Lots of people think the Florida Gators football team will be back to national prominence in 2012, and apparently we can now count ESPN among that group.
ESPN rewarded what they hope will be a breakthrough season for Florida by placing the Gators on their first three national late-afternoon broadcasts.
To open the season, Florida will be slotted at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN against Bowling Green. The next week, the Texas A&M Aggies get introduced to the SEC by entertaining the Gators, also at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.
But the third Saturday of September, the Gators' traditional rivalry game with Tennessee, which has aired on CBS every year since the SEC and CBS started their deal in 1996, will be kicked off and replaced with Alabama vs. Arkansas.
Not that I disagree—they replaced two potential up-and-comers with the defending national champs visiting the school with the new head coach.
But ESPN thought enough of the Florida-Tennessee rivalry to air it in prime-time—6:00 p.m. on ESPN.
In addition, the Florida-Georgia game will kick off at 3:30 on CBS.
There are lots of things one could take from this. The perspective a lot of UF fans will take is that ESPN obviously thinks there's a chance Florida is the Auburn of two years ago, coming out of nowhere to rise to prominence.
The proof of this lies in the fact that all three of Florida's first games are on ESPN afternoon TV. Not ESPN2, not ESPNU and not with a noon-ish kickoff, slots which are traditionally reserved for lower-quality teams.
Since ABC doesn't really get SEC games, ESPN is as high as Florida can go in their family of networks. In addition, generally speaking, the later the game, the more ESPN wanted it, for obvious reasons.
It's pretty obvious that ESPN wanted to air Florida's home opener more than they wanted to see Matt Schilz air it out for Bowling Green (though he is dangerous—watch out, Gators defense). That's a good sign.
You could argue that the Texas A&M game is on ESPN because it's their first game ever in the SEC. This is a valid point, but I'm pretty sure if it was against Mississippi instead of Florida, it would be on ESPNU or at least ESPN2, and with an earlier kickoff time.
As for Tennessee? Well, Derek Dooley is on the hot seat, which is why everybody in Knoxville knows this is a huge game, since the inability to beat Florida was at least partially responsible for getting rid of their last coach (I don't mean Lane Kiffin, I mean Fulmer. Kiffin isn't a coach. He scrapes along by riding his daddy's coattails and by recruiting well. But by no means is he a good coach. He's a child).
This means war, and it also means that ESPN wants it. Any rivalry game with at least one coach on the hot seat is a good enough storyline for ESPN to put it on a prime-time slot, which they did.
In any case, it's great to see Florida on the regular ESPN channel, because it means that Urban Meyer's broken program hasn't dropped too far in prestige. The bottom line is that Florida is still Florida.