Photo: Dan Mullen; Credit: Alex Shepherd
The No. 11 Florida Gators have the pleasure of hosting Nick Saban and the nation's No. 1 football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, this Saturday in The Swamp.
To outsiders, this may be considered the greatest challenge on Florida's schedule. Head coach Dan Mullen may feel the same, but he doesn't see any implications of the result - one way or another - affecting the Gators down the road.
“Anytime you get the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country is a great, great deal. I think it'll be great for this team to see where we're at at this point of the season," Mullen said on Monday. "The outcome of this game certainly is not going to define the season on either way. There's a lot of football to still be played throughout the course of the year."
Being a member of the SEC East, while Alabama hails from the West, Mullen is correct - a win or loss won't bear any meaning on Florida's chances to return to the SEC Championship in 2021 after facing the Crimson Tide in Atlanta this past December.
Still, this matchup will give the Gators a good idea as to how competitive the team can be down the stretch, facing arguably the most talented and well-coached team on the schedule in week three.
"It'll be a good measuring stick to where we're at at this point of the season with this team," Mullen remarked.
The Gators never held a lead over the Crimson Tide in last year's SEC Championship game, but didn't let the high-scoring affair ever get too far out of hand before losing 52-46. There were several moments where Alabama led by as many as three scores; there were various times where Florida was within four points of tying the game.
Beyond a different result on the scoreboard, though, Mullen expects this version of Florida vs. Alabama to look different from the last. Each team has rebranded from a year ago after more than a handful of contributors from both rosters departed to the NFL, creating new strengths and new weaknesses.
"They have a bunch of new faces, we have a bunch of new faces out there, and you know they're a very good coaching staff and so they're probably similar to us – they're gonna do what their guys can do well," Mullen depicted.
Notably on Florida's end, much has changed since Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask left for the pros alongside his star pass-catchers Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. The nation's No. 1 passing offense in yards per game a year ago currently ranks 68th, while the same offense's run game now ranks second in the country after finishing 96th in 2020.
Neither Emory Jones nor Anthony Richardson has proven yet to be the passer and signal-caller that Trask was for UF, but both quarterbacks add their own flair and each has contributed to Florida's strong rushing attack - although Jones would benefit from limiting turnovers after committing four in two games.
On Alabama's side of the equation, Saban was tasked with replacing a Heisman finalist at quarterback himself in Mac Jones (and, you know, the actual Heisman Trophy winner in wide receiver Devonta Smith). No pass catcher has done what Smith was able to do in 2020, at least yet, but sophomore Bryce Young has filled Jones' role and hit the ground running with a 70.8 completion percentage and seven touchdowns to start the year.
"They got a ton of talent. They do a great job recruiting. They have depth. They have talent at every position," Mullen acknowledged of Saban's dynasty - winner of five of the last ten National Championships.
"I think he does a great job with his program in keeping the guys focused," Mullen continued. "He gets the guys and they play at a very high level and execute at a very high level. And then obviously they have a good scheme and have very good football coaches on both sides of the football, running good schemes. They put those guys in good position to make plays.
"When you combine all those things it makes them an excellent team.”
This will be the 11th time Florida has hosted Alabama in program history, and it also serves as Mullen's 11th time facing the Crimson Tide as a head coach - he has yet to come out of the matchup victorious, and oddsmakers don't favor Mullen in his latest try. The Gators are 15.5-point underdogs this weekend, according to SI Betting.
"I mean, personally, like, it doesn’t make my heart skip once. It is what it is," UF linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said of the spread. "That's what somebody else thinks."
What Florida will have on its side entering the matchup is a legitimate home-field advantage, as UF announced that the game is officially sold out last week. UF welcomed fans back in full capacity against FAU in week one, but this will be Florida's first filled-to-the-brim game since facing Auburn in 2019.
"I think home-field advantage is a huge deal, especially now with fans back in the stadiums," Mullen explained. "That's one of the things that makes the SEC tough, that you get that extra support from the fanbase and that energy and the fans making it difficult ... I think it's going to be a great atmosphere on Saturday here in the Swamp. Probably the best environment in college football this Saturday."
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