I have a confession to make: I don't really care about this Gator Bowl.
I submit this thesis: Though very little about being a fan of something in the world of sports is actually hard, because fanhood is fundamentally easier than most everything in life, there are things that are hard for fans. Being a fan of a player whose talents outstrip his or her discipline is hard, as is being a fan of a player who is good at sports but bad at, say, following laws. And being a fan of a team is hard if that team is not great. It can be hard even if the team is great, as 2009 taught every Florida fan, and it is especially hard if the team is terrible, as Vanderbilt fans or Minnesota Timberwolves fans or Florida Panthers fans or Kansas City Royals fans can tell you. But fans of great teams see them being good and competing for championships, and fans of bad teams learn to laugh to keep from crying. For my money, the hardest thing to stomach is mediocrity.
And Florida football hasn't been as mediocre as it has been in 2011 for a long, long time.
If Florida falls to Ohio State in the Gator Bowl today, the Gators will have a losing record for the first time since 1979, when they went 0-10-1 — the tie, a 7-7 one against Georgia Tech, came in the second week of that season. That's the low-water mark. The mediocrity mark came a little later: By finishing 6-6 in the regular season, the 2011 Gators matched the 1987 Florida team, which went 6-5 in its regular season and lost to UCLA in the Aloha Bowl — that team went 1-4 over its last five games, losing to Auburn, Georgia, and Florida State by double digits.
The 1987 football season was 24 years ago, long enough that my parents got married that year and that I was still almost three years from being born. It's a long time, and especially long for a program that has grown accustomed to not just competing for national championships, but winning them; three years ago today, Florida fans were getting ready to see the No. 2 Gators take on Oklahoma for a national title, and now they are hoping their team can avoid finishing under .500.
I'm not immune to that malaise, though I have tried to be, by rejecting the idea that this team's struggles are attributable to Will Muschamp, whose defense is one of the more unsung very good units in America, and focusing on the offense's misery. I have tried to rekindle my passion for the Gators by going to and watching fantastic basketball games — Arizona and Florida State certainly count — but that really only rekindled my passion for basketball. I tried to get into Tim Tebow's remarkable run in the NFL, but realized I care more about Tebow the phenomenon than Tebow the player. And I tried to get into recruiting, but then a misstep from Florida's staff (based on a misread of a teenager) lost one of the more exciting commits the Gators had.
So I can't say I'm really into this Florida team right now, nor really excited for this game. Am I supposed to be on the edge of my seat to see post-concussion, post-ankle sprain John Brantley go against another mean defense? Should I get hyped up for a defense that has lost spirit animal Dominique Easley and secondary stalwart Marcus Roberson to injury, especially when the remaining emotional leader and best player in the unit, Matt Elam, may see this game as an opportunity to work out rage at Urban Meyer rather than win? Do I get riled up about a team that is a rival based not on geography or tradition but prominence, one that Florida has already dominated in two games for titles? Can I turn this game into a chance for vengeance on a mercenary coach who abandoned a team at the crossroads that I hope the Gators seize?
No. No. No. And no.
I can and will cheer, as I always do: In all kinds of weather, right? I care about these Gators, and I don't want to see them lose. But while winning is better than losing, a win won't make my day, nor will a loss make it terrible.
Such is being a fan of a mediocre team.