, a lot of football connoisseurs will be eager to observe how Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the best offensive coordinator in the United States this year and a strong Broyles Award contender, utilizes McFadden and positions him on the field. Against Tennessee, Malzahn used McFadden as a rusher, a receiver, a thrower, and a hand-off man from a number of formations that included power and spread looks. The diversity of ways in which Malzahn gives touches to his stud running back has been part of Arkansas’ recipe for success in 2006. With freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain starting in most of the Hogs’ games this year, Malzahn (Mustain’s high sc hool coach) needed to protect his signal caller with creative play calling that mixed safety and big-play potential. A hidden-ball run–not quite a fumblerooski–broke open a win at Auburn, and other daring drawing-board dandies have enabled Malzahn to stay one step ahead of the opposition this year. McFadden has a strong offensive line and–at this point in the season–a more proven quarterback in Casey Dick. But it’s been Malzahn’s play calling and gridiron creativity that have truly enabled a team, an offense, and Darren McFadden to thrive in an SEC West championship season.

As sexy as the Hogs’ offense is, however, Meyer–being the kind of coach he is, and knowing where his own team is most vulnerable–will likely spend more time focusing on Arkansas’ underrated and underappreciated defense. Given the speed Meyer has on his own offense–but also mindful of his limitations, particularly up front and at quarterback–the Florida coach will be scouting Arkansas’ defensive front, with bookend pass rushers on the outside that have been terrorizing opponents all year. The quality of the Hogs’ pass rush will be intently dissected by the Florida staff, especially Dan Mullen, who will be looking for ways in which to make Arkansas pay for its (over-)aggressiveness. Seeing the ways in which LSU succeeds and fails against Reggie Herring’s defense will give Meyer and Mullen the tools they need to formulate a winning game plan on December 2.

Yes, Florida State is a huge game. The Gators need to do what they have to do this Saturday, and a focus on the LSU-Arkansas game shouldn’t be viewed as a “look ahead.”

This is an SEC-focused column, and right now, the only major story in the league is the one that will be written on Thanksgiving Friday, when Florida’s staff–with its FSU game plan already installed–will have a chance to scout Arkansas against LSU.

And once the Hogs and Tigers are done, this site–part of the Scout family–will then Scout the Razorbacks as the duel in the Georgia Dome takes center stage.