Florida will finally play the final game of Will Muschamp's final season as head coach on Saturday. It will come six weeks after Muschamp's not-really-but-yes-it-was-a-firing more than a month after the final game of Florida's regular season, more than three weeks after Jim McElwain was hired as the Gators' next head football coach, and almost two full days after an undefeated Florida State saw its season end in fiery failure, the latter of which can only be attributable to either the football gods having a sense of humor or 2014 Florida State finally letting the fire its hair had been on for about four months burn down to the scalp. It's one or the other, I'm sure.
Anyway: I don't care about this bowl game.
Florida's played in 22 bowl games in my 24 years and change on this planet, and all of them fell into (at least) one of four categories, up until the 2015 Birmingham Bowl:
- Bowl in the state of Florida (Outback, Citrus/Capitol One, Gator, Orange)
- Peach Bowl
- Sugar Bowl
- National championship game in Fiesta Bowl
Those games have either been local to the bulk of Gators fans — even the Peach isn't more than about eight hours from most Florida fans, and flying to Atlanta is a cinch — or in New Orleans, or for a national title. (One of them was both!) Gators who have wanted to go to bowls have been able to day-trip, been able to combine a bowl trip with boozing on Bourbon Street or visiting Atlanta, or been able to justify a flight to Arizona for a chance at seeing a national championship victory.
This year, they get the privilege of going to beautiful, historic Birmingham, Alabama! It's less than an hour closer to Gainesville than New Orleans! There is assuredly at least one restaurant in town that serves barbecue! And, hey, Florida's playing East Carolina, a team Florida hasn't played since 1983, and won't play again until ... wait, September?
Oh, and those fans who go to the Birmingham Bowl? They're gonna miss Florida hosting defending national champion and insta-nemesis UConn in the O'Connell Center in what should be a hell of a game between two teams that need a big win desperately.
It suffices to say that I am not going to Birmingham, and that I will not nearly be alone in that regard. Pat Dooley has dubbed this the Afterthought Bowl, in a dispatch from B-Town in which the desk clerk at the media hotel doesn't know there's a bowl game in town, and yet that dispatch is primarily Dooley rolling out reasons the bowl matters: Impressing recruits, avoiding embarrassment, building momentum.
Sorry, Pat. That's just not true.
Recruits will care, certainly, but they will know soon what has been fairly obvious since McElwain hired Geoff Collins as defensive coordinator: The coaches in Gators polos on this Saturday will mostly be donning them for the last time.
Interim coach D.J. Durkin and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have both been hired over, and linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler — a Durkin lieutenant who could well follow Durkin to Michigan, if the former Stanford assistant joins Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor — isn't staying if Florida brings in Randy Shannon. Running backs coach Brian White might be replaced by former McElwain assistant Tim Skipper. Travaris Robinson has been seen as an flight risk to Auburn since the day Muschamp was hired there, and the tea leaves are suggesting he'll head west. Reports of Florida sniffing around Texas defensive line coach Chris Rumph exist, casting a shadow on Brad Lawing's future with the team, and, of the last three coaches yet mentioned, Chris Leak was coaching the wrong position in 2014, Derek Lewis coached Florida's least productive position in 2014, and Mike Summers is widely expected to stay.
So, yeah, recruits could care about how Florida looks — but only offensive line recruits can reasonably expect the coach in charge of their position for the Gators on Saturday to be that coach by the spring.
As for embarrassment: No, nothing that could happen Saturday is trumping Georgia Southern. Nothing trumps a trouncing by Missouri on Homecoming, or a home loss to South Carolina in bewildering fashion. Florida went to triple overtime with Kentucky at home this year, and lost to Vanderbilt for the first time in decades last year. Losing to a really good mid-major team in a bowl game that kicks at 11 a.m. local time won't be any more embarrassing than anything that's happened over the last two years.
Did you note the won't? I did it on purpose. I do, honestly, expect Florida to lose this game. Too many of the players Dooley thinks will be auditioning for NFL scouts or their future coaches won't care, and defending the honor of being a Gator — or using the disrespect of being shipped to Birmingham to play in a game owned and operated by ESPN that is so low-profile that it is the only bowl without a named corporate sponsor this year, and such a money bath that both teams will almost certainly lose more money on the game than they make from it — just doesn't seem like something this beaten-down team is likely to do.
That's a shame, because Florida really does match up well with the Pirates. Florida's "just" No. 23 in pass defense this season, but that ranking is skewed considerably by meltdowns against Kentucky and Alabama early this season, and garbage-time throwing by Georgia. Since yielding an unfathomable 449 passing yards to the Crimson Tide, Florida's allowed one team — Georgia — to post a passer rating of better than 103.00. That bar Florida has dipped under in seven of eight games would be the No. 4 pass efficiency defense nationally, if it were one; Florida, despite allowing a 217.76 rating against Alabama, is No. 11 as it is. Yeah, sure, Justin Hardy is incredible, with 110 catches for 1,334 yards in 2014 ... but he hasn't seen anyone close to as good as Vernon Hargreaves III (or Jalen Tabor, or maybe even Quincy Wilson) this year.
Oh, and ECU's defense is, well, not good. East Carolina's ninth nationally in rush defense, but it hasn't seen an offense ranked in the top 50 in rush offense (Florida is No. 43), and yet has seen four of the nation's 12 worst running games; its pass defense, ranked 107th, needs no such qualifiers to be classified as bad. ECU foes have cleared 100.00 in pass efficency in all but three games against the Pirates this year, and Ruffin McNeill's defense has given up 250 or more passing yards in nine of 12 games, too.
A motivated Florida team would make mincemeat of East Carolina. I really believe that.
It's not just Florida that might be lacking for motivation, either. East Carolina is playing for Hardy and senior quarterback Shane Carden, who will be playing their last games in purple, gold, and black (well, while), but ECU's coaches have to know that a win at The Swamp would be way more valuable to their program than a win in a glorified exhibition. If there's a choice between putting something in the playbook to beat Florida tomorrow and keeping it under wraps until a shot at the big, bad SEC team in its own fortress, wouldn't there be at least some consideration of discretion?
And so it's a shame this game is happening in January and not, say, October, because that game — with East Carolina firing on all cylinders, rather than coming off a loss to UCF as improbable as Florida's to South Carolina (or Florida basketball's loss to Florida State), and Florida's fearsome defense rarin' for the challenge of shutting down the Pirates' potent passing game — would've been awesome.
This one will be awful, like most bowls, and I'm going to watch the first half until I leave for the O'Dome because, well, what else am I going to do on an early Saturday afternoon? I'll catch the rest out of obligation, on a DVR, or on YouTube, and by, like, Tuesday. I'll write about it, eventually.
But I just don't care. And I can't compel you to care, either.