But as much as the Outback-Independence debate means something--and it does --- the bigger story surrounding Florida's bowl game is its opponent. Just consider the four schools most frequently mentioned as a potential Gator adversary:
(1) Michigan (Outback Bowl): Remember an Outback Bowl against Michigan three years ago? The psychological fallout from the game when Ron Zook inexplicably took the ball out of Rex Grossman's hands was enormous. Poor Vernell Brown was forced to do something by his coaches he never should have had to do in the first place, and it was Brown who unfairly lived in the shadow of that play, which rested entirely on the head coach's shoulders. That kind of an ending to the Zooker's first season helped build the storm clouds that would never leave Gainesville during an ill-fated three years. The Gators would have more to lose against Michigan than they'd have to gain; if Mike Hart gets healthy after a brutal regular season, the Wolverines could rise up and steal this game, and with the memory of the 2003 Outback Bowl in mind, a loss to one of the poorer Michigan teams in recent memory would be an emotional wound that would fester in the off season. Michigan offers more risks than rewards. They might be in the more lucrative Outback Bowl, but the Wolverines are not the kind of team that Florida should want to play.
(2) Oklahoma (Independence Bowl): Dear God, all I want for Christmas is for my Gators to not have to play Bob Stoops. Are you kidding me? First Meyer loses to Spurrier, bringing up all the inevitable comparisons and a ton of negative scrutiny. Now, he'd have to coach against Spurrier's defensive coordinator and Jeremy Foley's number one pick to replace SOS after the Gator legend abruptly stepped down right after the 2002 Orange Bowl? That would be too much in its own right. But secondly, it seems that Rhett Bomar and the Sooner offense are finally beginning to show signs of life. A loss to Oklahoma would be EXACTLY what the doctor did not order for Urban Meyer heading into the recruiting wars. It would be the biggest Independence Bowl ever, and a game with 1,000 times more sex appeal than the Sugar Bowl will have. A ton could be gained with a win, but a ton and a half could be lost with a defeat. I wouldn't want to play OU and Bobby Stoops. Let's have to coach against only one ridiculously successful former Gator coach per year, eh?
(3) Missouri (Independence): This is the team that exists on the other side of the Michigan and Oklahoma divide. Whereas Michigan (for health reasons) and OU (because of Bomar's emergence) could pick off Florida in games where psychological fallout could be appreciable for the Gator program, Missouri is the dreadfully mediocre program whom Florida would crush, but with little value whatsoever. It would be like Ronald Reagan getting that ego boost from conquering Grenada two decades ago. It would be a nice little positive blip, but to what effect? You want a bowl game where the matchup is favorable AND you can gain appreciable value from getting the win. Michigan and OU are dangerous matchups in a place (Raymond James Stadium against Michigan) or against a coach (Bob Stoops) that involve negative or uncomfortable mental associations for Gator fans. Missouri is a more than favorable matchup, but one bereft of value. Kansas State beat Missouri. Florida needs a bigger fish --- but not Bob Stoops --- in its bowl game. And that brings us to the best choice for the Gators to play against, even if Shreveport must be the destination…
(4) Nebraska (Independence): This is the team you want to be playing if you're the Florida football program. The matchup is favorable. The Big XII North is almost as bad as the Big Least Conference. Nebraska lost 40-15 to freakin' KANSAS (and no, Bill Self's team was NOT running a four-corner slowdown offense in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, contrary to what you might think). Tom Osborne no longer patrols the sidelines in Lincoln.
And yet, Nebraska's big win over Colorado has the Husker program geeked up. Big Red Nation now has a creeping sense that it is on the way back under hotshot hire Bill Callahan. The hopes are cranking up, and a high-profile matchup with Florida, in a rematch of You Know What, will give this matchup --- if it comes to pass --- a big amount of publicity and buzz. Yet, once said publicity and buzz are established, the Gators should win and win decisively. A win would not only put Nebraska in its place, but be psychologically healing and uplifting after the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Hey, no one would say this would ELIMINATE the taste from Tempe ten years ago (has it been that long?), but it would certainly reduce it. The sight of orange helmets lifted high in triumph, while white helmets with the red "N" are bowed down in defeat, would be more than a little cathartic for everyone in Gainesville, everyone who bleeds Orange and Blue. Yeah, it wouldn't be in a BCS bowl, but you could bet your bottom dollar that a lot of Gators would click a picture of the scoreboard and treasure the memory for a long time. For two programs that dominated in the 90s and have since fallen on harder times, a bowl confrontation would have considerable value, and Florida would stand to win that confrontation, possibly by a big margin.
So if you prefer Tampa in January plus extra cash over Shreveport in December minus less cash, I wouldn't hold it against you. But a lot has to be said for the opponent UF will draw, and not just the place where the Gators will play in their bowl game. Missouri and Oklahoma would be horrible teams to draw for exactly opposite reasons, and Michigan --- while struggling --- could make the more lucrative Outback Bowl an uneasy experience. If you want the best of all worlds, Nebraska is the team Gator fans should want when the bowl invite is officially extended --- perhaps later this week, but more likely after the SEC Championship Game.