After a headline like this, I feel obligated to let the Gator Nation know that I am about the most extreme Gator fan I know.
I was a fixture in the Swamp during my days at UF (2000-2004), also known as the best days of my life (except for the Ron Zook era, of course).
In 2004, I was back in California visiting family over the Christmas break. Florida was set to play Iowa in the Outback Bowl at 8am (Pacific time) New Year's morning.
Knowing that the game was early in the morning, and knowing how late I would be up, I stayed up all night just to watch my Gators get whacked by Robert Gallery and Co.
I bleed Orange and Blue, and I will until the day I die.
That being said, I am a realist, not an irrational fan (see http://bleacherreport.com/articles/213703-delving-inside-the-minds-of-irrational-fans-ifs), and any rational fan understands that Florida's 2009 non-conference schedule is a laughingstock.
Here is a breakdown of the non-SEC teams that will "challenge" the Gators this season.
2008 record: 7-5
Conference: Big South (Football Championship Series)
Florida's national title hunt starts with a bang as the Gators play host to the Buccaneers. Charleston Southern played against two Football Bowl Subdivision (aka Division I) teams last year: Miami (FL) and Miami (OH). They lost by a combined score of 90-34.
Put it to you this way: If CSU beat UF, it would be a bigger upset than Appalachian State beating Michigan a few years back.
2008 record: 8-5
Conference: Sun Belt
This will be the second time in the last three years that the Trojans will visit Gainesville. In the last meeting (2007), Florida jumped out to a 49-7 halftime lead. But Troy responded by outscoring the Gators 24-10 in the second half, showing Florida (and the nation) that the team was no slouch.
Looking ahead to the 2009 season, Troy will likely be led by senior quarterback Levi Brown (2,030 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions) and junior running back DuJuan Harris (1,077 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns).
But with 11 starters returning to the defense, the Gators should make it difficult to move the ball, especially because Brown doesn't seem like much of a scrambler (33 carries for 17 yards in 2008).
The second toughest non-conference team on Florida's schedule, the Trojans should give the Gators a good warm-up before the start of SEC play. The game should be competitive, but Florida just has too much talent to lose to a team from the Sun Belt.
2008 record: 5-7
Conference: Sun Belt
The seventh best team in the state behind Florida, Florida State, Miami, UCF, USF, and FAU, the Golden Panthers have certainly made strides in the last two years. After going a combined 1-23 in 2006 and 2007, FIU won five games in 2008.
Perhaps the most impressive game for the Golden Panthers last year was a 17-9 loss to South Florida last year. That game (against the 12th-ranked team in the nation at the time) signified that FIU is getting on the right track.
However, playing close with USF and playing close with UF are two different things, and the latter is not going to happen—not this decade anyway.
2008 record: 9-4
Conference: Atlantic Coast
There was a time that FSU was the biggest game on Florida's schedule.
Those days are long gone.
Florida has won the last five meetings between the two teams by a combined score of 165-61. In 2007, UF won 45-12 and won 45-15 in 2008.
The key to FSU's success will be the play of quarterback Christian Ponder. He has shown the ability to be a capable player (19-of-24, 143 yards, one touchdown; 14 carries, 81 yards, one touchdown in 37-3 win over Maryland).
But he has also struggled with inconsistent play (6-of-18, 52 yards, three interceptions in 12-3 loss to Wake Forest).
The fact that Preston Parker, a poor man's Percy Harvin, got kicked off the team in February will only hurt Ponder's development.
Of the non-conference teams on the schedule, the Seminoles are the team with the best chance of beating Florida. But FSU has to come to the Swamp, and the defending national champions should have little trouble dispatching their in-state rival.