Whitley: Florida Gators’ football ranking fan reaction is a blessed sign

The Bible says the Gators are No. 27 and will go 9-3.

Does that make you want to burn the Good Book?

If so, have at it! You are one of the reasons we are about to embark on the most wonderful time of the year.

The Bible, in this case, is Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview. The magazine’s reputation for thoroughness and prescience earned it “The Bible” nickname. When it hit the newsstands a couple of weeks ago, Steele didn’t even have the Gators in his preseason top 25.


“I had no clue ranking a team 27th would create so much venom from the fan base,” Steele said.

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I’m not here to debate how good the Gators are. We have the next six months to do that.

I just want to celebrate the fact people are getting riled up over where a magazine ranked their favorite team. That’s the fervor that fuels college football, and it is finally heating up.

SEC Media Days begin Monday at The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala. It will get more coverage than the G7 Summit, which might strike some of you as ridiculous.

Heck, it is ridiculous how we fixate over a game played mostly by people who aren’t old enough to buy a beer. The best defense I have for this sports obsession is that it could be worse.

A World Cup qualifier in 1969 sparked an actual war between Honduras and El Salvador. While some boosters may have favored it, Auburn’s president has never actually ordered an air strike on Bryant-Denny Stadium.

There are the true lunatics, of course, like the Bama devotee who poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner. But most fans are simply loyal, passionate and delightfully prejudiced.

You probably qualify if you called to give Steele some grief during a recent radio interview in Gainesville.

“I’m sort of amazed at the angst,” he said.

Why Phil Steele has Gators ranked No. 27

Steele can rattle off the reasons he has the Gators at No. 27. Most teams return a ton of starters and experienced backups. UF must replace about half its starting lineup, including the three guys (Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney) most responsible for making last year’s offense hum.

Florida has just three SEC home games, and one is against Alabama. Playing LSU in Baton Rouge and Georgia anywhere will be a bit of a challenge.

Steele’s rationale is sound, but we all know the real reason he’s not high on UF.

“You always pick against the Gators!”

That’s feedback from fans on social media. It ignores details like Steele picking the Gators as his No. 1 “surprise team” to win the 2017 national championship.

They went 4-7, but nobody’s perfect in the prediction business. According to Stassen.com, which actually tracks such things, Steele has the most accurate preseason magazine over the past 23 years.

There are probably 13.9 million facts in this year’s 352-page edition. Want to know who the backup left tackle is at East Montana State? Steele’s your guy.

He hunkers down for months in his Ohio home, reading, studying tape, compiling lists and talking to coaches. Steele interviewed 110 of the 130 Division 1 coaches this year.

The conversations last at least an hour and are off the record, so coaches give unvarnished opinions. Steele meshes it all in his prediction laboratory. When he emerges every summer with the magazine, it’s like Moses descending with the Ten Commandments.

He’s currently doing about a dozen radio interviews a day, promoting the magazine. Steele said he could book twice that many if he had time, though there is one guy he can’t get on the phone.

Are Phil Steele, Dan Mullen at odds?

“Dan Mullen won’t talk to me for some reason,” Steele said.


Is that why he has the Gators ranked three spots lower than Coastal Carolina?

“I’m totally objective,” Steele said.

That’s more than his 15-year-old daughter, Savannah, can say. She joined her father when he spoke to the Gainesville Quarterback Club a couple of years ago.

“Evidently, they brainwashed her,” Steele laughed.

Savannah’s room is now decorated in orange and blue. She’s probably giving her dad grief for predicting UF would finish second in the SEC East.

That’d be all right by Steele. The passion makes 90,000 fans show up at stadiums, obsess over recruiting, subscribe to Gatorsports.com (thank you very much) and pay $19.95 for a preseason magazine that might drive them crazy.

Sneak preview: Steele’s already studying the rosters and schedules for 2022.

“I’ll probably pick Florida ahead of Georgia,” he said, “and Georgia fans will say, ‘You always pick Florida!'”

God love ’em, they are just adhering to the 11th Commandment — “Thou shalt love thy team as thyself.”

It’s the one commandment college football fans just can’t seem to break.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun’s sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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