Both-And: A Necessary Football Epiphany

There are two discussions that need to be conducted in relation to the upcoming battle with Florida State at the Swamp. One discussion concerns the things the Gators need to do on the field against the Seminoles, but the more urgent discussion (at this early stage of FSU Week; the matchup will be dissected later) revolves around the significance of this game, real and imaginary.

Those last three words, "real and imaginary," are obviously important, because they hint at something that's been all too absent this season in Gator Nation: perspective. Before zeroing in on the Noles and talking about the strategies and keys needed to bash Bobby Bowden for the second straight year, the head needs to be cleared and the bad taste of the South Carolina game needs to be washed away.

So how significant is this FSU game, anyway? The answer: it's tremendously important and not very important at the same time. It's both-and, not either-or.

Find that answer unsatisfying? Welcome to the 2005 season and life as a college football fan, because in the sport of football, no one conversation--unless presented in a very long and not-too-elegant manner--can account for every reality, every factor, every positive or negative aspect of a team's season and a program's overall condition.

How important is Florida's game against the Semis? How much does this game mean for the 2005 season? How much does this game mean for Urban Meyer and his program? The significance is obvious, and yet it's not nearly as great as you might think. Explaining why this is the case demands something that's very hard to have anywhere in America these days--and which has been hard to have in Gainesville this year: a mature, nuanced, adult conversation about football.

Without beating around the bush, that last comment is directed not toward any person, but to the pronounced split in Gator Nation that might not have Florida football fans divided straight down the middle, but which has caused a noticeable amount of tension among the ranks of the Orange and Blue.

On one side, you have folks who are supremely confident in Urban Meyer; then there are those who aren't.

On one side, there are Chris Leak fans, and then there are those who aren't.

Some people think the staff needs to be given time; others think some staffing changes need to be made, and within that crowd includes a vocal minority that supports wholesale staffing changes.

Some Gator fans think the offensive line--for better or worse--has dictated the team's fortunes this season (those same folks, naturally and logically, think Leak has not been the problem). Others think the issue dogging this team is that playmakers aren't making plays (those same folks, naturally and logically, think Leak has been the problem).

Some think injuries need to be taken into account to a particularly significant extent. Others think injuries, while a part of a game, should not affect Florida Football that severely, noting that a healthy program has quality depth.

Some think the off-field discipline brought to campus by Meyer indicates he has this program on the right track. Others think the lack of on-field discipline and good clock management suggest that Meyer doesn't have enough attention to detail… yet.

Some fans think that failing to win the SEC East this season is not the end of the world, given that this was a transition year for Meyer and, for that matter, Leak. Others view the lack of a trip to Atlanta (not to mention a win in Atlanta) as unacceptable for Gator football.

And with respect to Saturday's game against FSU, some view this as a vital, season-making contest, while others think the lack of SEC hardware means that one can gain only so much meaning--outside of the personal satisfaction of beating Bobby Bowden--from a triumph against a bunch of Seminoles reeling from a 21-point smackdown at the hands of Clemson.

You know what? For the FSU game and for all of the above statements, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It's a matter of both-and, not either-or. Truths coexist; they don't exist to the exclusion of the other. This is what's so hard--but so necessary to understand--about football discussions: they involve so many factors, so many considerations, and so many intangibles that you can't easily summarize or assess the big picture with easy generalizations or sweeping comments.

Gator football fans are so divided--emotionally and intellectually--over many issues pertaining to the 2005 team and the program at large because they're not able to view truth as something that transcends easy polarization and the extremes that so often characterize what passes for football discussions.

Truth is always in the middle, between the extremes and the opposite sides of a debate. There is plenty of evidence both for and against Urban Meyer. There's plenty of legitimate reason to be confident in this team and program, and there's also considerable reason to be worried about this team and program. There's much validity to the contention that Meyer is learning on the job and developing, but there's also justification for being very concerned about crucial deficiencies in game strategy and clock management. There's a lot to be said about line play as the cornerstone of this team, but there's also a lot of merit to arguments that focus on the centrality of playmaking from the skill positions. Injuries are both a valid reason for this team's struggles and an easy excuse to hide behind.

Yes, all of these truths can coexist. Football is too multifaceted a sport for anyone to make simplified and immediate conclusions that don't allow for counterbalancing viewpoints. Football's about coaches, players, officials' calls, and crowd noise. But it's about so much more: coaching alone involves gameday strategy, in-game decision making, practice teaching, motivation, assignation of player roles, talent development, recruiting, managerial organization, effective communication, and other elements. Playing involves being a good student, being a well-adjusted young man, being motivated on a consistent basis, being physically tough enough to endure the rigors of a season, and being poised enough to withstand SEC pressure--in noisy stadiums and from the media during the week--ALL AT AGE 20.

Football involves psychology. It demands character. It requires X-and-O proficiency. It necessitates adjustments. It punishes mistakes and rewards conservatism, but it also kills you for being timid and avoiding big plays… even if you make no mistakes. It's a sport where your greatest strengths are your greatest weaknesses, and vice versa. If anyone thinks they can get a full feel for a team, a coach or a program by making one or two points of analysis on a few select issues, they're crazy, regardless of what their stance is. And to do so in year one of Coach Meyer's regime--or that of any other first-year coach--is even more absurd.

This FSU game will tell some interesting things about the Gator program, but it won't reveal everything--it's the entirety of a season that reveals everything. And while this game is important because beating FSU is a priority, this game is taking on inflated importance only because psyches are so wounded and injured around this place. As a matter of real-world football merit--or in other words, when looking at the way things ought to be as an extension of human decency--there should not be undue pressure on Meyer or the Gators to have to win this game. It matters, but it can't matter so much that the house will fall down if the game is lost. Wise football people should not have expected this season to be a spectacular success.

Yet, at the same time--and this is where the point about coexisting truths comes into play--it should not be easy or okay to accept the fact that Florida had the SEC East within its grasp, but failed to capitalize. At a program with Florida's stature, a program that pays its coach $2 million per annum, much should be expected. But to expect the world in one year? That's the excessive part. In the end, reality is much more complicated than anyone around Gator football seems willing to allow. It's a lot of both the good and bad; there's a lot of reason for both optimism and pessimism.

So as this Florida State game approaches, it's extremely important--and yet not overwhelmingly, off-the-charts important--to win. Looking at the big picture with a healthier, more balanced perspective can hopefully ease some tensions and remove some heat from the players and coaching staff as kickoff time approaches. The Gators need--and moreover, deserve--the chance to focus on beating FSU without the "noise in the system" that has been so deafening over the past few seasons.

And as for grading Urban Meyer's first season, or his job performance in general? Any sane football person knows that the only real grade one can give is an "I" for incomplete. By avoiding the urge to jump to an easy and overly sweeping conclusion--about the importance of the FSU game, or anything else under the sun--maybe we can start to have intelligent, adult football conversations around here. It would be a refreshing change.

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