A friend close to the Ashbrook Center writes to encourage me to elaborate on my preliminary prediction of a Florida win in the BCS Championship game: “I don’t mind that you say Florida might win (?!!?), but some readers do! . . . do what you have to do, let the logos lead you! Although I personally hope that the Buckeyes whip those Florida wimps like dogs!"
All right, then. I offered my unelaborated assessment on behalf of Florida after considerable hesitation -- and not only because I knew that many NLT readers would differ strongly. We are still more than a month away from the game itself. Ohio State will have been off for fifty-some days. Any firm prediction must wait until we see how the interregnum plays out. Predictions are stupid things anyway. As my Maine correspondent constantly tells me, anyone who predicts or bets on games for a living – especially with a point spread involved – is like a lawyer who has himself for a client. Did anyone seriously forecast a UCLA victory over USC? Peter Gammons is as good a baseball analyst as there is and yet I believe he missed on all but one of the major league baseball playoff series, including the World Series. Buckeye fans should take particular solace in my own near unblemished record of predictive failure – although the logic behind my erroneous picks is always impeccable.
The quote about predictions and the future, by the way is attributed variously to Niels Bohr . . . and Dan Quayle.
But I digress. My prediction, really a first impression, is this. When there is no glaring disparity in the level of talent – and I believe this is the case here – one looks to a first order to intangible factors, rather than to Xs and Os or match-ups. These factors weigh particularly heavy in the long layoff between the end of the regular season and a championship bowl game.
I believe Florida will come into the game with a serious chip on its shoulder. For the next five weeks its players will be asked constantly to justify their existence, to apologize for crashing the party. They will be told that at least half of the country thinks they are pretenders. Their scratchy performances and close wins will be hauled out on Sports Center and College Game Day as Exhibit A for the prosecution. Florida teams from the Spurrier era had to fight overconfidence and arrogance, internally (beginning with their coach) and from fans and alums. A different dynamic, that of righteous indignation against disrespect, may be at work this year. This anger manifests itself not only on game day but in the team’s focus during the weeks of preparation and especially the time after the teams arrive in Arizona. It’s more than the usual underdog factor. Mistake it not, Florida has talent. They players can call on their demonstrated resilience and ability to win close games, a sense that they command fortune having dodged so many potential disasters.
But this is only a first impression. Let me tell you why it may be wrong and must be kept open to revision. Ohio State is a well-balanced team without any major weakness that is easily exploited, except perhaps its run defense. It has explosive players on offense and special teams, a veteran QB, and an opportunistic defense. (Fred and the Unbiased Observer, in the Comments section, offer good succinct analyses.) Most important, the record says that Jim Tressel is a great, not just a good, big game coach. The too-tight Tresselball is usually not in evidence. This isn’t his first rodeo. He knows how to prepare as the favorite as well as the upstart.
On the other side of the equation, the early returns on Urban Meyer are not so clear. I liked Meyer a lot when he was at Utah. But this season, particularly in the last few weeks, he seemed wound too tight, too defensive, too whiny, too negative. That may be completely unfair. One doesn’t know how he relates to his players away from the cameras. But based on his public persona, one wonders how well Meyer will play the disrespect card with this team. And Xs and Os do enter the equation. After two years there still seems to be a serious mismatch between Meyer’s unusual (quirky?) hybrid offensive scheme and the skill set of his players, especially Chris Leak. As a result Florida suffers from too many turnovers and negative plays. I tend to think that the layoff will benefit Florida because Meyer will have time to work out a game plan that squares the circle. But that’s pure speculation. Ohio State’s defensive coaches will have time to think about schemes to blow up that offense and force turnovers when it gets too tricky for its own good.
Of course, all this will go on behind the scenes and will be perfectly obvious – to me – only after the fact.
So. If you don’t have a particular rooting interest, wait and watch. See how Urban Meyer and his team act as the game approaches. See how well the other Big 10 bowl teams fare relative to expectations. Use a pencil, not a pen. And don’t bet the rent on Ohio State if the spread is anything like 14 points.