Florida's trip to Tennessee for what should be one of September's best college football games is going to be one of the most exciting games on the defending SEC East champions' schedule. It's probably up there with playing the LSU team that has been part of a see-sawing rivalry in recent years, going for a third straight win against Georgia, traveling to Arkansas in the November cold for a game that could decide teams that travel to Atlanta, or facing off against hated in-state rival Florida State and potentially attempting to become the first invading team to vanquish the Seminoles in Tallahassee since the Gators did so four years ago.
It's not, I say with a great deal of comfort, currently the highest-stakes game of the college football regular season, nor will it be. ESPN's Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg disagree with me, though!
1. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 24
What's at stake: All Jim McElwain did in his first season at Florida, despite some serious shortcomings on offense, was go out and win the SEC's Eastern Division championship. And, yes, that means Florida beat Tennessee for the 11th straight time. The Vols last beat the Gators four head coaches ago in a rivalry that hasn't been much of one for the past decade. Butch Jones has been steadily building back Tennessee's program, and his roster certainly looks the part with returning playmakers and experience. But the reality is that Florida has found a way to win this game over the years, and Tennessee has found a way to lose it. If the Vols don't change that trend this season in Knoxville, there will be massive avalanche on Rocky Top.
Ignoring the (sic) potential of that last sentence, the plainly wrong logic of Florida winning the SEC East meaning it beat Tennessee — which would've been easily explained with the fact that Florida has never lost to Tennessee and played in the SEC Championship Game in the same season, had someone done the minute of research necessary to publish that — and the convenient omission of the fact that Florida's "serious shortcomings on offense" really weren't there in September, when Will Grier had his finest hour against Tennessee: This is insane.
We're talking about two teams that could vie for the SEC's lesser division's title, and what I assume — without checking, though I will check at some point! — is the longest winning streak by one team that has won a national championship in the last 20 years over another. And we're also talking about two teams that have played one-point games in the last two years.
But we're talking about two teams that will need a few breaks to work their way into the national title picture, given that neither one owns a win over Alabama — the team that gatekeeps both squads' title hopes, more or less — since 2008. Those two one-point games were largely unwatchable (2014) and weird but not transcendent until the end (2015), not Hagler-Hearns-style classics. Neither coach is going to get fired for losing this game, with Jim McElwain set for 2017 come anything but tragedy or scandal and Butch Jones more likely to be subsumed by his own scandals or a snowball effect after a loss to Florida.
Low and Rittenberg weren't working with the most coherent criteria for selecting their high-stakes contests:
Imagine the college football schedule is a roulette board and you have a large stack of casino chips. Now, pick the circles where you want to place the most chips.
Remember, you're not selecting necessarily the biggest games or the fiercest rivalries or games guaranteed to shape the national title race. You're picking the games certain to carry high stakes, no matter what happens between now and kickoff. You are doing this right now, months before preseason camp begins and depth charts are finalized. Most of these contests should fall early in the season, but some later games also fit into the high-stakes category.
So what goes into a high-stakes game? It could have playoff implications for both squads. It also could feature a lengthy streak in an annual series. It could include a coach on thin ice with his fan base, needing this particular win to reach higher ground. It could start or end a critical stretch for one or both teams. Bottom line: These are the games every fan base has circled right now.
I guess the conceit here, maladroitly explained with a roulette metaphor that makes no damn sense if you think about it for more than five seconds, is that they're trying to bet on a single game being more compelling than the rest. Given that, the best and most compelling reason to put Florida-Tennessee at the top of the list according to the stated criteria is the Gators' 11-year winning streak.
But the most interesting outgrowth of the streak, at least to my mind, isn't its existence unto itself, but Florida players — most notably Jalen Tabor — making it a shield to take up and a cause to defend. And I don't care about that! I think all of that jawing is a distraction even when it's clever, and I haven't thought anything about the back-and-forth between Florida and Tennessee — from coaches, players, and fans — has been genuinely funny since Will Muschamp's "It's great to see all these people out here getting disappointed — I love it!" And that hardly ever gets explained as a response to the audible and embittered "FUCK YOU, FLORIDA!" chants at Neyland Stadium that afternoon, which Jones explained away as attributible to an "appetite for winning" and "passion."
Making the case that no fan base needs its team to take a win over another team as badly as Tennessee's fan base needs one from its Vols over the Gators is so easy, because it's probably true. (I don't even know what other matchup I would pick.) Yet that's not part of the stated criteria Low and Rittenberg use, and it's not explained in their capsule on the game.
It's almost like ESPN's producing content based on hoping certain fan bases will take an interest in it, and retconning its reasoning for talking about those teams based on that. Almost. Maybe.
Florida-Tennessee is hotly anticipated. It will probably be a good game, and an important one. It probably won't be the "highest-stakes" game this fall.
We're talking about it, though, because someone published an ordinal list.