What's the value of a bowl game? Like, a bowl game like the one the Florida Gators will play in in two days — yes, just two days — against Michigan in the 2016 Citrus Bowl?
It's an exhibition that doesn't really matter to the bowl records, and not a significant one on par with a Bowl Championship Series bowl or New Year's Six game — though even the "significance" of those games is dubious, given that the College Football Playoff is becoming a be-all, end-all fixture at season's end. It's hard to see how, say, playing Houston at noon in Atlanta on New Year's Eve or playing Ohio State at 1 p.m. in Glendale on New Year's Day is any more or less significant or prestigious than playing Michigan at 1 p.m. in Orlando on New Year's Day. Apart from a few select bowls, one of which — the Rose — Florida can't get to except through the College Football Playoff, there's very minimal differentiation between the bowls, and even the tiers of bowls.
And while it's nice to win exhibition games, mostly because winning is preferable to losing, the outcome of this Citrus Bowl is not going to make or break Jim McElwain's tenure in Gainesville.
So that leaves me with a question: What should Florida do with this game?
I have six suggestions.
Let Treon Harris run
The amount of discontent for how Treon Harris plays quarterback is at an all-time high for Florida fans — and it's probably at a high-water mark for my lifetime. I've had a friend say, semi-seriously, that he would not be attending or watching another Gators game with Harris playing QB, and seen semi-serious comparisons of Harris to Donald Douglas — who relieved the similarly ineffective Kyle Morris in 1989, and completed 27 of 59 passes for 330 yards and four interceptions against one touchdown while running for 226 yards and two scores.
Leaving aside some of the reasons for the use of Douglas as the nadir of quarterback play for the Gators, it's telling that Florida fans reach back that far to find QBs worse than Harris over the last month or so: Even the "bad" Florida quarterbacks since the arrival of Steve Spurrier have been little worse than average by any reasonable analysis, with lowlights like the cameos of Ingle Martin and Skyler Mornhinweg still being more relatively poor than absolutely poor. John Brantley and Jeff Driskel each had seasons with passer ratings over 130.00 — and Harris himself had a better passer rating than those two QBs did in their best years in 2014, albeit in a smaller sample size.
While Harris has, surprisingly, posted a better passer rating over the 2015 season as a whole than Driskel did in 2014, Tyler Murphy did in 2013, or Brantley did in 2010, those numbers are inflated by fine play in Florida's first two games. Strip out those games against New Mexico State and East Carolina, in which Harris posted a sterling 178.50 passer rating, and he's ... still been about as good as Driskel was in 2014? Weird. Huh.
Anyway, Florida should probably run Harris more because there isn't another game for seven months, because Harris is simply more effective as a runner than a thrower, because the use of a read option would force defenders to stay home rather than rush Florida's struggling offensive line endlessly, because it would allow for a game plan that would also accomodate a cameo from Josh Grady — who now "deserves" at least a little burn in the eyes of most fans, if only to see what the alternative to Harris is — and, maybe most importantly, because why the hell not?
The Florida offense that has cratered since Will Grier's failed drug test and suspension has still managed to be effective at times, but has needed big plays to do so.
Florida has scored just 15 offensive touchdowns in the seven games since losing Grier — and big plays or short fields account for all of them. Six of those 15 TDs have come on drives that haven't had to cross midfield: Four of those drives began in the red zone, three started with goal to go, and one came in overtime against Florida Atlantic.
The other nine Florida touchdown drives since Grier's suspension have all featured at least one play of 25 or more yards, with eight of the nine featuring a 30-yard play.
The evidence strongly suggests Florida can't run the ball effectively enough or pass with enough rhythm at this point to grind out 15-play, 80-yard drives that feature four or five first downs. And trying to win by attrition against a Michigan defense that has been salty all season — one that was coordinated by DJ Durkin, whose scheme and approach Geoff Collins and Randy Shannon largely incorporated into their own for ease of transition — strikes me as insanity.
So, if winning this game matters as much or more as preparing for the next 12-15 games does, Harris should throw the ball around the lot at the Citrus Bowl. Florida should try a trick play or five. The Gators' offense should be engineered to try to take big chunks out of the defense rather than plodding into missed field goal range.
Or McElwain and Doug Nussmeier could continue the painful process of letting a square peg protected by other square pegs try to fit into the mold of the round one they want. Whichever works, I guess!
Speaking of aggressiveness: Florida shouldn't kick anything but chip-shot field goals against Michigan, and I wouldn't mind if the Gators eschewed even those. They'll punt, sure, but the Gators have been somewhere beyond woeful when kicking field goals in 2015, and surprisingly decent at converting on fourth down, though they're 4-for-15 on fourth down since their 10-for-10 start.
Thanks to the commitment of Eddy Pineiro, Austin Hardin's quite clearly not going to be Florida's kicker in 2016 and beyond, so there's no reason to build his confidence. And a field goal is such a low-percentage decision for Florida even if Neil MacInnes is the one kicking it that I can't see the point in recommending it.
Screw three. Let's go for six.
This should seem spectacularly obvious, but: Antonio Callaway needs more touches, targets, and usage. Those nine drives with plays of 25 or more yards? Callaway made four of those plays, and no other Gators player has had more than one. (The other five who produced those plays: DeAndre Goolsby, Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite, Kelvin Taylor, and C.J. Worton.)
Add in his two touchdown returns on punts, against LSU and Alabama, and Callaway's been the catalyst (if not the scorer) of more than a third of the touchdowns Florida has scored since traveling to LSU ... which just outpaces a Florida defense that has churned out incredible opportunities for its anemic offense.
And a 27-yard Callaway punt return that crossed midfield set up Florida's lone TD drive against Vanderbilt. And a 52-yard Callaway punt return set up a pointless drive that began in the red zone against Florida Atlantic. And, well, you get it: Callaway is Florida's greatest weapon, and should be deployed accordingly.
Experiment with the line
While the four suggestions above all have to do more with the process of winning this game than winning, for example, a November game against Arkansas next fall, this one's about the long view: Florida ought to try different combinations on its offensive line to see what works.
The loss of Mason Halter to academic suspension means Florida will only play one lineman, senior Trip Thurman, who is unlikely to return in 2016. And while Florida's obviously going to play Thurman, at least for stretches, I see no good reason that it shouldn't play around with unusual combinations, and leave him on the bench for a drive or two in favor of all-underclassmen lineups.
There are plenty of questions to be answered about Florida's line going forward. Is Martez Ivey strong enough to handle an edge rusher? Is Tyler Jordan better at center or right guard? Can Fred Johnson be nimble enough to protect the blind side at left tackle? Would David Sharpe rather play left tackle or right? Are freshmen Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer good enough to play early in 2016 after their redshirt years?
I don't know the answers to any of those questions, but it's not my responsibility to know them — it's McElwain's, and Nussmeier's, and Mike Summers's task to figure all that out. What I do know is that this game, and the practices before it, give them ample time in a relatively low-pressure situation to do some investigating.
Let the defense be, mostly
Florida's defense is in a weird spot. All the elder statesmen who are clearly leaving for the NFL are by far the Gators' best options at their positions (Jonathan Bullard, Vernon Hargreaves, Antonio Morrison). The players who are on the fence (Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal) probably aren't going to be affected by the bowl one way or the other, and most of the younger players are either already in the lineup (CeCe Jefferson), hurt (Thomas Holley), not ready (Chris Williamson), or redshirting (Andrew Ivie, Rayshad Jackson, Jabari Zuniga, and maybe Williamson).
Florida's already cindered one redshirt by playing Keivonnis Davis as an emergency rusher, and he's been fine. But winning a bowl game because Florida's staff suddenly decided to try out Kylan Johnson, say, is just not likely, and thus probably not worth it.
There's just not a lot that has to change or be fixed with Florida's defense, and what problems may occur depend more on what Maye and Neal decide to do than anything else, and can't be fully prepared for in a bowl. It's also not fair to deprive either player of a potential showcase, either.
So the bet and hope here is that Florida plays some unusual rotations, but not necessarily new names. Matt Rolin had his best game as a Gator in the SEC Championship Game, and deserves more burn; so, too, does Jefferson, who might just be one of Florida's best four defensive linemen at this point. It would behoove Florida to try a variety of players in Bullard's role, but the Gators have seen plenty of Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson spelling Hargreaves, and have already ramped up the participation of Duke Dawson and Nick Washington in the secondary.
The defense ain't broke. Don't fix it.