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Thursday Buffet: Florida looking to land in New Year’s Six bowl, likely Orange

Florida hasn’t been to the Orange Bowl in nearly two decades. A return is seemingly its most likely bowl destination for 2019.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Capital One Orange Bowl - Mississippi State v Georgia Tech Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So I’ve spent a lot of this week alternately sleeping and being fatigued, and I’m a little behind on the news of the week when it comes to the Florida Gators.

Fortunately, it’s really only a little bit, as this week — one Florida’s athletes are largely spending preparing for final exams, with the exception of the volleyball team that we’ll get to later in this post — is one of the quietest for the Gators in the fall. Let’s use this Thursday Buffet to catch up, more or less.

Florida likely destined for Orange Bowl

One of the reasons I’ve never done a whole lot of work when it comes to putting posts together regarding bowl projections is that it’s mostly guesswork based on fact sets that change (often dramatically) by the week, done to satisfy thirst for the results of that guesswork. Much like power rankings, which are even more meaningless, bowl projections are great for “stimulating discussion” or “engaging your community,” which really just means that they generally do good traffic.

Here we are at the end of the 2019 season, though, and any bowl projections that you’ve been following for Florida have likely been dramatically changed by stuff that happened literally five days ago. What a pity that we didn’t have discussions about Florida’s Citrus Bowl opponent a week after the loss to Georgia, right?

In any case, this week’s penultimate College Football Playoff rankings of the 2019 season slotting Florida in at No. 9 makes it pretty clear that the Gators are going to make the cut for automatic inclusion in the New Year’s Six — and the rules of selection for the NY6 make it very likely that Florida is headed to the Orange Bowl, if so.

Florida sits behind both the lead pack of College Football Playoff candidates — undefeateds Ohio State, LSU, and Clemson and one-loss teams Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma, and Baylor comprise the top seven, in that order — and Wisconsin, the nation’s best two-loss team to make a conference championship game.

If favorites win this weekend in the various conference championship games being played, it seems likely that the top three will remain the same, with Utah and Oklahoma then being matched up as the possible No. 4 teams. I think Oklahoma — which would have two wins over a Baylor team with no losses to any team but Oklahoma — would probably win out in that scenario.

That would cause the rest of the top 10 to shift based on those results — but the order of the back end of the top 10 doesn’t matter that much for Florida’s prospects. Georgia almost certainly wouldn’t fall past the Florida team it defeated, and the Sugar Bowl is contractually tied to taking the top-ranked SEC team that doesn’t make the Playoff (and pitting it against the Big 12’s top-ranked non-Playoff team). The Rose is going to take the highest-ranked Big Ten and Pac-12 teams not in the Playoff, though its longstanding preferences suggest that it will take a divisional champion — Wisconsin, almost unquestionably — and not a team ranked ahead of that divisional champion, if necessary.

That leaves the Orange Bowl, with its tie to either the SEC’s No. 2 non-Playoff team, the Big Ten’s No. 2 non-Playoff team, or Notre Dame, to make the best matchup it can against the ACC’s top non-playoff team — and as the ACC seems very likely to send a champion Clemson to the Playoff and runner-up Virginia to the Orange Bowl, it would also seem like the smartest move for the bowl would be locking in an in-state team to face the Cavaliers rather than hoping that a Penn State-Virginia game (or, worse, a Notre Dame-Virginia rematch) would sell tickets.

The most likely outcome for Florida is thus a Florida-Virginia Orange Bowl that would send the Gators to Miami Gardens for a bowl for the first time since 2002 for its second-ever meeting with the Cavaliers.

But there’s a scenario, if an implausible one, that gets Florida to the Sugar Bowl: Georgia beating LSU and both SEC teams making the Playoff as a result. This doesn’t seem very likely to me, as I seriously doubt that Georgia can score with the Tigers, but a close Georgia win probably elevates the Bulldogs to No. 3 and relegates LSU to No. 4 — at worst, one should note, as Ohio State and Clemson could lose their conference championship games and slip from their perches or out of the top four entirely — and turns Florida into the SEC’s No. 1 non-Playoff team.

That would produce a Florida trip to the Sugar Bowl, perhaps against an Oklahoma team furious to be kept out of the Playoff by the SEC — and while New Orleans is obviously the prize destination of bowl season, that game would obviously be a challenge and a half for Florida to deal with on the field.

It’s also technically possible that the Orange could decide to select Penn State or Notre Dame over Florida. This would seem unlikely in the case of Penn State, even given its fan base’s good reputation for traveling for bowl games, and nigh impossible in the case of Notre Dame, which would likely draw a lot of ire by taking an at-large spot in a New Year’s Six bowl while finishing outside the CFP’s final top 12 — but it is possible, and that scenario would send Florida the furthest afield of any, likely shuffling a prominent Gators squad to Dallas — uh, North Texas — for the fourth time this decade, though also producing the program’s first-ever trip to the Cotton Bowl.

Maybe I’ll go through all the possible permutations of this weekend on Saturday. Probably, I won’t: Florida’s odds of going anywhere other than the Orange Bowl are slim.

But the brain-breaking, painstaking work to make those above paragraphs holistic and intellectually honest should tell you a lot about why I don’t do bowl projections — even though I know they can be done my way.

Florida volleyball to host NCAA Tournament play

Florida’s volleyball team earned its 24th SEC title under Mary Wise — in 29 seasons of Wise’s Florida tenure, mind — last weekend, holding off Texas A&M in a rollicking five sets to share the conference title with Kentucky.

The Gators’ NCAA Tournament reward for winning that title? A home date with an Alabama State team it should have little trouble toppling ... and then a possibly nervy match against an in-state foe for the right to make the Sweet Sixteen.

Florida, seeded No. 12 nationally, should be able to power past SWAC champion Alabama State as it has in its previous three meetings with the Hornets, all of which went to the Gators in three sets. It’s the next round, one where Florida would meet either UCF or Florida State, that becomes nettlesome.

By virtue of its perennial power status, Florida has often hosted NCAA Tournament play, and thus frequently had to defeat an in-state team to advance to the Sweet Sixteen; the last time the Gators didn’t meet an in-state team in Gainesville in the first two rounds of play was in 2012, when Florida drew Tulsa and the College of Charleston — the latter of which beat Miami in first round play.

And Florida has almost always handled those in-state foes with aplomb, only dropping one match — a 2016 second-rounder to Florida State in the tiny Lemerand Rec Center during the renovation of the O’Connell Center — to an in-state team in NCAA Tournament play this decade.

But this is yet another example of how the NCAA’s geography-based seeding of its biggest tournaments unfairly creates matchups with relatively well-known foes for teams in more populous states. And whether or not Florida makes it through to the Sweet Sixteen over the next two days — the Gators play Thursday night and would play again Friday evening with a win over Alabama State — it remains true that the Gators shouldn’t always have to win a rivalry matchup to do so.

Florida State’s bemusing coaching search continues

Finally, I’d be remiss to not note FSU’s search for a coach to replace Willie Taggart, the best comedy currently playing on Twitter.

The Seminoles shocked many — myself included — when they fired Taggart back at the beginning of November. For my part, that wasn’t because I thought he deserved to stay on: Mostly, I thought that FSU taking the necessary step of relieving the clearly overmatched Taggart of his duties so soon was unlikely to provide a meaningful advantage to a program that had little to no chance of landing this coaching carousel rotation’s best prize, Urban Meyer, and that firing Taggart then and not letting him steward the program down the stretch was a decision with little potential upside and plenty of likely downside.

That upside could have been captured by a swift and competent hiring of a coveted candidate, a move that would have justified the quick trigger on Taggart’s firing much like Florida’s famous firing of Ron Zook positioned itself to win the race to hire Urban Meyer in 2004. No such thing has happened, and things have gone in circles as a result: Some of the FSU fan base is still fixated on the pipe dream of luring Bob Stoops out of semi-retirement, the timeline for any hire now extends beyond athletic director David Coburn’s stated preference, a number of prominent possible candidates have been revealed to either not be on FSU’s radar or happy to use the Seminoles for leverage, and the radio silence from Tallahassee has left even reporters getting a bit stir-crazy.

The timeline of FSU’s process now seems to point directly to Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, but the Seminoles seemingly have competition for him from Ole Miss — something that a month of lead time could theoretically have helped the program avert. And if FSU does end up having to outbid a mid-tier SEC school for a coach with no Power Five head coaching experience who does not strike most as an outstanding hire — especially given the sense that Ole Miss once passed on Norvell for “red flags”?

Well, doesn’t that put FSU in a worse spot on paper than it was when it poached a rising coach with a ton of Florida ties who had just been installed by a Power Five power?

Whomever the Seminoles do hire has a Herculean task before them, and not just because FSU’s 18-19 record over the last three years doesn’t tell the whole story of the program’s drop from its 2013 national championship campaign to post-Jameis Winston mediocrity. But the way that FSU has gone about getting rid of Taggart and setting things up for its next coach isn’t helping.

(And to anyone who rightly notes that Miami isn’t in a better spot at the moment, having just lost to FIU and Duke: Miami did beat FSU in Tallahassee this fall.)