GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The last time Florida played Alabama, on Oct. 1, 2011, Crimson Tide linebacker Courtney Upshaw made Gators quarterback John Brantley bend in a way that humans are not constructed to bend. Will Muschamp, then in his first season as Florida’s head coach, turned to freshman quarterback Jeff Driskel. Here is a transcript of the ensuing conversation.
Muschamp: Get your helmet.
And so began Florida’s complicated relationship with offense in the Muschamp era.
Player and coach laughed about that moment on Monday when Muschamp reminded Driskel of his SEC baptism as they passed one another between interviews. The Gators seemed loose given the circumstances. After all, they needed three overtimes to beat Kentucky 36-30 at home last weekend. On Saturday, they’ll face Nick Saban’s crimson smashing machine in Tuscaloosa.
But compared to last year, this is a breeze. Muschamp knows that in the second half of last season his team probably would have folded after an opponent hit a 60-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass in which two defenders (Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman) wiped one another out while trying to make the tackle. That play only gave Kentucky a 10-6 lead, but last November that four-point margin would have seemed insurmountable. The offense would have stalled. The defense would have grown frustrated. Everything would have devolved from there.
“You know how it affects your players. When you give up a big play, your defensive players understand your offense can make it back,” Muschamp said. “In the latter part of last season, because of the situation we were in, when you gave up a big play, it was hard to make it back. That’s where it’s different. Psychologically, it’s a huge burden when you can’t make it back.”
Last Saturday Andre Debose returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards. A run and two completed passes later, the Gators were in the end zone. The offense got it back. The defenders didn’t hang their heads. Neal, the goat on Kentucky’s long score, went on to intercept two fourth-quarter passes. “A young player goes through a very tough deal in front of 90,000 people,” Muschamp said. “Obviously, everybody knows he’s somewhat responsible for what happened. … Then he rebounds and comes back.”
So does the entire team. The Wildcats took a 27-20 lead in the first overtime, but Driskel -- with an assist from the back judge no matter what the SEC office says -- found Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on fourth-and-seven. For Florida, these were watershed moments after the horror of 2013. Rebounding from a bonehead play, running some semblance of a working offense, having a receiver (Robinson gained 216 yards on 15 catches) making plays. Most encouraging to Muschamp, the Gators faced adversity and still won. “A lot more good will come out of that game as the season goes than bad,” Muschamp said.
Now for the but.
But it was Kentucky.
Those games will decide if the Gators have progressed to a satisfactory point. By the end of that stretch, it should be clear where Florida -- and Muschamp -- stands.
In fact, a look at that schedule shows this trip to Tuscaloosa could be Muschamp’s final chance to play with house money. No one outside the Florida locker room expects the Gators to win. "People are writing us off," Florida center Max Garcia said, "but that's how we want it." The rest of that list? Every game will be a referendum on Muschamp’s continued employment.
But maybe this week’s result will tell us more about where the Gators are in the grand scheme. "It's a good measuring stick," Florida offensive tackle Chaz Green said. Indeed, it’s probably the ideal measuring stick, because according to recent history and the attitude of athletic director Jeremy Foley, Florida is supposed to compete with -- not cower before -- programs such as Alabama.
Muschamp is not talking up Alabama to the media or to his team as if the Crimson Tide are Goliath. He correctly understands that there are a few programs that should stand in awe of no one. Alabama certainly is one of those, and it’s easy to forget now that Saban had to re-instill that attitude when he took the job in 2007. Ohio State is one of those programs. Texas and Michigan are two more, which makes their current situations so dumbfounding to their fan bases.
Florida is one of those programs, too, and Muschamp knows it. It wasn’t one until Steve Spurrier began winning SEC titles in the 1990s, but it has been on that list for longer than most of the current Gators have been alive. Muschamp understands this, and he understands his job security relies not upon fielding a respectable team, but upon fielding a team capable of standing nose-to-nose with programs like Alabama and winning regularly. If the Gators can’t do that, they’ll find someone who can. Ask Ron Zook, whose teams were plenty respectable, and Urban Meyer, who won two national titles after Zook's respectability was deemed substandard.
• Auburn at Kansas State: Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall faces the team he almost chose out of junior college in the kind of matchup that pressure to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee will hopefully produce more of.
• Connecticut at South Florida: Bulls coach Willie Taggart called his program "fragile" this week, and he's correct. Taggart turned Western Kentucky into a winner, but in year two at USF his team still seems lifeless. A loss to UConn -- an even bigger rebuilding project in year one under Bob Diaco -- would be a harbinger of terrible things to come.
• Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech: The Yellow Jackets barely survived new FBS member Georgia Southern in a 42-38 win. Virginia Tech followed a 35-21 win at Ohio State with a 28-21 home loss to East Carolina. It's impossible to predict which version of each team will show up, but the Hokies' stinginess against the run (2.8 yards a carry allowed) suggests they have the edge against an option team.
• Iowa at Pittsburgh: The Panthers soundly beat the Boston College team that would go on to trounce USC. However, they followed that win with a sluggish first half in a 42-25 victory at Florida International. Running back James Conner and company will have to start faster against the Hawkeyes, who will attempt to defend whatever shreds of dignity the Big Ten has left.
• Virginia at BYU: This might be the Cougars’ toughest remaining test. The Cavaliers beat BYU in Charlottesville last fall, and Virginia’s front seven looked stout against UCLA and Louisville. The Cavs are allowing 2.6 yards a rush, which means BYU quarterback Taysom Hill may have to try to beat them with his arm.
• North Carolina at East Carolina: The Pirates beat a team (Virginia Tech) last week that was coming off a thrilling road victory. They don’t want to suffer the same fate, but they know the Tar Heels will come fired up and ready to avenge the 55-31 beatdown East Carolina put on them in last year in Chapel Hill.
• Utah at Michigan: The Wolverines discovered their running game last week when they realized about midway through the game their line could push around the Miami (Ohio) defensive front. That won't be so easy against the Utes. Forget Big Ten respectability. Michigan needs this win to avoid slipping to DEFCON 1.
• Mississippi State at LSU: For the Bulldogs, who fancy themselves SEC West contenders, to actually contend in the SEC West, they have to beat LSU. They haven't beaten the Tigers since 1999, and they haven't won in Baton Rouge since ‘91. That's a lot of history working against Mississippi State, but no one said competing in the SEC West was easy.
• Oklahoma at West Virginia: We learned on Wednesday why Mountaineers cornerback Daryl Worley was suspended from the team indefinitely. He is accused of grabbing a woman around her throat and pushing her down outside a nightclub early on Sunday morning. Worley was arraigned on a battery charge. There is apparently surveillance video of the incident. Icky Banks, who missed West Virginia's first three games because of an academic suspension, steps into the starting lineup against one of the nation’s best offenses. If the Mountaineers’ defense suffers because of the change, it puts even more pressure on quarterback Clint Trickett -- who subbed for injured starter EJ Manuel against Oklahoma as a Florida State redshirt freshman in 2011 -- to produce against a defense that has allowed just 3.92 yards a play this season.
• South Carolina at Vanderbilt: This might feel like the Gamecocks' trip to Kentucky after beating Alabama in 2010 if the Commodores hadn't been so awful this season. With Missouri visiting South Carolina next weekend, this would be a prime spot for an upset. But Vandy doesn't seem capable of pulling it off.
• Clemson at Florida State: We're about to find out just how much Jameis Winston means to the Seminoles. Is it him? Is it the rest of the stocked offense? A combination of both? The answer is the third one, but this is an inopportune game to find out what percentage each provides. Taken individually, Winston's most recent transgression was offensive but relatively harmless. But after being accused for the past 10 months of covering for Winston at every turn, Florida State leaders had to do something. That it happened to come against the Seminoles' best conference foe was ultimately Winston's choice when he opened his mouth.
• Miami at Nebraska: Bo Pelini really needs a win here. The Big Ten really needs a win here. No pressure, Cornhuskers.
• Cal at Arizona: After a 1-11 campaign in 2013, the Bears are 2-0 this fall. But the real test comes in the Pac-12. "We think we have the makings of a team that can compete in most of the games we play this year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes told The Mercury-News this week. We'll find out whether that's true in Tucson on Saturday. The Wildcats are better, too. That means the Bears must make a bigger leap.
• Oregon at Washington State: After right tackle-turned-left tackle Jake Fisher went down with a leg injury on Saturday against Wyoming, the Ducks finished with walk-on Matt Pierson at left tackle and true freshman Tyrell Crosby at right tackle. The Ducks may have the nation's most dynamic quarterback in Marcus Mariota, but if no one is healthy enough to block for him, the offense could have issues in Pac-12 play. Fortunately for Oregon, its league opener comes against Washington State. The Cougars have already lost to Rutgers and Nevada.
Vintage video of the week
As inspired -- and painful -- as that was, it's not even in the same league as the greatest fake punt ever called. On a rainy day in Clemson in 1988, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden called the Puntrooskie. Behold the majesty of LeRoy Butler.
On the menu
Those headed to Florida-Alabama will likely have to stay in the Birmingham area. If you read this space often, you know of my affinity for the Saw’s family of eateries. Saw’s Barbecue in Homewood, Ala., and Saw’s Soul Kitchen in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood are among the nation’s finest purveyors of pork. But if you don’t feel like barbecue -- I understand this sensation in theory, but haven’t experienced it personally -- walk one door down from the Soul Kitchen and tear into a pizza from Post Office Pies. The renovated post office, which has a wood-burning oven where P.O. boxes probably used to be, is the newest effort by the founders of Saw’s, and it does for pizza what the Soul Kitchen does for pork and greens. The bubbly crust is similar to what you’ll get in Naples (Italy, not Florida), and the fresh basil on most pies is a welcome touch. When I visited in July, I had a Swine Pie (pepperoni, house-made sausage and bacon). We also had the bacon cheese bread special, which was essentially a bacon pizza without sauce. Any chance I get to double down on the bacon, I’m taking it.