Florida Gator fans are locked in a schizophrenic state of joy over winning an SEC East trophy, but at the same time, fear getting boat-raced by Alabama. Pick your emotion. Perhaps a good news/bad news conundrum?
Now that they’ve made it into the SEC Championship game again, Florida fans may have to re-teach themselves how to celebrate. Should they reclaim past glory and dust off the pom-poms, or duck and cover while awaiting the slaughter?
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I’ve seen Alabama. I know Alabama. And Alabama is no friend of Gator Nation. The Tide should be arrested for assault after what they did to LSU in the first half. The pictures of Devonta Smith, Najee Harris and Mac Jones ought to be hung on the Post Office wall under: “Wanted for Mugging of Tigers.”
When we think SEC Championship game, we think Alabama and Florida. Back in the day, the Gators earned an upper hand over the Tide early on, but in the last five years, not so much. This series has defined the SEC, with five of the last nine head-to-head winners going on to claim a national championship.
Four of those wins for the SEC title were consecutive during the Steve Spurrier Era, a streak that has never been equaled.
As the numbers crunchers know, in 2015, as they came into the SEC title game, the Gators had been out-gunned 55-62 in the last four games of the regular season despite winning three out of four. Will Miles of Read and Reaction points out that in 2016, the Gators went 2-2 heading into Atlanta and were outscored 59-79. Florida lost those two SEC Championship Games to Alabama by a combined score of 83-31. Miles points out that this 2020 Gator team fared better, winning its last three games by a combined score of 103-46.
Orange and blue loyalists thrilled to be back in the highlife are like, “who cares? – bring on ‘Bama!” Shaking their finger in false bravado at those pessimists, and decrying, “you didn’t think we could beat Georgia, either!”
As my late friend Jim — passionate Gator fan and masterful bean counter — always cautioned me: “We are ruled by two polar opposite emotions: Fear and Greed.” For the ones who still believe the Gators can win, it’s like those signs we see in yards around town, “Faith Over Fear.”
It will take a leap of that faith — and more — for Gator fans if they believe some of the early lopsided lines from places like Fan Duel, which has made the Fighting Sabans a whopping 14-point favorite over the Gators. Can Mullen’s team even stay competitive against such a juggernaut?
Now we get into “half a loaf” territory. Just settling for getting to Atlanta. Remembering the cold, dark regime of Jim McElwain just four years ago and what it felt like in football purgatory, perhaps Gator fans are just thankful to be cheering on an SEC East champion in its final regular season game at home vs LSU. Are they suddenly willing to shift into “moral victory” mode?
In his press conference this week, I asked Mullen about the challenge of finishing off a 9-1 season by beating a 24-point underdog LSU team, while casting a wary eye around the thundering herd of elephants. Basically, he told us that the advance scouts could handle it for now.
It sounds like a broken record, but he’s correct: “Focus … focus … focus.” He’s not just taking it one game at a time, but rather each practice.
I suggested that perhaps “increments” might be a better synonym. To which he replied whimsically: “I don’t know, that sounds like a pretty big vocab word.”
(Editor’s Note: Increments: the amount or degree by which something changes. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.)
“Now, you might not get better in every single phase every single week, but you never want to regress as a team,” said Mullen. “Our focus has to be getting better this week. And then I imagine you can ask me the same question and I’ll say, ‘Are you looking forward to Ohio State, or Clemson or Notre Dame after Alabama?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, we’re going to be focused on getting better and us being a better team this week and focus on that.’ You know, that’s just the simplicity of it all.
“I know it sounds like coach-talk. But the reality is, if you want to be a great football team, you focus on the task at hand. And the task at hand is us getting better as a team, preparing, practicing better this week than we did last week, playing with more effort and strain and being more efficient on offense and making bigger plays on defense than we did last week. If we do that and hopefully next week we do the same thing and weeks after that you continue to do that until the season ends and we’ll put 2020’s team to rest.”
Incrementally, this team has walked through the fire of a Pandemic hell, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, play by play, game by game, right up to the brink of a championship. History will judge this journey as bizarre but courageous, and on the hopeful side, perhaps it could become even the cornerstone that vault the Gators back to the upper echelon.
I’m not a big believer in participation trophies, but there is something to be said for the tenacity and consistency, of keeping it together in pursuit of excellence. And making it all the way – so far – to the race to the finish line. It not only evokes pride in the accomplishment but bodes well for the future.
This is one of Dan Mullen’s best quotes ever made after the win over Tennessee and it serves as a reminder about the gratitude all Gator fans should have: “So Scott Stricklin came up and told me to put a smile on my face and make sure we enjoy this and put a smile on our face because this is what we work for. I’m thrilled. This is it.
"I came to Florida to have the opportunity to win championships. That is the reason that I came here. Now we’re SEC East champs. Now we have the opportunity to go be SEC champs. That’s what you work for all the time. That’s what we worked for since the day I got here a little over three years ago.”
Yes, focus. First LSU, then on to Atlanta, and then Alabama. Increments do matter.