We’re a month into the college football season, and nothing -- not a single thing of substance -- has changed for these two programs since last year or the year before that or the year before that or ... well, you get the picture.
There’s still talk of poor quarterback play. There’s still talk of nagging injuries. There’s still talk of how playoff contenders could be counted out of the race not halfway through the season.
It’s maddening watching this merry-go-round of underachievement, which will take its next wobbly, rickety turn Saturday afternoon when LSU and Florida meet in The Swamp.
How on Earth did we get here?
Think about where things stand this week: On one hand, there’s LSU where there was such a panic after losing to Troy that coach Ed Orgeron and athletic director Joe Alleva felt the need to call both coordinators into the principal’s office for a good talking to. That an AD would involve himself so intimately in the inner-workings of the program in early October is alarming. And then, on the other hand, there’s Florida where it has gotten so bad that the offense is actually harmed when when its walk-on, third-string quarterback is lost for the season with a broken collarbone. That’s no disrespect to Luke Del Rio, but there’s a reason Jim McElwain had to pull the plug on Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire before he pulled Del Rio off the bench.
Ask Orgeron what has gone wrong and he’ll point to youth and a lack of depth on the offensive and defensive lines. Ask McElwain and he’ll point to injuries, saying, “It’s no different than the team we’re playing this week.”
This isn’t about who is and isn’t available to play. This isn’t about one season. This is systemic. LSU and Florida are so far removed from their identity as programs that they are left to talk about playing with effort and enthusiasm. You have Orgeron telling reporters, “We plan on playing with a lot more emotion this week, for sure,” as if this is Pee Wee football and all it takes is trying just a little bit harder.
What it takes is a long, hard look in the mirror.
LSU didn’t lose at home to Troy in some flukey way. There were no trick plays. All you need to do to understand is watch the tape and see how the Tigers were whipped up front by a Group of Five program. That defensive line, with or without a healthy Arden Key, shouldn’t be shoved back 2-3 yards by anyone. For the first time in a long time, that line felt undersized. And on the other side of the ball, it was the same story. With or without a healthy Derrius Guice, there’s no excuse for why LSU couldn’t get the running game going. Besides, Guice played against Mississippi State and LSU lost 37-7.
And that’s to say nothing of the failure to field an effective passing game. As it turns out, the narrative of a new and improved Danny Etling was false; he’s still the former Purdue transfer with an inability to move the ball downfield. Meanwhile, the offense, after years and years of failing to evolve, is trying to leap into the 21st century overnight under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and instead looks like a newborn giraffe unsure of every step it takes.
Meanwhile, Florida’s offense looked better on paper against Vanderbilt. You have to give them that. But let’s be serious: Vanderbilt is not the measuring stick, and the Commodores were still reeling from a 59-0 beatdown at the hands of Alabama a week earlier. What’s more, all five of the Gators’ touchdowns came rushing the football.
Don’t get it twisted, a solid running game is a welcomed development. But it feels like it has been so long without a well-rounded offense in Gainesville that people have stopped asking where the high-flying days of Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier have gone. It has been seven years since an offensive skill player has been drafted higher than the third round, and even then it was Tim Tebow who has found himself trying his hand at baseball now. It took forever to find an honest-to-goodness playmaker at receiver, and it turned out to be the perennial headache Antonio Callaway. The line of starting quarterbacks since Tebow should stretch around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium by now.
You want to know why LSU and Florida are stuck in the mud right now? You want to know why they have come to represent a top-heavy SEC? It’s decisions like those and the inability, year after year, to make substantial changes.
We began the season thinking that maybe, just maybe, these two teams would make a run at Alabama. We thought maybe they’d improve.
It’s only October, but the writing is already on the wall. We were wrong.
Nothing has changed. LSU is still LSU and Florida is still Florida, and they're two more teams Alabama doesn't need to worry about.