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Friday Forum: Just how big is Florida vs. Alabama, really?

The Gators have a chance to reshape this season and their future with a win on Saturday. But they’ll have more of those, too.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a potentially depressing thought for you, Florida Gators fan: If Florida beats Alabama on Saturday — handing the No. 1 team in college football its first loss in more than a year and its first loss to an SEC East team in more than a decade, and giving Dan Mullen his first win over Nick Saban ever — then it will have guaranteed itself little more than a 3-0 record.

The Gators would still need to win out to assure their place atop the SEC East and in the SEC Championship Game, and Georgia — at least — would still loom as a formidable foe in that regard. Florida would also probably need to win out in to be absolutely certain of a spot in the College Football Playoff; even if a 12-0 Florida team with wins over Alabama and Georgia would almost certainly be a Playoff participant after even a 40-point loss in Atlanta to a 9-3 Ole Miss team, the road to that 12-0 record obviously would remain treacherous.

And an 11-1 Florida with a loss to 12-0 Georgia that does not get to play in the SEC Championship game would risk being caught behind one-loss Alabama and Georgia teams if the Crimson Tide edged the Bulldogs in an SEC Championship Game. Those three teams would have strong arguments to be three of the four best in the nation, but the Playoff hasn’t yet put three SEC teams in its field, and doing so in that scenario — the best case for a Florida team that misses out on going to Atlanta — would necessitate slotting in a team that did not play for its conference title over at least two champions of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, or Pac-12. That just doesn’t seem likely to me.

So, yeah: Huge game this weekend. A win could be program-making, paradigm-shifting, sea-changing — unless it’s not.

But how bad could a loss actually be? Florida is a two-touchdown underdog at home; given the usual accounting for home-field advantage, that line implies that oddsmakers, at least, think that Alabama is around 20 points better than these Gators. And as Roll ‘Bama Roll noted this morning, it’s practically impossible to find someone picking Florida to win.

Florida has lost by 20 to ‘Bama before, and fairly often. It has four such losses since 2010, under three different coaches, in three different stadiums and three different states. It has two other losses to Alabama in Atlanta in which it mustered just 15 points and gave up 54. Urban Meyer lost his first game against Alabama at Florida by 28 points; Steve Spurrier once lost to the Tide twice in one year.

Go back further, to the days of Bear Bryant and before, and you can find 40-0 and 41-0 and 49-0 defeats. After a 1923 win over Alabama, Florida did not score a point against the Tide in its next two meetings; after a win in 1927, Florida would not score on Alabama again until after World War II, though only meeting twice between 1927 and 1948 helped with that.

And Alabama has also had a knack for catching Florida when the Gators were not at their absolute greatest. Spurrier never played against the Tide, which actually ebbed a bit during his collegiate career; Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow each only saw Alabama as a starting quarterback in the SEC Championship Game.

If Anthony Richardson is the next truly special Florida quarterback in that Heisman lineage, it’s worth noting that his role this Saturday is likely to be much larger than Tebow’s was in 2006 even if he gets only as many snaps as he’s had over the last two weeks: Tebow ran nine times for 28 yards and a two-yard score and completed one 23-yard pass in that 31-3 win, but Chris Leak was outstanding in that game, throwing for 174 yards and two scores and gaining more rushing yards than Tebow on his improbable and unforgettable 45-yard run, and Florida’s defense arguably did more to secure that win than either QB did.

When Florida and Alabama met in 2008, Tebow didn’t have Percy Harvin to throw or hand the ball to, thanks to an ankle injury. (Fun and wild trivia: Despite Florida playing Alabama twice in Harvin’s three years as a Gator and three times in his theoretical four-year window after enrolling, Harvin never record a touch or a yard against the Crimson Tide.)

In 2009, Florida was at the end of an emotionally exhausting run, famously without Carlos Dunlap, and clearly not a match for Alabama’s intensity. In 2010, John Brantley was making just his fifth start; in 2011, Will Muschamp was in his fifth game as a head coach. 2014 saw Florida bring a green-as-the-grass defense to Tuscaloosa and Blake Sims bomb his way into Florida’s record book; Treon Harris started the 2015 SEC Championship Game, while Austin Appleby started the 2016 edition.

Last year’s game in Atlanta featured the Gators as close to full strength and full sail as Florida has been against Alabama since 2006, and — maybe predictably — turned out to be the closest meeting between the teams in that span. But while Florida and Alabama each watched three offensive players get picked in the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Crimson Tide had two receivers, a running back, a quarterback, and an offensive lineman comprise more than a fifth of the top 25 picks, with another lineman going in the second round; Florida had one top-10 pick, one top-20 pick, and the last pick of the second round.

Oh, and Alabama had a defensive tackle picked among the top 40 selections, too.

Alabama’s the only program in America that truly reloads from year to year with five-star, blue-chip players who flash NFL-ready talent and have generally been able to develop into complete players by first serving as reserves without being forced into action; Alabama fans have the luxury of believing their starters are talented and seasoned while also believing their backups could be better because, well, that’s usually the case.

Florida’s situation is so different that many fans have spent all week — and all of the short season so far — wringing their hands about whether Mullen is mismanaging his quarterbacks because the new starter who has played in packages and mop-up duty over three years isn’t an instant legend and the backup who has still not seen the field for 100 snaps in his career has made indelible explosive plays. Bryce Young played in nine games last year — as many as Emory Jones did in 2020, and more than Anthony Richardson has played in (seven) in his Florida career.

And those fans who are doing that are doing so because they think Richardson taking more or most of Florida’s offensive snaps gives the Gators a chance of upsetting a team that will be a two-touchdown favorite before a thoroughly amped crowd in their home stadium.

That is the difference between Florida and Alabama. That is the distance between the two.

And even Florida engineering the upset tomorrow would not close that distance entirely. On Sunday, Mullen would wake up with the biggest win of his head coaching career, seven fewer national titles as a head coach than Saban has, a recruiting class that will need many pieces added to rank among the country’s best, and a long path to the SEC Championship Game.

If Florida loses on Saturday, all of that will still be true except for the feather in Mullen’s cap.

So I suppose that I’m somewhat skeptical of sweeping judgments about what this win could do. Reordering the pecking order of coaches in the SEC East? Maybe, but that’s all perception anyway. Giving Florida the gleam of a national title favorite? Okay, but there will still be nine games to play before even the regular season ends. Confirming Richardson as the quarterback who “will” win a national championship for Florida? That’s definitely loading a lot of hay into a nearly empty barn, isn’t it?

I have come to hate the idea that college football is a sport in which there are a dozen or so games played on weekends — Saturdays, in Florida’s regal case — and hundreds more semantic games played between those contests, on Twitter and message boards and in agate and pixels. I realize how stupid this sounds, as a person who gets paid to partake in those interstitial skirmishes, but I have come to believe they generally do so very little to explain or enlighten that they amount mostly to entertainment, sound and fury signifying an aching for the real sound and fury of runners colliding and crowds roaring.

Asses bray during the week — while the players work so that they may play on the weekend.

A game as widely anticipated as Florida-Alabama was always going to be hyped into a historic collision; it is “big” in the sense that the number of eyes on it and the amplitude of the passion poured into will both be immense. But it will also be, just like every football game, one won and lost over a few hours between lines and walls on a field populated by human beings who might be worried about midterms or missed calls — or, at the moment, any of the many splintered ramifications of an ongoing pandemic. It will be different like a snowflake is, individually distinct from all the others and yet part of a whole that is indivisible from its parts when viewed from a distance.

I like reveling in the unique contours of each game and celebrating the arrival of seasons that bring football back into its position of ubiquity in American lives. But each day has differences, too, and football is far from the only thing that is experienced by tens or hundreds of millions of Americans at once. It might not be the most important of those communal experiences, either.

Florida-Alabama will be big, yes — but only as big as any one person wants it to be, and maybe not bigger than the next such game, which could come as soon as December.

That’s part of the beauty of life: You make of this world only what you make of it, and you generally get as many chances to change what you see as you do sunrises.