As I explained at length earlier this morning, Florida is a massive underdog against Alabama in the 2016 SEC Championship Game, facing a 24-point spread that is the second-most formidable for the Gators in 30 years.
That is bad. It means Florida is not just not expected to win on Saturday, but to be thoroughly uncompetitive with a championship on the line.
But it’s also good, because Florida not being expected to win means that Florida has room to do whatever the hell it wants. As I see it, there are four primary paths to follow.
Play for the win, no matter what
This is the most extreme option on the aggressive side, and it’s more or less self-explanatory: Florida should do everything in its power to win this game, specifically, ignoring or minimizing contexts beyond the game.
That probably means running Jordan Scarlett into the ground, taking shots against an Alabama secondary that has some weaknesses, playing Jarrad Davis extensively even if doing so endangers his health or draft stock, gambling for turnovers that could swing the game on defense and risking giving up big plays as a result, and maybe trying a fake or five.
It also means, I would think, taking a long, hard look at starting Feliepe Franks or Kyle Trask over Austin Appleby. We’ve seen Appleby’s strengths — his arm strength, and maybe his relative mobility — and we haven’t seen those of Franks and Trask in a non-spring game setting at the collegiate level, but the conventional wisdom, especially lately, has suggested that they will compete to be Florida’s starter in 2017, passing up Luke Del Rio in the process, and both are archetypally similar to Appleby, with some . If they’re projected to do that then — and we’re ignoring the value of an extra year of eligibility, and/or the potential downside of exposing a true freshman to Alabama’s pass rush in his first action — why not see if they could do that now?
I don’t think this is the likely tack for Florida — but I do imagine many fans might like it.
Play for the win, but smartly
In this scenario, Florida isn’t mortgaging the far future for a slightly better chance of being in the Sugar Bowl penthouse in the near future, and probably isn’t playing anyone but Appleby or Del Rio at quarterback as a result.
Maybe this means more carries for backup running backs, too, and trying to stay on schedule instead of hitting big-play jackpots against an Alabama defense that has conceded fewer plays of 10 or more yards than any other defense in the country. Probably, it requires a game plan closer to the cautious, conservative plans of the last few years of Florida football than one that scraps sensible risks for big swings.
This is the path that acknowledges that Florida should probably lose this game to Alabama maybe 90 of 100 times, but wants to be absolutely certain that the Gators are angled at those 10 winning scenarios. (The above one is probably more about aiming for two or three edge cases — and being more or less okay with the 90 other ones.)
Play not to lose — or, don’t get embarrassed
This is the path that’s all about covering the spread, keeping the game from getting out of hand, and generally trying to appear to be Alabama’s peer without necessarily trying to best the Tide, or getting a win for its efforts.
Florida hasn’t run this road under McElwain, or really ever in the modern era. I wrote about this 2013, when Will Muschamp’s efforts to play to win smartly were criticized by many as “playing not to lose,” but it has never felt to me in my life like the Gators have entered any given game with a plan to simply not be blown off the field.
Against Florida State in 2013, as a four-touchdown underdog, Florida came out using Trey Burton in the wildcat extensively for the first time in a little more than a year, and got 47 yards on his two carries in the first quarter — before he got hurt, like everyone else did in 2013, and had to leave the game. Two weeks prior, against South Carolina, Florida — correctly — assessed that using Skyler Mornhinweg as sparingly as possible was probably the key to victory, and almost rode Kelvin Taylor to a win, while also doing things like throwing a fake punt to Leon Orr.
It’s pointless to try to re-litigate that 2013 season now, and I’m very much not trying to do that. But I think Florida trying to win games even in the depths of that nightmare is a clue that Florida will always do so, wisdom of the strategy be damned.
And yet: Would fans be happier with a 14-point loss to Alabama’s, like last year’s, or a 40-point loss, something the Gators haven’t taken since 1990, long before even that fateful night against Nebraska in the desert?
Florida can try to shorten the game and control the clock, and it has the weapons — cough, Eddy Piñeiro, cough — to score points and keep its nation-leading streak of consecutive games without being shut out intact. It has enough of a defense left — especially if Davis is close to full strength, which is a pipe dream, but work with me — to at least stem the Tide on occasion. I think these Gators can cover a 24-point spread against Alabama — which is “only” 8-4 against the spread this year — without too many absurdities, and I think pointing toward that, specifically — and not a win — would make it even more likely.
That’s a cynical way of approaching things, though. And I’m not sure I think Florida fans would be okay with it — at least, if it were stated out loud...
Let’s have some fun
Finally, there is what I’m going to call the Spurrier of the Mind option: Going nuts.
Gators superfan Jonathan Arnholz, a former vice president of the Rowdy Reptiles, laid out his preference for this last Saturday, in a series of amusing tweets.
Please, if Jim McElwain somehow reads this tweet: Let's just get crazy in the SECCG. Like, seriously, let's get weird.— Jonathan Arnholz (@JArnholz) November 27, 2016
Take a knee to end the half, but put the ball under your knee so you're not actually down. Flag football teams do this all the time.— Jonathan Arnholz (@JArnholz) November 27, 2016
EDDY PINEIRO BICYCLE KICK FIELD GOALS— Jonathan Arnholz (@JArnholz) November 27, 2016
Kidnap Tebow off the SEC Nation set and put him in Appleby's jersey. Nobody will question how he became left-handed, trust me— Jonathan Arnholz (@JArnholz) November 27, 2016
Those ideas obviously aren’t all realistic — but the spirit could be.
Florida fans who think that the Gators only threw 50-yard passes in the 1990s would get their day in the sun on Saturday, as Appleby launched bomb after bomb. There would be no punts, not even deep. Maybe Florida would kick onside to begin the game. Antonio Callaway could throw the ball; Teez Tabor could play wideout for a snap or two. Every bit of the playbook should be available; every risk should be taken, as if there were no penalty whatsoever for a loss.
And if it all ends 70-0 in Alabama’s favor, but Florida tried shit, at least that would make some folks happy, right?
I suspect Florida’s most likely to play to win, but smartly, and that while we will see some risks, we won’t see Franks and Trask. And, frankly, I think I’d go with that, too: Alabama is obviously great, but is no more “unbeatable” this year than it was last year, and Florida did a) lead that game at one point and b) trail just 12-7 at halftime while c) Treon Harris completed nine of 24 passes and compiled a QBR of 6.7 and d) Florida running backs rushed for 16 yards.
Playing to win the game when there’s something on the line will never go out of fashion — not in general, and certainly not for Florida.
But what I want to know is what you want. So “vote” in the poll — explanation in the comments — which will be “open” until noon on Saturday, and let me know your thoughts and reasoning down yonder, too.