SEC PREVIEW: All Things Arkansas

How big is Saturday’s SEC Championship Game against Arkansas? Plainly put, it’s the biggest game for Florida football since December 1, 2001. What follows is a preview worthy of a titanic title tilt.

Part One: The Perspective

Part of any big-game write-up needs to lend some attention to the magnitude of the moment. While there are certainly many ways to sum up the importance of this contest on a larger historical level, one cannot escape the reality that this game, for better or worse, will say a lot about Chris Leak–not just on the night of December 2, 2006, but a quarter century from now.

Other writers on this site have ably, humanely and poignantly described the trials and tribulations of Leak’s career. At the end of the day, no one can ever question his commitment, courage, character, or any of the other superabundant qualities that make Leak an exceptional person, a proven leader, and a generally admirable bearer of the Florida name. In many ways, the coaching changes and the on-field mistakes have made his four years in Gainesville that much more special. Leak’s on-field flaws (mixed in with his evident strengths and notable successes) only serve to magnify the senior quarterback’s human virtues. It is (and has been) a singularly impressive experience to chronicle–albeit from afar–this study in serenity, this profile of poise known as Chris Leak. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, history will regard Leak as an outstanding person and a great Gator. Greatness, of course, transcends the playing field, and is defined most centrally by the largenes s of a heart and the kindness of a soul. Chris Leak has already passed those ultimate tests of true greatness.

But this is a football game we’re centrally discussing here–not human morality or classical virtue. Therefore, the defining drama of this encounter with Arkansas concerns not the human verdict on Leak, but the football fate in store for No. 12. Leak’s performance this Saturday night will shape his reputation as a gridiron Gator, defining–in many ways–all the games that have preceded this final chapter in a long and labyrinthine SEC career. What will the storyline be? You can only imagine how the tale will be told: will Leak meet with ultimate redemption and sip the sweet nectar of championship glory, or will this snake-bitten warrior be denied the prestigious championship he has sought for so long? The past is simultaneously irrelevant and all-encompassing in the buildup to kickoff, because Leak will either bury his demons against Arkansas, or allow them to linger for all time.

Chris Leak has walked through a desert wildnerness for four long and arduous years. As Frank Sinatra said in song form, Leak has been “a puppet, pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.” He’s encountered every crucible and handled every hardship a college quarterback could ever be expected to endure. He’s basked in his brilliance and fallen in moments of failure. He’s been cheated out of some glories, but has also been responsible for squandering others. Leak has taken the hard knocks from every side, absorbed the frightful forces of football foes, and maintained his composure amidst a tidal wave of change within the Florida program he joined four very long years ago. Leak has done it all, seen it all, and felt it all… except for that championship moment when he holds an SEC placard and wins a ring game to punch his team’s ticket to a BCS bowl.

Now, it is no longer the time for Chris Leak to reason why. It is time for him to do or die. History–in all its weight and glory–awaits this gallant Gator gladiator.

Part Two: The Plan and the Purpose

The other fundamental, foundational part of a pigskin preview concerns the game, its matchups, and its keys. After a season spent viewing the Gators–but also the Razorbacks from my CFN chair–here are what I feel to be the particularly important elements of Saturday night’s game:

1. “Get thee to a monastery.” It is inappropriate for a Monk to run wild. He should remain committed to the monastic life, saying his daily devotions and practicing the art of maintaining reverential silence. Yes, the number one key–as far as I can see it–is for the Gators to deny Arkansas receiver Marcus Monk on deep balls, and even more specifically, jump balls. It’s no mere coincidence that Arkansas’ loss to LSU (like the loss to USC on opening night) involved a breakdown in the Hogs’ passing game. The Hogs won’t hit downfield shots with regularity, but if Monk makes even a few key catches, that winds up being enough to loosen up defenses for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Yes, Gus Malzahn’s “Wildcat” formation will pose some problems to Florida, but then again, the Gators’ speed should be able to contain that package with some success.

The hinge point in the larger battle between Arkansas’ offense and Florida’s defense–the bigger and more important matchup in this game–is the Razorback passing game. If Casey Dick (or perhaps Mitch Mustain–no one knows after Dick’s meltdown against LSU) can establish a comfort zone and find Monk with any degree of regularity, Malzahn will not have to use the “Wildcat” on an almost exclusive basis. He can employ a wide selection of plays from a basic one-back set, whereas the “Wildcat” can only mean one of two things: a McFadden keeper or a handoff to Jones on a run toward the boundary. (Yes, McFadden will throw one or two passes a game, but that’s not a standard feature of the “Wildcat.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s either a McFadden keeper or a handoff to Jones.) If Marcus Monk becomes a playmaker for Arkansas with his size and leaping ability, the Hogs’ evident weakness at quarterback–their biggest disadvantage in the whole contest–will be minimized, and the calculus of the game will change substantially. Florida might have the right plan that can take away Monk, but ther e will almost surely be a few occasions on Saturday night when Monk gets locked in a mano-a-mano battle with a smaller Gator cornerback, and if the pigskin is within Monk’s grasp, Florida defenders have to be able to consistently knock the ball down.

2. Stay home in the Dome. Precisely because the Gators have such good speed on defense, they can contain the Hogs’ offense if they play sound assignment football and don’t get caught up in the heat of the moment. Gus Malzahn relies on opponents to bite on play action or fake shotgun handoffs from the “Wildcat.” Arkansas will continuously search for ways to bring UF’s linebackers to the line of scrimmage and then throw over the top for a home run play, often with McFadden as the passer. Former quarterback-turned-receiver Robert Johnson could well be called upon to throw a pass. And on Saturday, one can be sure that Malzahn will try to throw in new wrinkles or exotics that further manipulate the “Wildcat” and the o ther funky formations the Hogs have used to great effect this season. Play after play after play, Florida must continue to remain in gaps and maintain man responsibilities. Just one bite on a play fake, and the Hogs could get seven quick points…without having to rely on Marcus Monk’s ability to win a jump ball in traffic.

3. Use Dallas to win in Atlanta. Marcus Monk is a matchup problem for Florida, but then again, Dallas Baker is a matchup nightmare for an Arkansas secondary that is clearly the Hogs’ weak link on defense. Florida has the better quarterback in this game, and that should lead Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen to be very Pig-headed with the passing game on Saturday night. Dallas Baker has a trigger man in Chris Leak who can get him the ball with regularity. Meyer and Mullen need to avoid the temptation to be cute in this contest. They should feed Baker the same way John David Booty of USC gave Dwayne Jarrett the ball against Notre Dame: early, often and late. Taking a page from the Steve Spurrier modus operandi of play calling, Florida should go to Baker until Arkansas can actually stop the Touchdown Maker. With stubbornness in the passing game, Florida will greatly increase its chances of winning–primarily because Baker can dominate, but also because a banged-up offensive line is better suited to pass blocking.

4. Diversity in the short passing game. If Baker somehow gets smothered, or if Leak doesn’t wind up getting the ball to No. 81, the Gators should still work with the aerial attack, flowing from the point above. The Gators can cause problems for the Hogs by using an offensive package with lots of screens and flat passes. Arkansas’ defensive ends like to get up the field with their pass rush, so Florida would be wise to mix in some flat passes and sit-down slip screens to its flotilla of fleet-footed flankers. In discussing this particular point, it’s important to add a vital detail: flat passes need to be slow-developing plays. Leak needs to allow the Arkansas rush to come to him before releasing the ball. This will drain the Hogs’ energy level while also getting the Razorbacks’ defense out of position on a number of plays. If Florida can establish any first-half consistency with a delay passing game that punishes Arkansas for overpursuing on defense, the Gators will pu t themselves in prime position to ring up a big number.

5. Have some 4th and 5 “ball plays” in the hopper. This is something Urban Meyer simply has to prepare for, even though–in an ideal world–he shouldn’t have to. Yes, the playing surface is synthetic and the kicking conditions will be perfect inside the Georgia Dome, but if Chris Hetland misses an under-40 field goal in the first quarter, Meyer needs to: A) have the stones to junk the kicking game the rest of the way, unless a very meaningful field goal can be kicked from chip shot range (under 30, middle of the field); and B) accordingly adjust by being ready to go for first downs in 4th and medium or even 4th and long situations, much like Pete Carroll of USC. It could be a direct snap to Jarred Fayson with a special twist; it could be a drag route to Billy Latsko, so often used as a blocker; it could be another Tim Tebow jump pass. Whatever the matter, it could well be that Florida will need to conver t a number of fourth downs in this game… especially if Arkansas and McFadden manage to make a major dent in the scoreboard.

In conclusion, one must realize that Arkansas piles up big totals of rushing yards in virtually every game it plays. This need not panic the Gators. In the old days, 298 rushing yards would almost always indicate victory for the team good enough to cover that much real estate on the ground. Against LSU, though, 298 rushing yards weren’t able to carry Arkansas to victory. Casey Dick played superb football against South Carolina and Tennessee, but his regression in past weeks gives the Gators–for all of their offensive struggles–a huge edge at quarterback. One is therefore confronted with a clear contrast: while Florida has been playing the same kind of game every week–with some big plays, some mistakes, and a lot of white knuckles–Arkansas is the much more volatile and unpredictable team. One has little feel for how Casey Dick will respon d to this game… if he even manages to keep Mitch Mustain off the field for 60 full minutes.

In games where one team is the known commodity and the other is the erratic wild card, the key to the game lies in the hands of the wild card and the forces aligned against it. If Florida’s defense can contain Marcus Monk and therefore shut down the one man who can give Arkansas a vital measure of offensive balance, the Gators stand an excellent chance of winning… and without a lot of 4th and 5 conversions, too. But if Casey Dick gets any kind of rhythm and uses Monk to avoid a personal funk, the Gators–if they face a track meet and get down early–will face an uphill battle.

Chris Leak might be the emotional and literary centerpiece of this game, but from a cold X-and-O standpoint, this contest is in the hands of Florida’s defense. On Saturday at roughly 9:45 Eastern time, we’ll know who won these battles… and with them, the war for the championship of the Southeastern Conference.