Mullen, Gators going for first win over Alabama since Meyer era
It’s time for an oil check.
Today we find out if Alabama is still the nation’s best team, or if the Gators are a playoff contender.
“We’re going to check their oil and they’re going to check our oil,” UF defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk said.
Both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, though this will be No. 9 Florida’s first and toughest test of the regular season. The No. 1 Tide (2-0) opened their schedule with a 44-13 win over Miami, but the defending SEC East champions will be a step up in competition.
“I think it will be a good test for both teams,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said. “I think our front seven has been solid defensively through the first two games. Offensively I think we’ve been solid and been able to run the ball and protect the quarterback for the most part.
“It will be interesting to see. It’ll be a good test and a good matchup to see where we’re at and where both teams are at. I’m sure they feel the same way.”
These two programs have checked each other three times in Atlanta since 2015, but last played at The Swamp a decade ago. This will be just the fifth game in school history where Florida (2-0) hosts the nation’s No. 1-ranked team — and the first time against Alabama.
“That seems like a long time between playing a conference team at home,” Mullen said of the Tide’s last trip to Gainesville in 2011.
“I wish we got rid of the permanent games in the SEC. I think the league creating more of these games is really good for the fans, good for the players and good for the conference.
“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. Obviously it’s a long year. The outcome of this game certainly is not going to define the season either way. There’s a lot of football to still to be played throughout the course of the year, but it’ll be a good measuring stick to where we’re at.”
The Gators’ most recent win in the storied series came in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, and they haven’t defeated the Tide at home since 2006. Mullen was Florida’s offensive coordinator for both of those matchups, the latter against Alabama coach Nick Saban in his second year.
Mullen, who notched his 100th career win last week, is searching for his first career win vs. Saban as a head coach (0-10 overall, 0-1 at UF).
“It’s always fun. You always want to challenge yourself against the best,” Mullen said of facing Saban. “You know that I love these. These games are fun for me.
“You get the opportunity to go out there and play in an unbelievable environment against an unbelievable team, the crowd going crazy. I mean, this is what it's all about. This is why we do this.”
Mullen has lost three one-score games against Saban, two during his Mississippi State tenure (25-20 in 2014, 31-24 in 2017) and last year with Florida. It was the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game in league history, a 52-46 shootout, and the Gators were the only team to lose to Alabama by one possession.
“You come up six points short, really a touchdown and PAT from winning, just to put that into context,” UF running back Dameon Pierce said. “It gives everybody a lot of confidence, especially the younger guys who probably didn’t have as big a role in that game. It’s like, ‘Hey man, we can compete with these guys.’
“Just being on that stage in Atlanta, just the whole atmosphere the whole week leading up to that game, it gave us a lot of confidence to know that we can hang with these guys, we can play for the SEC championship.”
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate added, “It stung. It hurt. It was the SEC Championship Game. You know, it’s always your goal to get down and win, so losing hurt us. But it was also motivation that I feel like we needed.”
Diabate could be in line to start in place of linebacker Ventrell Miller, who is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season after having surgery Monday to repair a torn biceps tendon suffered at USF. Diabate and Florida’s front seven defenders are looking to rattle Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, who leads the SEC with seven touchdown passes.
This game will be Young’s first road start and first time playing at an opponent’s sold-out stadium.
“Any time we play in the Swamp, any time we play anywhere, our whole goal is to rattle the quarterback, whether he’s been four years or two days,” Diabate said. “So at the end of the day, we win the game and our DBs can make plays if we’re making that quarterback uncomfortable. So it's gonna be the same game to make the quarterback uncomfortable. We hope the crowd gets into it.”
Florida’s quarterback situation is the matchup’s biggest storyline. Emory Jones remains the starter despite his inconsistency in the first two games, while backup Anthony Richardson has provided a spark at the position with explosive plays.
Richardson injured his hamstring at the end of his 80-yard touchdown run last Saturday, but is expected to play against Alabama after practicing all week.
“We certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for both quarterbacks, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson,” Saban said. “I think he probably would have played more in the last game, but he had some kind of injury so he didn’t get to play as much. But the few plays that he played, he made some outstanding plays.
“He’s certainly a tremendous weapon and so is Emory Jones. We have a lot of respect for both guys and if we don’t play really disciplined on defense, it'll be difficult to manage these guys’ skill level.”
Alabama also has injuries
Alabama is also dealing with injuries at the linebacker position. After starter Christopher Allen fractured his foot in the opener, preseason All-America first-team selection Will Anderson left the Mercer game last Saturday with a lower leg injury and did not return. Anderson practiced this week, but his status for the game is unknown.
“I feel like they haven’t lost a beat on defense, regardless of whether they have lost a player or what,” UF receiver Jacob Copeland said of the Tide. “It’s Nick Saban. He’s going to make sure he has the right players out there on the field at the right time. So, I feel like he’s going to come out and try to execute well.
“But, at the end of the day, we fear no one. So, we’ve just got to come out there and play. … Nick has been setting the standard so high, we feel if we knock him off then we’re really the team to beat.”
Newkirk knows what it takes to top the Tide, who were upset by his Auburn team, 48-45, in 2019. What does he expect to see when he looks under Alabama’s hood again?
“They’re always going to be well coached. So to play against them, you basically gotta have to have a perfect game,” Newkirk said. “You gotta come with your A-game just like they do all the time.”
Who: No. 1 Alabama (2-0) vs. No. 9 Florida (2-0)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, 98.1-FM, 850-AM