Third time the charm for Gators?

By Alex Gray

In their last two meetings with LSU Tigers, the Florida Gators have been at both ends of the losing spectrum.

Close heartbreaker? Been there.

Ugly blowout? Done that.

As different as the 2010 and 2011 contests against the Tigers were, the results of the games remain the same — a loss.

However, as the old saying goes, the third time may indeed be the charm for Florida. This year, both the Gators and the Tigers are rolling into the matchup as different teams than we’ve seen in the past two seasons.

A renewed air has begun to waft through Gainesville as fans and players alike have a confidence that hasn’t been seen in recent memory. For LSU, bits of doubt have begun to seep into the minds of those surrounding the Tigers’ program. LSU is coming off two consecutive unimpressive victories, with many questioning if the Tigers are still worthy of their preseason championship hype.

Despite the unfamiliar territory for both teams entering the game, the two burning questions that have been debated all week will be answered by the time the sun begins to set Saturday on Lake Alice.

Are the Gators really back?

Were the Tigers pretenders all along?

While those questions remain to be answered, one sure bet regardless of the outcome is that this year’s game will certainly be different than the last two.

Two years ago, the Gators came into their home matchup with the Tigers still smarting from their drubbing at the hands of Alabama the week before. Florida went to Tuscaloosa as the seventh-ranked team in the country and left as an exposed bunch.

After barely escaping with a win against Tennessee the week before, LSU head coach Les Miles was beginning to see his 2007 national championship honeymoon with fans coming to an end. Miles’ decision-making and game management had come under heavy fire from the Tigers faithful during the week, after his team needed a controversial penalty to put the Vols away.

The 2010 game saw seven different lead changes between the two teams. After falling behind in the fourth quarter 26-14, the Gators roared back to capture a 29-26 lead with just over three minutes left to play. With 35 seconds remaining in the game, Florida saw LSU line up for a potential game-tying 52-yard field goal. Living up to his “Mad Hatter” moniker, the fearless Miles called for a fake field goal, which the Tigers converted, taking the air out of a Gators crowd that had begun to come to life. With momentum seemingly back on LSU’s side, an eerie feeling of inevitability began to cloak over The Swamp.

The Tigers marched down the rest of the field, with quarterback Jarrett Lee eventually hitting wide receiver Terrance Tolliver in the corner of the end zone with just six seconds remaining to secure a victory.

Entering last year’s contest, LSU was considered the nation’s best team, along with Alabama. Behind a stingy defense, the Tigers had already knocked off three top-25 opponents before the Gators arrived in Baton Rouge, La.

Florida however, found itself in a familiar position entering last season’s game. Again, the Gators entered their matchup against the Tigers on the heels of a blowout loss against the Crimson Tide. This time however, the loss resulted in casualties with injuries to both starting quarterback John Brantley and backup Jeff Driskel. Freshman Jacoby Brissett — who many assumed would redshirt — was forced to see his first ever snap in arguably the nation’s toughest place to play.

Will Muschamp’s oft-tousled hair appeared to be even more disheveled than usual as he and his team trudged out of Death Valley with a 30-point defeat. Florida would limp to an eventual 7-6 finish while LSU would go on to play Alabama for the BCS National Championship.

The Tigers were blanked by the Crimson Tide in New Orleans, sunken by poor quarterback play. With former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger at the helm this season, many guessed the Tigers would finally have all of the pieces in place to collect their third national championship in the BCS era.

Fast forward seven months, and perhaps you can see the beginning of the Tiger’s perceived decline. In August, cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who just last year was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, was dismissed from the team. While Mathieu’s skills as a cover corner were debatable, his intangibles and game-breaking ability were not. Despite Mathieu’s dismissal, the consensus seemed to be that LSU’s addition of Mettenberger under center would be enough to get the Tigers over the championship hump.

A month later, it appears that Mettenberger may not have been the answer to LSU’s problems. While the defense has only given up an average of 12.6 points per game this season, the offense has sputtered against teams that the Tigers were expected to overwhelm. Unlike last year, the Tigers come into this game having to answer questions about just how good they really are.

For the first time in the last three years, however, the Gators come into this weekend’s matchup actually unaware of just how good they really are. With no Alabama on the schedule as a measuring stick this season, Florida finds itself going against its first true big test against a team seemingly better than they are on paper.

Despite the lingering questions, all evidence is pointing towards a much closer game this year than last. Florida hasn’t dropped three straight against LSU since the late 1970s, when the Gators lost four straight from 1977-1980.

So will the third time be the charm for the Gators?

On Saturday, UF will have its third different offensive coordinator in as many years calling the plays.

The Gators will be trotting out their third different quarterback to call the shots from under center.

For Florida, three may be the magic number as linebacker Jelani Jenkins will be back in action after missing the last three games.

While the Tigers may not be in as big of trouble as some might suggest, the Gators are undoubtedly in better shape than they have been the last two seasons.

That third different offensive coordinator? He’s brought more imagination and style than anyone at the helm in years.

That new quarterback taking snaps? The poise and accuracy he’s displayed during the first third of the season hasn’t been seen in The Swamp since the days of Tim Tebow.

The early part of the season hasn’t provided any concrete clues as to what we can expect to see on Saturday. However, if there is anything that’s to be taken into today’s matchup, it’s that the Gators are more prepared for this game than they’ve been in a quite a while.