There’s been little drama or intrigue about Florida’s opener against Massachusetts on Saturday, and for good reason. The Minutemen, charitably, are not good — Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projects them as the nation’s No. 127 team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
There are 128 FBS teams. (Florida also plays No. 128, North Texas! Whee!)
Florida, meanwhile, is No. 19 on that list, and its projected S&P+ rating — loosely, how many points better it is than a theoretically average team — is 14.5. UMass boasts a -17.1.
That means that a blowout should be expected on this Saturday, and that the most compelling part of the final result will probably relate to Florida covering the spread — 36.5 points at Bovada.
But it also means that Florida can suspend players for this game with little worry about the consequences of those suspensions on the field against the Minutemen.
There are four known Gators who are suspended for Saturday’s season opener — Teez Tabor and C’yontai Lewis, reportedly for a practice-related fight, and Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells, presumably for their offseason arrests on felony charges related to damage done with BB guns. There’s also a fifth suspended Gator, a senior whose identity Jim McElwain would not reveal in press conferences.
None of those suspensions is going to impact the binary win-loss outcome of Saturday’s game. Tabor might be Florida’s best player, period, but the Gators have a very good No. 2 corner in Quincy Wilson, and promising backups in Duke Dawson and Joseph Putu. Lewis is the backup tight end. Cleveland and Wells might have seen the field — Cleveland especially — but would have done so after the establishment of a big lead.
The mystery senior probably has a better chance of being a rotational player than Cleveland or Wells do — and while I’m not really happy about being forced to speculate to write about this, there’s a pretty clear candidate, given the dearth of seniors on Florida’s roster who do not appear on Florida’s depth chart for this week.
Speculation aside, we know for certain based on class alone that the suspended senior is not any of Florida’s quarterbacks, nor a running back other than Mark Herndon — pretty clearly not suspended, given how glowingly he’s been mentioned this offseason and week — and we can confidently assume that it’s neither Jarrad Davis nor Marcus Maye, both of whom have been positioned as leaders of this year’s team. So we can be confident, too, that this player’s absence won’t dramatically alter what the Gators are.
And this year, as in so many in recent decades, they are superior to their season-opening opponent. As Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports pointed out on Wednesday, those suspensions are more easily absorbed because of that.
In all likelihood, that’s not going to be the case in 2017, as Florida meets Michigan in a Cowboys Stadium-hosted clash, or in 2019, when the Gators resume their rivalry with Miami in Orlando.
That might mean we will see some different and potentially more lenient penalties for discretionary things — like, say, teammates getting into a fight — entering those seasons. It might mean that Florida spends much more time and effort trying to keep players from failing offseason drug tests that have cost many Gators appearances in season openers over the years.
Without question, though, it increases the stakes for any individual suspension, or any individual act that might lead to one. It’s obviously not good that Tabor, Lewis, Cleveland, Wells, and the mystery senior — or any previously suspended Gator — have ruled themselves out of a season opener by making some of those (bad) “choices” that Jim McElwain likes to speak opaquely about, but they can take some solace in knowing their absences almost assuredly won’t be the difference between victory and defeat.
No Gator can count on that next year.
The difference between having to show up and having to show out to go 1-0 also illuminates the privilege that Florida and other similarly-positioned programs have when it comes to schedule construction. The Gators take flack from fans of rival programs about staying in-state, sure, but their scheduling has never prevented them from being nationally relevant in their best years, and they need rigors outside of an SEC schedule and a meeting with Florida State — the 75 percent of Florida’s schedule that is more or less mandatory — far less than, for example, Texas.
The Longhorns no longer get a guaranteed rivalry game with Texas A&M like Florida’s with FSU, and don’t have the luxury of a potential 13th conference championship game to put on their seasonal résumé. So they have, since 2012, supplemented their Big 12 schedule with non-conference meetings with Mississippi (twice), BYU (twice), UCLA, Notre Dame, and Cal.
Texas is 1-6 in those games, and hasn’t won one since 2012.
In fairness, just one of those games — last year’s 38-3 rout by Notre Dame — was a season opener, so that undercuts any points about the value of scheduling a cupcake as a buffer for off-season miscreancy. And I’d argue that Texas and Florida have been in very different situations in the last few years, despite easy parallels that can be drawn between the programs; I doubt that Florida would have gone 1-6 over the same seven games, or in seven games against similar opponents, and I think the Gators might have even emerged from those games with a winning record.
But we don’t know that because Florida hasn’t felt the need to even test those waters, and — despite any and all caterwauling about scheduling difficulty — that decision really hasn’t done material damage to the Gators’ championship aspirations at any point.
There is a different prospect facing Florida in future years, as the Gators ramp up the rigor in their scheduling to better compete for not just the College Football Playoff spot that will probably reliably go to the SEC champion, but also the New Year’s Six bowl berths that could be available to one- or two-loss SEC also-rans. Not having a starting quarterback or a top-flight corner for a season opener against Michigan in 2017 could be the difference between ringing in 2018 in the Peach Bowl or the Outback Bowl.
This Saturday, though, Florida won’t have one of its best players, and one of its most promising offensive players — and it will not matter much, if at all. Fans, I think, should savor that.
It won’t be like this forever.