Friday, November 03, 2006

The Paths in the Road

The Gators find themselves at a familiar fork in the road. As every fan knows, at this point the Gators hold their SEC destiny in their hands. And, in the modern era of SEC football (since the SEC Championship game), the Gators have been in this position many times before. The next two weeks will determine whether we follow the fork to an SEC title, or go down that other dark road we have visited even more often over the past 14 years.

Since the inception of the SEC Championship in 1992, the Gators have gotten to the title game on seven occasions, winning 5 times. The Gators reached the title game those seven times with the following SEC records –

8-0: 2 times
7-1: 4 times
6-2: 1 time

In both of the 8-0 years, and in three of the four 7-1 years, the Gators won the title. One year – 1998 – the Gators went 7-1 and failed to make the SEC Championship game. Interestingly, over the past 14 years the Gators have four times had a 6-2 SEC record and failed to reach the Championship game – under Spurrier in 1997 and 2001, and under Zook in 2002 and 2003. The one time the Gators did reach the championship game with a 6-2 record – in 1992 – they lost to Alabama.

The remaining records are Zook’ 4-4 2004 campaign, and Meyer’s 5-3 record of last year.

Speaking strictly statistically, you have the following chance, by record, of reaching the title game –

8-0: 100% (pretty obvious)
7-1: 80%
6-2: 20%

It is pretty easy to see how this year can play out at this point. If the Gators go 7-1, they will win the SEC East. If they go 6-2, they can win the East, but only if Tennessee finds a way to lose another game. If, God forbid, they manage to go 5-3, well, it doesn’t need to be said.

Going back to my paths analogy, by taking the “right” fork, this Gator team will end its SEC regular season 7-1, as did the Gators of 1993, 1994, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Of those years, only the 1998 Gators who lost to undefeated Tennessee did not go to Atlanta. The other four teams won the SEC title 3 times, with the only loss in 1999 to Alabama.

The “middle” fork is more difficult. There is a decent chance the Volunteers will lose to LSU this weekend, allowing the Gators the latitude of a 6-2 record to win the SEC East. Such a path would not bode well. Not only have the Gators failed to make the SEC Title game in 4 of the 5 years they went 6-2, they lost the one they did make it – in 1992. In that year, Florida lost to Tennessee and Mississippi State, but a UT team that controlled its own destiny lost three games in a row in October to give Florida the East. It would take a similar choke by Tennessee to make this “middle” fork end in Atlanta.

The “wrong” fork, well, I don’t even want to think about it. We lose to Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and the seat under Urban Meyer suddenly becomes very hot.

How we come to think about Meyer’s early years at Florida will be decided in large part by the next two weeks. Of Spurrier’s 5 SEC Championship era titles, 3 of them were 1 loss SEC teams. Even Spurrier’s first SEC Title game, with that fortunate 6-2 team, was a loss. Whether Meyer starts his career at Florida with Spurrier like aptitude, or otherwise, comes down to a road game at Vanderbilt, and a home game against the very coach whose legacy he hopes emulate.

The road is clear. Here is hoping the Gators take it.

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