Chris Graythen - Getty Images
Florida and LSU aren't even really rivals. And yet they meet every year, and play one of college football's most reliably entertaining games.
Florida and LSU have been annual opponents since 1971, and Florida played LSU first in 1937, before it ever played Florida State or Miami. I've never met a Florida fan who names LSU first in a list of the Gators' rivalries, though — we all seem to pick Florida State, or Georgia, or Tennessee, and the contrarian choices are usually Alabama or Miami. The annual game against LSU doesn't feel like a rivalry in a lot of ways, despite both teams competing for SEC and national titles for much of the last decade.
But I think this is also true: the Florida-LSU series has been one of the best "rivalries" in college football for about a decade now. Let's go through the years for reasons why.
3-3 Florida upset No. 6 and 5-0 LSU 19-7 in Tiger Stadium behind Chris Leak, who threw for 229 yards and two touchdowns in his third start, handing Nick Saban's Tigers the only loss they would take in a 2003 season that culminated with a BCS National Championship Game win. Florida's defense held LSU under 300 yards, and the Tigers committed 13 penalties for 99 yards. Worst part for LSU: Skyler Green returned the punt you see in the above video for an 80-yard touchdown in the game's first five minutes ... and then the Tigers didn't score again.
In case you forgot why you hate Joseph Addai, he scored in the final minute of a back-and-forth game to give LSU a 24-21 win at The Swamp in 2004. It was sort of generically exciting, a good game that was memorable as a good game, but Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples wrote earlier this year on how pivotal it could have been.
LSU jumped out to a 14-0 lead, Florida rallied to take a 17-14 lead, and the Tigers scored last for a 21-17 win that was their first over Florida at Tiger Stadium since 1997. But the weird thing was that this loss got Urban Meyer's waterworks going, pleased as he was by his team of misfit toys' heart. Personally, had I coached a team that managed just 209 yards — Florida has been held under that just twice in the last six years, against Auburn and Florida State last year — I would have been emotional for different reasons.
Also: LSU committed five turnovers and won. This does not happen often, but, then, Les Miles is only the coach of one team.
You may remember this.
You probably don't remember that there was a horrific penalty that set up Tim Tebow's jump pass to Tate Casey for the go-ahead touchdown. LSU fans do. This win was the point at which it really started to seem like Florida could contend for the 2006 national title, and it was the first full-fledged Tebow Game of many: Timmy accounted for all three touchdowns the Gators scored on the day, ran for 35 yards, and completed both passes on the day for scores.
And this probably should have been both closer (LSU fumbled at the goal line after a 17-play, 75-yard drive, and had three 50-yard drives in the second half produce a total of three points) and more lopsided (Chris Hetland missed a field goal on a drive set up by a blocked punt, Florida got a safety rather than a touchdown on a kickoff return fumble).
2006 was the first of three straight seasons that the winner of the Florida-LSU game would win the national championship. I guess it was important.
I still can't describe the 2007 LSU game, because I still haven't seen all of it. This game happened during my freshman year at Florida, but during my then-girlfriend's fall break at Wellesley, so I spent the Saturday night that Florida and LSU played the best game of the 2007 college football season in her dorm room ... following the game on ESPN's game tracker, because the only TV in her dorm was being used to watch something else. The above video looks to be the entire game, and presumably has Jacob Hester running for 98,361* fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter and powering LSU to a 28-24 victory. I might watch it before Saturday. I might not.
*Number is approximate.
2008 was the last year I didn't have tickets, so I spent this game watching on a future roommate's 20-inch TV in Hume with four other people crammed into a dorm room. For my money, this may have been the weirdest game in the series: Florida was looking for a bounce-back game after the stunning loss to Ole Miss, LSU was looking to defend its national title ... and the Gators just blew the Tigers off the field. It was 7-0 after a (lucky, tipped) Percy Harvin touchdown catch-and-run, and 17-0 after the first quarter; the 20-7 margin at halftime felt like a blown opportunity for a historic victory, given that Florida had drives of four and three plays end in punts in the early second quarter.
Then the afterburners came on, with Florida pouring on 31 points in the second half on dominant drives, a 42-yard Jeff Demps scamper, and the Brandon Spikes pick-six that ended with him punting the ball into a raucous crowd. Florida reasserted itself in a major way in this game, and got right back into the national championship hunt by drilling a top team, but LSU turned out to be not very good, going 8-5 after starting 4-0 and doing things like losing to Ole Miss, losing to an Arkansas team quarterbacked by Casey and Nathan Dick, and trailing Troy at home by 28 before scoring 30 fourth-quarter points.
I also haven't seen all of this game, because it was that same then-girlfriend's fall break again, and she came down to see me. She didn't like football much. That day was okay despite that, but I'm not exactly shattered that that relationship didn't work out.
I was having a conversation with a friend recently about the 2009 Florida season: I found it excruciating in a lot of ways — it was my first fall as a paid sportswriter ("paid" "sportswriter"), and so I was attuned to all of the storylines and the nonsense in a way that I wasn't as good at handling then — but she said that the undefeated regular season made up for the disappointing finish. We went back and forth and agreed to disagree, but I defy anyone to say that this game, in particular, wasn't immensely painful to watch.
Tim Tebow was still suffering from a concussion suffered two weeks prior, and lied to Urban Meyer to hide those symptoms, and Florida proceeded to play one of the most unsightly offense games ever, winning 13-3 on two field goals and a touchdown to Riley Cooper that should have been offensive pass interference. Florida's defense gave one of its best performances ever, allowing just 162 yards and holding LSU to one third down conversion, but that didn't make watching Tebow try to operate against the Tigers while clearly a little foggy any more fun.
This game coming after 2008's incredibly fun romp and 2007's thriller was a letdown, of course, but it was also a sign that this series never gives you quite what you think you want.
WHY DON'T YOU MAKE THE TACKLE JANORIS EVERY TIME I WATCH THIS YOU FAIL TO MAKE THIS TACKLE
Taking off my orange-and-blue-colored glasses for a second, I can appreciate the bounce pass fake field goal for a first down as a devilishly audacious call, and the play itself — with the ball bouncing just right, almost perfectly laterally, and Janoris Jenkins reading the play almost totally wrong, and Ahmad Black just missing the shoestring tackle — is a thing of terrible beauty. But it's a shame that play became the defining moment of that game, because there was a lot more to it that was great.
- There were six lead changes in the game, four coming in the second quarter and two coming in last 3:21 of play.
- LSU took a 26-14 lead in the fourth quarter, only to have Andre Debose immediately cut into it with an 88-yard kick return touchdown.
- Florida scored its first two touchdowns on runs by Jordan Reed (this sparked a brief discussion of using Reed like Tebow that fall, you may recall) and Trey Burton...
- ...but John Brantley played one of his finer games, completing 16 of 24 passes and going up top to Carl Moore for 51 yards on a go-ahead touchdown drive...
- ...that was legitimately bonkers, with Burton, Mike Gillislee, Debose, Omarius Hines, and Brantley all running for positive yardage on it. The 2010 Florida team once had a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter that featured two passes, one for no gain and one for 51 yards, and eight carries by five different runners. It happened.
- I suspect most have blotted this out, but that fake field goal only got LSU a first down, and the Tigers needed only a field goal to tie and go to overtime, so of course they immediately went to Terrence Toliver for 28 yards on the next play, and of course Jarrett Lee threw two straight fades to Toliver, the second one winning the game.
I had a ticket to this game but I had to work. I'm probably never going to make that mistake again.
Where are the full games Florida won, huh?
You probably don't need or want me to explain everything that happened in this game, but Florida came into Baton Rouge to play the nation's No. 2 team on the road one week after getting splattered by the nation's No. 1 team at home, but LSU managed to run the best fake punt ever (which should have been a touchdown) and troll Florida with a jump pass of its own (warning: ultimate Gary Danielson smarm at link), and yet Trey Burton hurdled Tyrann Mathieu and touched off a pointless beef that we're stuck with now. I wish I could forget that any of this game happened except for Debose making another big play for a touchdown — weird, it's like he made a lot of those before he found himself in the doghouse.
But that revenge jump pass was probably the best encapsulation of this "rivalry" of late. It's not supposed to work, in that Florida and LSU don't feel like rivals, but the importance of the rivalry feels organic and not forced, based on rankings and good games.
And no one's apologizing for something fluky working out.