Florida seems likely to go into its 2016 SEC Championship Game matchup with Alabama as a three-touchdown underdog. The most recent odds have the Crimson Tide as 24-point favorites, up substantially from the 21.5 points Alabama was favored by when lines were released on Sunday.
While lines set by Las Vegas aren’t really scientific, they are usually based on bookmakers’ power ratings, blended with more subjective human hunches, and they are still the best means of comparing expectations of how a given game will go over time. That’s going to change, hopefully, as public advanced ratings — like the relatively transparent S&P+, which adjudges Florida to be a 22.9-point underdog this weekend, and ESPN’s opaque Football Power Index, which gives Florida an 11.5 percent chance of winning — gain wider adoption, but for now, the best way to figure out just how lopsided a game looked on paper is still to reference past lines.
And looking at past lines finds these Gators in historic positioning as an underdog.
The 24-point line — and I’m going to use the present tense here, because it’s not coming down — is just the second line favoring a Florida opponent by 20 or more points this century, following the 28-point line that eventual national champion Florida State barely covered in a 37-7 blowout of a 4-7 Florida team emaciated by injuries, according to the covers.com database of historical lines.
But it’s also the second such line in the database — which dates to the 1985 season, and thus covers four years Florida spent on NCAA probation, two season the Gators spent banned from both postseason play and live television, and two campaigns in which Florida had an interim coach for more than just a bowl game.
Over the last 30 years, Florida has been this definitive an underdog just twice — both times as an injury-scarred shell of its former self, and against a national championship contender.
The Gators have undoubtedly faced longer odds over the sweep of program history. An 0-9-1 Florida team played a 10-0 Florida State in 1979, assuredly getting at least a couple of touchdowns’ worth of points — and probably covered, given that the Seminoles won by just a 27-16 score. That same team also played Alabama earlier in the year, losing 40-0 — the worst shutout loss for Floridain 53 years — and probably got a bunch of points in that game, too.
But the arrival of Steve Spurrier in Gainesville more or less ended the days of Florida being an astronomical underdog. The Gators were not double-digit underdogs until 1992, the third year of his tenure — when they got 17 points against eventual national runner-up Florida State and 10.5 points against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, in case you hadn’t picked up on that trend — and would not get 10 or more points between their 1993 game against eventual national champion Florida State and their 2000 game against eventual national championship game participant Florida State.
Even under Ron Zook, Florida was only a double-digit favorite twice: In 2003, the Gators were 14.5-point underdogs at Miami, which was coming off an overtime loss in the national championship game, and got 10 points against eventual national champion LSU — for a game that Florida won, 19-7.
And under Urban Meyer, the Gators were almost always favored. Florida was never a double-digit underdog in Meyer’s six years in Gainesville, and was not an underdog at any point between its visit to — eventual national champion, because this should be obvious at this point — LSU in 2007 to its trip to Florida State in 2010.
That amazing 46-game run as a favorite — or a team so good that no line was given against overmatched competition, as happened against The Citadel in 2008 and Charleston Southern in 2009 — saw Florida go 38-8, with the Gators entering the 2010 season on a 31-4 run as the favored team. Florida was incredible even against bookmakers’ odds in 2008, going 11-2 against the spread — this, despite nine double-digit lines, and seven of at least 23 points.
Will Muschamp’s Gators didn’t enjoy the same success, getting double-digit points just six games into his tenure at — eventual national runner-up, naturally — LSU. (Fun fact: Florida was just a 3.5-point underdog against eventual national champion Alabama the week prior, and lost by 28.) They would be double-digit dogs four more times under Muschamp’s stewardship, but managed to cover those lines against South Carolina in 2013 and Georgia (with a win, even) in 2014, while failing to cover against FSU in 2013 and Alabama in 2014.
Despite opening as a double-digit underdog in three games at the Golden Nugget in 2015, Florida would close as one just once, against — who else? — eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Thanks to a miraculous touchdown pass from Treon Harris to C.J. Worton, Florida actually covered the 16.5-point spread in that 29-15 loss.
And if you’re looking for hope this weekend: Florida also covered in its only other game as a double-digit underdog under Jim McElwain, doing so two weeks ago at LSU by just going ahead and winning the game.
My most important takeaway from this line and this research, though, is this: Florida is currently about as big an underdog as it can be.
I’ll have more on what that makes me think later today.