Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tebow and Co. vs Tennessee: Expectations

Over at DanShanoff.com, I write a lot about expectations management, which feels like half the ball game -- particularly in a sport like college football, where perception is such a big deal.

What are the expectations for Tim Tebow and Florida this Saturday?

That Tebow will run/pass for 5 TDs? That he will do the Gator Chomp in Lane Kiffin's face? Perhaps that he will go Old Testament on the Vols?

That the defense will put up a shutout? That the Gators will win by 50? That Urban Meyer will save time-outs for late in the game, to prolong the humiliation, like he did vs. Georgia in '08?

Here is an incredibly astute observation by Doug Gillett at Yahoo's Dr. Saturday, writing about the way Lane Kiffin has arguably already won the expectations game:
[It] would be just as hard to set the bar any lower as far as expectations for the Florida game are concerned, and that's the silver lining here from Kiffin's perspective: Nobody expects Tennessee to win this game in the first place. I'd be willing to bet that most fans don't even expect them to stay within five touchdowns of the Gators. The Kiffin-Meyer slapfight has become so hyperinflated that if the Vols even manage to hold the Gators below 60, it can be spun as a moral victory.
What is Florida's expectations management scenario here? If they don't win by 50 -- forget the "official" 28-point spread -- it will be a disappointment. I predict Florida will win handily -- 30-plus points.

And Urban won't pull out any late time-outs... if only to confound the expectations. That may be the only thing left for Florida to do. There is no performance-based outcome that can match (let alone exceed) the insane expectations of ass-kickery.

Here is my prediction of Meyer's psychological end-game:

Rubbing Kiffin's face in it through something as ostentatious as a time-out is not nearly as bad as pretending that Tennessee is no more worth the trouble than Charleston Southern or Troy.

The strategy won't be demolition -- it will be diminishment.

But wait! Even as some of us -- cough! -- talk about "Old Testament"-style retribution, Lane Kiffin is flipping the script. You could almost say he is trying a Jedi mind trick.

By playing up the Gators' overwhelming superiority and even the inevitability of Florida's victory, he reinforces his ironically "no-lose" proposition:

If Urban acts in a petty or vindictive way, he and the team lose their championship aura and turns into a mere bully. Kiffin emerges -- dare to say it -- sympathetic.

(That's why, despite my column hoping it happens, I don't see Tebow going with some sort of vengeance-fueled Old Testament motif on his eye-black, nor any player doing too much showboating.)

If Kiffin keeps the game even remotely close -- I peg that at 45-0 or better (I don't expect Tennessee to score, so the question is limiting UF to 6 or fewer TDs) -- he has exceeded expectations. Even though Kiffin has lost big on the scoreboard, he...wins.

Why? Because those expectations couldn't be lower. Let me repeat: They couldn't be lower.

It's not even about winning or losing -- it's HOW Tennessee will lose. And Florida has to walk that fine line: Start with a shutout, then score a ton, but not enough to be cruel. (45-55 pts)

But, remarkably, short of Florida threading this needle, Kiffin will walk away beaten in the game -- but not conquered. Not even close.

And, let's get back to the larger point:

The team with the biggest expectations-management issue is... Florida.

Anything less than a national title, complete with an unbeaten season, will be viewed as a failure.

Tennessee is more of a distraction than anything else. They are win No. 3 out of what needs to be 14 wins.

That is why I suggested that Meyer -- despite his interest in rivalry games (and his very salient point that rivalry games usually matter in the SEC standings and also have huge recruiting impact) -- treat Tennessee like nothing more than Charleston Southern or Troy.

One more win. Because there are a lot more to go.

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