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Florida vs. LSU: On fighting ghosts

Championship-or-crestfallen does not have to be your standard. It isn’t mine.

LSU vs Florida Photo by Gus Stark/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

I used a certain Jay-Z couplet long, long ago, for a preview of Jeff Driskel that I think holds up rather well even for a piece that posited a team that would go 4-8 had a national championship as its best-case scenario. But today inspired me to use it again, so here it is again: “‘Hov got flows, but he’s no Big and ‘Pac, but he’s close’ / How’m I ‘sposed to win? They got me fightin’ ghosts.”

That’s what the Florida Gators — and every football team, and every sports team, and every thing measured against the past — are constantly doing.

And the “they” here is mostly Florida fans, more specifically those who have learned this week that LSU will be without wide receiver Kayshon Boutte and cornerback Eli Ricks on top of already being without corner Derek Stingley Jr. when it hosts the Gators in Baton Rouge this weekend and are now openly setting the expectation that anything but Florida blowing out LSU would be a disappointment.

This is interesting to me, a person who remembers that LSU was without Ja’Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall, Arik Gilbert, and Myles Brennan — its putative best quarterback, or at least the one LSU’s coaches began 2020 by starting — when it came to Gainesville last year, and still beat a Florida team that put up 609 yards of total offense. But, then, I suppose that I was also disappointed by that game in terms of it producing an outcome I didn’t want, even if I was thoroughly entertained by the latest insane chapter of a rivalry that lives beyond reason.

And if your only or primary standard for contentment with a Florida football season is its proximity to a national championship, I can completely understand why you would be dismayed by that game. LSU pulling off an astonishing upset over Florida in which a 15-yard penalty was assessed for a shoe throw was surely immensely frustrating for any fan who puts the Gators’ estimated and/or relative power level first and everything else a distant second when thinking about priorities for a college football season.

I’d rather be amazed by a football team getting that sort of gift — not to mention about five other ones — and still needing a great kicker to smoke a 59-yard field goal through a Roger Deakins-ready bank of fog that descended on a stadium called The Swamp, then also needing a great kicker to miss a shorter field goal through that same fog after two plays of brilliance from two extraordinary players to preserve the slim victory.

Championship-or-crestfallen does not have to be your standard. It isn’t mine. I do not think I am a less passionate Florida fan because of it, nor a less excited one when the Gators win — I’m just happier, or maybe more accurately less stressed, when they lose.

And especially in a year in which college football is trending more toward the chaos that virtually every fan of the sport publicly purports to crave, adopting the stance of embracing the madness and celebrating things other than hoisting a trophy that looks unfortunately like a female reproductive organ would seem to be the way to best enjoy a sport that generates a kaleidoscopic spectrum of glories — and miseries — on each Saturday.

The greatest Florida football teams of my lifetime are probably the ones that won national championships, but the best ones might have been the 1995 squad that I didn’t get to see much of, because I was five and had both limited understanding of things beyond the Hardy Boys universe and limited control of television screens in my household, and the 2001 edition that didn’t even play for an SEC title.

The most fun that I have had with a Florida season came in 2012, with a team that most of Gator Nation regarded — and probably still regards — as one that won with players gritting their teeth and fans gnashing theirs.

I do not make any excuses for enjoying the thrills of that season, most of which I was able to take in in person, because y’all don’t get to decide how I root.

And yet the most fun season of college football in recent history by both my own estimation and popular acclamation came in 2007, a season in which two dramatic and thrilling games produced losses that jettisoned a Florida outfit defending its national title from national championship contention, a third loss erasing Florida from the SEC title picture came in surprising and absurd fashion to a hated rival, and the fourth and final loss of the year featured an unprecedented Heisman winner succumbing to a siege by a team that had taken an unprecedented loss to Appalachian State.

Florida ended 2007 nowhere near where it could have been if things had broken right, but its year and the larger season was an exhilarating ride partly because of that.

Florida’s loss to Auburn in The Swamp? It helped cement the legacy of Coach Boom, and allowed me to observe what a resident assistant who shall remain nameless coming back from a game in an altered state and taking out his frustrations on an EXIT sign was like.

To hear anyone who saw it tell it, Florida’s game with LSU was a rare and special treat of athletic competition. My personal regret from the 2007 season is not watching that game live — in retrospect, taking advantage of my then-girlfriend’s fall break to visit her at the small women’s college she attended, while fun, did rob me of the chance to have eternal hatred for Jacob Hester.

And Georgia’s full-team celebration in Jacksonville gets funnier and funnier as time goes by — plus, as no one knew in 2007, it set up Urban Meyer’s most satisfyingly petty moment as Florida’s coach. (LSU winning in 2007 also gave Florida stomping the Tigers in 2008 more than a lagniappe of satisfying vengeance.)

Now, do fans say they want chaos but really mean that they want every team but their own to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while their squad waltzes through hurricane and firestorm unscathed? Yes, obviously. People claim to want one thing while actually wanting another all the time, and hypocrisy alone is not a crime even at its most laughable or eyeroll-worthy.

But even if you want Florida to be a conquering superpower in college football above all else, watching Florida lose multiple games in a season such that it can no longer really attain that status and not recalibrating your expectations after those losses is just setting yourself up for being somewhere from despondent to dyspeptic on Saturdays, then probably being at least a little down on every other day of the week.

You do not have to do this dance.

There is a cost associated with eschewing the kabuki of being mad as hell about your group of college-aged men not winning the game they played against another group of college-aged men, but it’s, like, being momentarily in an out-group on Twitter. (As someone who’s been in plenty of those? It ain’t that bad.)

And the benefit of freeing your mind when it comes to college football fandom is ... well, it’s not exactly that your ass will follow, but it is that you can immediately order more and more of a colossal menu that spans from the sumptuous to the sybaritic, rather than hewing to the Bourbon Street Steak and the Oreo shake that you get on every trip to Applebee’s.

Try grudgingly respecting Florida State clawing back from its worst start of the modern era so that Florida’s win at season’s end is more fulfilling! Adopt the posture that Georgia is This Year’s Best Team Ever to set yourself up for either being able to downplay that coming to pass as fait accompli or revel in the tremendous mirth and schadenfreude that would come if these Bulldogs somehow manage to also fall short of a national title like the last 40 teams did! Abruptly get as into Iowa’s hysterical marriage of a ludicrous turnover generation machine of a defense to a sputtering Chevy Nova of an offense as Jake Gyllenhaal gets into a character’s psychosis, or figure out the lore of why Coastal Carolina uses the chanticleer as its mascot! College football is large, and contains multitudes. So can you.

And if “be all that you can be” was a pretty coercive slogan when it was applied to the concept of volunteering to train to kill people, it’s also pretty good advice for life.

If you, fellow Florida fan, are going to perpetually pit the Gators of today against the ghosts and echoes of the past, that’s your prerogative. It ain’t new, it doesn’t seem particularly fun to me, and it’s wholly predictable — “Build me up, break me down to build me up again / ‘Hov, we need you back — so we can kill your ass again!’” is, after all, the couplet preceding the couplet above, and the rest of the blistering verse begins with “Same sword they knight you, they gon’ “good night” you wit’ / Shit, that’s only half if they like you / That ain’t even the half what they might do” — but it’s at least an ethos.

I can only tell you that there are other ways, including one that I have come to find vastly more satisfying. It’s up to you to listen and possibly reconsider what you want to do.

You only have so many heartbeats. Why deliberately spend any of them setting yourself up for disappointment?