Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gators and Tigers and Pigs | by Jay

Quick poll before the SEC championship game: who would you rather see Notre Dame play in a Bowl game: Arkansas, Florida, or (the longshot) LSU?

Arkansas is an intriguing matchup. In the history of Notre Dame football, we've never played Arkansas. (In fact, out of all the BCS conference schools, there are only 11 other teams we've never played. Any guesses?) Arkansas started the season with a 50-14 whallop at the hands of Southern Cal, but since then they've cut a nice swath through the SEC, only losing again to LSU in a close game that went right down to the wire.

Arkansas loves to run the ball, averaging 236 yards per game on the ground. That's 4th-best in the country. Darren McFadden is exceptional; the sophomore tailback is 6'2, 212 pounds, and he averages better than 6 yards per carry. As Keith would say, And the other back, Felix Jones, is no slouch: together, he and McFadden torched LSU for 298 yards and three touchdowns (the Tigers had been giving up just 74 yards and less than a touchdown per game on the ground).

The pigs don't throw the ball much. In fact, they've got the 105th passing offense in football, averaging barely 148 yards per game. Against LSU they completed only 5 passes in the loss. This would seem to bode well for an Irish defense that has looked porous against the pass, but a strong ground attack isn't exactly tonic for the Irish defenders: witness Air Force (200 yards rushing against the Irish) and Navy (271 yards), two of the three teams (the other is West Virginia) ahead of the Razorbacks in rushing offense nationally.

One thing that would make it interesting: Arkansas coach Houston Nutt loves to run trick plays. Check out these gadgets, including my favorite play of the year, the ol' hidden running back trick against Auburn. Hilarious.

Florida would be fun. We've played the Gators only once, in the '92 Sugar, when we were big underdogs to Spurrier's fun'n'gun. My senior year, nobody giving us a chance in hell, green numbers on white jerseys, Jerome Bettis with three touchdowns, Bourbon Street on New Year's Eve...ahh, the memories. Then of course there's the Urban versus Charlie angle, a storyline so rich with mythic archetypes we'd need Joseph Campbell to sort it out.

Football-wise, Florida is a mixed bag. They're loaded with talent, but they make a lot of mistakes (next to only Akron, Florida is the most-penalized team in college football). Their defense is a far sight better than Arkansas', but their offense, although ranked 21st (and just about tied with Notre Dame at 384 yards per game), doesn't do any one thing spectacularly well. They run the ball some, and pass it a little less, and when they get in the red zone they pull Chris Leak for Tim Tebow and let him scramble around (or throw jump-passes).

Between beating up on patsies like Southern Miss and Western Carolina, the Gators have been living by the skin of their teeth in the SEC, beating Tennessee by a point, South Carolina by a point (on a blocked field goal), Vandy by six and Georgia by seven. They beat LSU 23-10 in a game where the Tigers coughed up 5 turnovers, including a fumble on the Gators' one-yard line. The "dark monk of the spread option" (thanks, Orson) is leading a charmed life.

LSU would be rough. LSU is in the top 20 in scoring offense (11), total offense (18), scoring defense (6), and total defense (2). They're the most talented, balanced team in the SEC, and maybe the third-best team in the entire country.

On offense LSU has four talented running backs and they all share the carries, with none of the four going over 430 yards on the season, nor under 280. (Reminds me of the Holtz days.) At quarterback they've got 6'6 Jamarcus Russell, and as Charlie might say, "Alls he does is complete 68% of his passes and throws 26 touchdowns to seven interceptions." I'd be surprised if Russell wasn't a top 10 pick in the NFL draft next year. On defense they've got coaches' first team All-Americans in safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, and until the Arkansas game had been equally stout against the run and the pass.

On top of that, they're pissed. They lost to Florida in the aforementioned 5-turnover meltdown, and their only other loss was a 7-3 baseball game at Auburn, wherein they outgained the orange tigers 309-182 and still lost. At the end of the game, LSU wideout Craig Davis was tackled four yards short of the end zone as time expired. They've got something to prove.

So who do I want? Give me Florida. It's not only the best matchup football-wise for the Irish, but I'd love to give Urban a little payback for the smarmy way he stiff-armed us last winter.