How different will Tiger Stadium be for Saturday night’s LSU-Florida game compared to last Saturday’s impromptu encounter with South Carolina?
Like night and day.
Simple, no? But when it comes to the difference between Death Valley and a giant concrete bowl where football is played, those four words are leaden with meaning.
The South Carolina game was a quirk of fate, a 2:30 p.m. game played before about 42,000 pan-fried fans that came to be because a millennial flood tore through the Palmetto State and the TV networks couldn’t bring themselves to let the game be played at night, as LSU wanted. Apparently they were lucky not to play at 11 a.m.
Other than being for a good cause — ticket money went back to South Carolina’s athletic coffers, and $40,000 in donations were raised for flood relief — much of the afternoon had all the charm of a spring game.
But this will be different. Vastly different.
If that game was salty, this will be oh so sweet.
If that was a bland hero sandwich at some godforsaken tailgate party in the Midwest, this will be a five-course Cajun spread under the LSU oaks. (Gator’s on the menu, of course.)
If that was a first-grader’s finger painting, this will be a LeRoy Neiman canvas, swirling with color and action and crackling energy.
If that was a dressed-up version of an LSU spring game, this will be everything that a game at LSU is supposed to be about.
“These,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said, “are the games you live for.”
A 6 p.m. kickoff, allowing night to clamp down on the old coliseum like a cast iron lid, somehow holding in the sound (I swear it does) until it takes on a living, snarling quality of its own. Two undefeated top-10 teams, longtime rivals, squaring off under the floodlights. Marching bands, cheerleaders, a live caged tiger (maybe) and the faint but persistent whiff of bourbon permeating it all.
And weather. Football weather. The kind they have in Ann Arbor and South Bend and Madison early in the season — starting in the 70s and tumbling toward the 50s as the night wears on.
Chance of rain? Not on your life.
Chance of tens of thousands of non-ticket holding pleasure seekers also jamming the campus? We’re talking Mardi Gras without the floats.
“It’s going to be crazy this week,” said tailback Leonard Fournette, otherwise known as “The Drawing Card.”
“It’s going to be very intense.”
It’s going to be the Tiger Stadium everyone talks about, but the one you don’t see every week.
It’s going to be the kind of game atmosphere on which Death Valley’s legend was built.
What’s the straw that stirs the ultimate LSU game experience drink? The threat of imminent danger. It’s got to be a risk/reward kind of game.
This certainly fits the bill.
This game didn’t look terribly sexy back in August, at least not compared to the ghost of LSU-Florida games past. Since then, two significant ingredients have been added:
1. Fournette has become the prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
2. The Gators rolled through the first half of their schedule unbeaten, overcoming the offensive handicaps under first-year coach Jim McElwain that turned former coach Will Muschamp into Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
But in a bizarre chain of events that goes foot in sock with the rest of LSU’s strange season to date, just as the Gators barreled into the top 10 and began to garner their most national attention, they collectively went mad from the Florida heat.
First, quarterback Will Grier was declared ineligible for a year for taking an over-the-counter medication that contained an NCAA-banned performance-enhancing substance. Then came the news that reserve defensive back Deiondre Porter had been suspended for a bevy of felony charges with a misdemeanor chaser after he allegedly held a handgun to his pregnant girlfriend’s head.
Porter isn’t nearly the mainspring that Grier is but, put it all together, and it’s hardly the way you want to go into one of the season’s biggest games if you’re Florida. Then again, Florida to a man, woman and reptile would have probably taken all this drama if they knew beforehand it would be subtext to a 6-0 start and what is now a substantial two-game lead in the SEC East.
For his part, McElwain is trying to remain chipper.
“There are not a lot of people that get to go play in this kind of environment on a Saturday night,” McElwain said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to go in there. Man, it’s great.”
That it is.
Especially at night. For this kind of game. Under these conditions.
This is when Tiger Stadium is transformed, like Manchester United’s Old Trafford, into the Theatre of Dreams.
Or the home field of your worst nightmare.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.