Tennessee fans: Would you rather beat Florida or ...
Maybe it’s just the twisted nature of kids in the corner of the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, but the “Would you rather?” game always involved some element of torture along with an element of fun.
It wasn’t a good game unless both choices involved some real anguish or pain, if chosen.
I’m taking the same tactic to this column — Volunteer fans are going to be given choices of two ways in which they’d have to make it through Hell to get to Heaven. Which reward is higher matters, but so does which setback hurts most.
Would Tennessee fans rather: Finally beat Florida, but get crushed twice by Alabama … or … upset Alabama, but lose again to Florida and lose the East.
Case for Option A: Beat Florida, lose twice to Alabama
There’s probably not many Tennessee fans who don’t know that the Vols have lost to the Gators in the teams’ last 11 meetings. From last-second misses to painful blowouts, no loss in the recent series was worse for the Volunteers than last year.
Tennessee outplayed Florida at virtually every turn, but still found a way to lose. It was clear that Florida’s streak had infiltrated the Vols’ psyche to the point where the barriers from Volunteer victory were psychological rather than physical.
In 2016, Tennessee hosts the Gators and this matchup is already showing signs of continuing its place in the echelons of must-watch SEC football.
But in my world of pleasure and torture, in exchange for a win against Florida, the Vols have to take a loss to Alabama. Or two.
The Tide’s streak over Tennessee has reached nine in a row, and with this year’s game in Knoxville, Tennessee backers have this game circled right beneath the Florida game in their season schedule.
In my Option A scenario, the Vols take a thumping from the Tide, and then, after winning the SEC East, lose handedly again to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Case for Option B: Beat Alabama, but lose to Florida and lose the East
The other option I’m offering here is for Vol fans to knock off the likely top dog in the SEC in Alabama … but accept another home loss to Florida, and whatever other losses (probably at Georgia) would be needed to keep the Vols from the SEC East title.
Obviously, the benefits of beating Alabama are quite tangible. Not only would it inject life into the rivalry, but it would be the sort of “Legacy Game” which would cement Butch Jones’s status as one of the top coaches in the SEC, and the Vols as a threat to any opponent, anywhere, anytime.
But on the other hand, Tennessee has not appeared in the SEC Championship Game since 2007. In the first 16 SEC title games (1992-2007), Tennessee appeared in five of them, Florida (eight) and Georgia (three). But not only would a 2016 game without the Vols make nine in a row without Tennessee, even the shine of SEC royalty has been tarnished, as South Carolina and Missouri (twice) have been to the title game since Tennessee’s last visit.
And the winner is …
The guess here is that Vol fans would choose Option A.
After 2007, Tennessee football spun into chaos and is emerging from that tunnel steadily. The biggest issue for the Vols in 2016 is to regain control of the SEC East.
The losing streak to Florida is inexplicable, because even in the dire Will Muschamp era, the Gators still handled UT. The presence of South Carolina and Missouri in the list of recent division champions indicates that the historical giants of the East — UT, UGA, and Florida — have had some rough moments in recent years.
Florida has started over with Jim McElwain and Georgia is doing so with Kirby Smart. If Tennessee can’t lap both and reclaim their status as king of the East, it will be hard for Jones to advance the program much further.
And besides — ask Ole Miss — beating Alabama is nice, but it’s hardly the game-changer that it may seem.
The Rebels had a nice season in 2015, which culminated in a second consecutive win over Bama, but they’re still stuck behind The Tide and LSU in the race for their division (and the Rebels are still one of four SEC schools without an SEC title game appearance).
Alabama is a tempting prize, but Tennessee is in this race not for style points, but for championships — division championships, conference championships, and eventually national championships.
Here’s guessing that if Vols fans were faced with my difficult choice, at the end of the day, they’d realize that the bigger win is the one which climbs the first step on that championship ladder. No matter how much they hate Alabama, they’d take their medicine, and enjoy an SEC East title.