Tomorrow, the University of Tennessee will host the University of Florida in a rivalry game no one enjoys. Everyone watching will experience a stress, agony, and anxiety so disproportionate to the actual importance of this game in the global sense of things that experts might classify it as a form of mental illness. Moments of fun at leisure--what sports, at their best, are supposed to grant the viewer—will be flooded out of the mind by a tidal wave of fear. Arms will be folded; heads will be bowed; profanities uttered with a conviction surpassing prayer or curse.
Let it be clear at the start: Florida should win this game, and we think it will win. But before we start mocking Tennessee, which we WILL do, know that this game is horrible. It’s a horrible game, and has been a horrible game, and even with the eleven win streak is probably always going to be a horrible game for us.
Why? Because rivalry games become so overweight with meaning that very little can satisfy. If we beat Tennessee, well, Florida will have done that twelve times in a row. You’ll have reduced this game to flossing, or going to the gym, or not drinking on weekdays. If that margin is small, then Florida will still be desperately clinging to some imaginary life--lead it holds over Tennessee. If Florida mollywhops the Vols, well, then that can be devalued, too. They weren’t that good, you’ll say, remembering how the offensive line still didn’t run the way you wanted them to, or how shamefully garbage time touchdowns sullied a box score.
If we lose? Well, then, that’s just an anticipated misery that can make you unhappy before the game even starts. That’s how completely screwed-up this rivalry: the mere idea of losing this game can ruin days that happen before the game even occurs.
That has to be more real for Tennessee fans, whose team, unlike Florida, has lost this game recently and in excruciating fashion. It’s fun to make fun of Tennessee fans for filing out in funeral fashion in the second quarter when Florida gets a lead. It has a bouquet that for horrible people like me is like nothing else. It contains notes of despair, dead optimism, and the strong undercurrent of delightful, futile anger. If there were a sixty minute Youtube video of Tennessee fans leaving games early and/or watching with folded arms and the look of existential rage and sorrow on their face?
I am not proud of this, but I would watch it weekly, and perhaps daily. It would make me stronger than I thought I could be, and bring me more happiness than I deserve.
And if Tennessee beats Florida, oh, dear reader, this will suck. This will suuuuuuuuuck, just suck with a fierceness beyond comprehension, a kind of fierceness that will make me want to destroy appliances. Nothing huge, mind you, but probably something like a crock pot or non-elite level blender. If you’re a responsible parent, you’ll take it into the backyard to do it where they can’t see what a sad adult they will probably become.
BUT. The worst part, aside from losing to a rival whose only emotional connection resides in a vague but huge anxiety and slightly bitter memories of much better past times, will be how little this changes anything for either team. Tennessee and Florida are both still in the SEC East, whose winner gets to crawl into the SEC Championship Game and receive the prize of a beatdown by whatever blasts in from the superior SEC West. Both get to scrabble for recruits against regional rivals currently raking them in with greater success, success that is more than obvious on the field. (HI, DALVIN COOK, WHO THOUGH STRUGGLING RIGHT NOW IS A GREAT INDICATOR OF HOW SOME REALLY GOOD OFFENSIVE RECRUITS WHO USED TO GO TO FLORIDA BUT WHO NOW GO TO FSU.)
It’s like we’re the same right now, really. Just two teams struggling to get by in the barely upper-middle class lifestyle tier of college football, both sort of living in houses we can barely afford, and with immense family pressures mounting on either side. It’s a struggle you can’t complain about to, I dunno, say your cousins in South Carolina, who are just happy they got one of their cars paid off and that they got a new boyfriend who hasn’t even got a felony in their past. (Misdemeanor DUI, sure, but that’s barely a record.)
You can’t talk about the luxurious misery of your situation, Tennessee, and we know that, because we’re right there, Tennessee. We’re just a point away from your situation, actually. As much empathy as we just poured out for your situation, and as much as we just identified with where you are as a program, and as much as we just admitted how similar we are? We hope we stay one point away from you this year. On the high side of that differential, if possible.
p.s. Let’s get this over with so we can just make fun of LSU and Auburn as intended.