LOVE: After Further Review
Should LSU continue to play Florida every year?
By BEN LOVE
Tiger Rag Editor
In a place like Baton Rouge, a populace filled with passionate but paranoid sports fans of the highest order, this might be the most sensitive subject to broach.
“Should LSU continue to play Florida every year?”
Or, as just about every Tiger athletic supporter would phrase it: “Should LSU have to play Florida every year?”
It’s a perceived curse, an albatross thrown around the neck of LSU football by the Southeastern Conference in an attempt to keep the Bayou Bengals down.
It’s also a question that’s been raised, vigorously so, at SEC summer meetings in Destin, Fla., this week by LSU Director of Athletics Joe Alleva and outgoing Chancellor Mike Martin.
The premise of Alleva and Martin’s argument: Just because Alabama decrees it must play Tennessee and Auburn can’t live without its annual dosage of Georgia doesn’t mean LSU should be subject to facing Florida year in and year out.
The spirit behind that objection, and the impetus for LSU speaking up, has already been grossly misunderstood by at least one member of the regional media, Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky.
In this gem of a rah-rah column for the state of Alabama, Scarbinsky claims LSU football has lost its nerve and is fighting schedule-related battles because the purple and gold are still suffering from post-BCS title game blunder sickness.
This debate of equity is one with roots firmly entrenched, one that’s raged back all the way to 1992, when the SEC expanded to 12 member institutions.
It’s not, as Scarbinsky implies, some fly-by-night attempt for LSU to grab a get out of jail free card just because Alabama reigned supreme on Jan. 9, 2012.
Even now, when you ask LSU’s chief decision maker at the time how things have gotten to this point, uncertainty lingers.
“It’s complicated,” Joe Dean Sr. told Tiger Rag this week. “In my period of time as the athletic director there were a lot of discussions. We were unfortunate that we didn’t a have a premier rivalry. Ole Miss had been historically a rivalry, but their level went down and it wasn’t as tense as it had been previously. We were kind of trapped, to be honest with you, when Arkansas and South Carolina came into the league.”
When the Razorbacks and Gamecocks entered the fray in ‘92 and installed each other as permanent cross-division opponents, they joined the aforementioned Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia series, both tenured and steeped in tradition.
That left LSU without an annual Eastern division opponent, a vacancy that opportunistic SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer was anxious to fill.
And even though the Tigers were rumored to have options, Kramer knew the best way to grow his fledgling 12-team league and its brand.
“My understanding was that LSU actually had a choice. They could go with Kentucky or they could go with Florida,” Tiger Rag columnist and LSU historian Marty Mulé said. “Part of the nudging process was that Roy Kramer, who was the commissioner then, wanted LSU to have a game like Alabama-Tennessee or Auburn-Georgia, a cross-division rival. Kramer thought Florida would fit the bill.”
In a number of ways Kramer was right.
LSU and Florida, both founding members of the SEC in 1932, were very familiar with one another. The two had met on the gridiron every season since 1971 (and still have), and the overall series record - entering the ‘92 season - was 18-17-3 in favor of LSU.
How close can you get?
Of course what Kramer, Dean and pretty much anybody else not named Spurrier didn’t know at the time was what Florida would soon become.
The Gators quickly ushered in the Golden Era of Florida football, winning a national championship in 1996 and executing an absolute stranglehold on the SEC East and, most years, the conference as a whole.
What resulted for LSU were losses. And a lot of them.
From 1992 to 2001 Florida beat the relatively down Tigers all but one season, with LSU prevailing in a near-miraculous home game in 1997. Here were some of the final scores in Gator wins from that period: 58-3, 1993; 42-18, 1994; 56-13, 1996; and 41-9, 2000.
Florida owned LSU and suddenly many in TigerTown couldn’t help but feel that their beloved Tigers got a raw deal.
“I caught some heat over the Florida thing because a lot of our fans wanted to play an easier game,” Dean acknowledged frankly. “I didn’t try to duck Florida. What I did at the time, and a lot of people don’t know this, to take some pressure off the head football coach was bought out of the Texas A&M series.
“When I came to LSU I inherited a 10-year contract with Texas A&M. Of course we won early in that series, but Texas A&M had begun to beat us pretty regularly. So I bought out of the last two years of the contract. We only played eight years of it. That gave us some flexibility. So if you’re going to get rid of A&M, you’ve gotta live with Florida. And I would’ve rather had Florida than A&M at that time.”
Fast-forward to modern day and the point has become moot as the Aggies, now a part of the conference and Western division, are back in the fold for LSU.
It is this changing landscape, and not the recent meltdown on Jan. 9, that has LSU administrators pleading their case for a different cross-division format.
Dean, for one, can relate to the position of Alleva and Martin.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” continued Dean. “You’d like to think that in the Southeastern Conference everyone’s trying to make the conference better. But when you get in a room and close the door, they all get selfish. They all want what’s best for them. It’s complicated. There’s no question about that. Joe and Mike are fighting for their institution because when the season ends all anyone wants to know is ‘How many games did you win?’”
Which brings us to perhaps the most conveniently forgotten fact by snakebitten LSU fans: The Tigers are more than just competitive with Florida these days.
Since 2002 LSU, under Nick Saban and Les Miles, has taken six of 10 from the mighty Gators, including a 41-11 beat-down of Florida this past season in Baton Rouge.
Toss in that stretch of games and the overall series between Florida and LSU now stands at 30-25-3 in favor of the Gators.
Still, it’s the alleged injustice of the whole thing that has Tiger Nation up in arms. They’d just as soon see LSU get a crack at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss’ permanent opponent, or Kentucky, tied at the hip with Mississippi State, on a more regular basis.
From a competitive standpoint I believe LSU is best off keeping this game on the schedule every season. More often than not it serves to boost things like strength of schedule, RPI, the visibility and marketability of the program. And on years when the Tigers win this game, their shot at making a BCS bowl down the road grows exponentially. Ditto for the Florida side of things.
But, and there’s always a but, I see the other side for one big reason: No one associated with LSU wants to be told you have to do this because it keeps traditions alive for others, most notably Alabama and Auburn.
Neither LSU nor Florida should have to kneel at the altar of those schools.
Editor Ben Love covers LSU football and men’s basketball for Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.