Projected by the boys in Vegas to lose by three touchdowns, the little Trojans that could from Troy, Alabama, confidently walked into LSU’s Tiger Stadium and reeled off the game’s first 17 points. From there, Troy held on and came away with a shocking 24-21 victory that few outside the Trojans’ locker room could have ever fathomed.
Soon afterwards, reality began to set in. LSU players began to realize that a lower tier program that hadn’t even bothered to recruit them because they knew they had no chance of landing them had just beaten them on their home turf. LSU coach Ed Orgeron began to realize that he had suffered the kind of catastrophic loss that typically spells the end of a coaching tenure at a given school. And LSU athletic director Joe Alleva began to realize that he had just paid a mid major school just under a million dollars ($985K, to be exact) to come and beat his Tigers on their homecoming weekend.
Once the reality of losing to Troy did set in, though, another realization dawned on LSU: only one month in, and their season is on the brink of spiraling out of control. Alabama and Auburn are automatic losses for anybody outside the Top 25, and it’s very difficult to conceive a scenario where LSU beats Arkansas and Texas A&M from what we’ve seen so far. Forget about challenging Alabama and Auburn for the West; if LSU loses to Florida this week, they very well may not make a bowl game.
You can bet that somewhere in the backs of their heads, LSU players and coaches know it.
This typically presents a fork in the road, and leads teams one of two ways. The dire circumstances LSU faces could create desperation, and lead the Tigers to figure things out and play the best football they’re capable of with an added sense of urgency. Or LSU could completely implode, react with despondence and apathy, and become a free win for everybody on their schedule.
Of course, the physical aspect of this game will play as important of a role as the mental aspect. Florida still has to execute its plays. Not mentioning names (hint: 23), but certain people on defense still need to wrap up and successfully tackle the ball carrier. Feleipe Franks still has to play smart, make good decisions and hit the big plays when they’re there. And so on.
But do not for a moment underestimate the effect a bad mindset can have on the game of football. It takes one fraction of a second for an LSU linebacker to think as he’s waiting for the snap, “we already lost last week to freaking Troy, our season is done, what does this game matter?” and that’s the difference between him being in position to tackle Malik Davis and being caught out of position. Or maybe the frustration builds up inside veteran leader Arden Key so much that he delivers a late hit on Franks and gets flagged for it, and maybe Franks just happened to throw an interception on that play.
Florida, though, has no way of knowing which route LSU will take. So the Gators would be wise to assume they’ll get an LSU team that reacts in the former; assuming the latter could spell disaster.
And now would be as good a time as any to point out that LSU really doesn’t like Florida. You know, because of how the Gators ruined the party during a home game of theirs that they didn’t deserve. Explaining why this logic is faulty is a waste of time, because A) nobody ever said logic was a strong suit of the folks in Baton Rouge and B) misguided as they may be, LSU’s source of emotion of this game is a powerful one.
Remember, Florida has its own goals this season, and losing to LSU would all but destroy them. For the Gators’ purposes, LSU resembles Troy in the way that Troy resembled Troy last week for LSU. Oh, sure, LSU is an SEC team, and sure, they’re a big rival with a much longer history than LSU has with Troy. But I make this comparison because a loss would have similarly crippling consequences: it would put Florida in the unenviable position of being forced to win out to win the SEC East and to even have a prayer of reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl game. Not to mention that a berth in the playoff- which is already a long shot in the assessments of even the most optimistic Gator fans- would go from “improbable” to “officially impossible.”
The key thing to remember now is that while the media is infatuated with Georgia, Florida is quietly racking up wins left and right and actually has a half game lead on Georgia in the East by virtue of playing (and beating) three SEC opponents instead of two. I’m more than happy to let the Bulldogs monopolize the media attention until the teams meet in Jacksonville, but the Gators absolutely cannot lose before then if they want that game to be meaningful. So Florida remains on track for a collision course with Georgia- not just for the SEC East title, but likely for a New Year’s Six Bowl berth.
And that has to be the goal this year. Winning the SEC East was fine as a goal for a rebuilding season, as the program transitioned from Muschamp to McElwain, and yes, Mac deserves credit for doing so in each of his first two years, but by no means is winning the East the highest peak this program should ever reach. Three years into Mac’s tenure, that simply isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time to take the next step. New Year’s Six Bowls. Top ten finishes. Competing for a Playoff spot. And so on.
The Gators can still win the East with a loss to LSU, and in fact would still control their own destiny if they do. But all those aforementioned goals are effectively gone if they can’t beat the Tigers this week. And so as LSU prepares to take its last stand in the Swamp, Florida has to be ready for war.