Whitley: UF can afford to lose to Alabama, but not by much

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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When you’re not sure what to make of something, go with the duck test — If it swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.

Apply the test to Alabama coming to Gainesville and what that means for the Gators.

If it sounds like a must-win game and feels like a must-win game, is it a must-win game?

Not according to the head duck.

“The outcome of this game certainly is not going to define the season either way,” Dan Mullen said.

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He’s right and he’s wrong. The Crimson Tide could smush Florida, and it probably wouldn’t alter the usual SEC East dynamic.

If Georgia and Florida win the games they’re supposed to, their rendezvous in Jacksonville will be the defining game of the season.

And if the Gators somehow get by the Bulldogs, the worst they’ll do is lose the SEC Championship Game and spend the holidays in a New Year’s Six bowl. That’s a good season by just about any definition or test.

If you go by the usual SEC math, Florida can afford to lose to the Crimson Tide. If you go by college football psychology, it’s not as simple.

This may be the biggest tone-setter in years around here. Nobody is sure what to make of the Gators, including themselves.

Part of that is by design, because Florida has dumbed things down so far to deprive Alabama’s staff of approximately 92 coaching “analysts” of any meaningful tape to dissect.

If you didn’t know better, you’d even think Mullen told Emory Jones to throw into triple coverage against USF, just to lure Nick Saban into calling the wrong defense. But about 90,000 fans will show up with legitimate worries about Florida’s passing game, pass defense, kicking game and Anthony Richardson’s hamstring.

“We’re ready. Of course, we’re ready,” linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. said. “Big question is: Are they ready?”

Players are supposed to say things like that. But beneath the bravado, they must have the same questions everybody else does about this team.

We’ll all get some answers today, and they will resonate for months. If the Gators play well, the confidence boost should carry them through Kentucky and LSU and right into the Georgia showdown.

You could even make a case Florida would be better off losing a tight game today. It would get the confidence boost but retain an underdog’s hunger.

Chances are there’d be a rematch in the SEC title game. Beating Alabama once in a season is hard enough. Doing it twice might be a job for the Tampa Bay Bucs.

That said, the Gators would love to face such a challenge. Florida vs. Alabama is an all-too-rare occurrence for two of the league’s biggest brands. And scheduling a game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in mid-September raised the aspirations of Gator Nation.

The Swamp. The (check the weather forecast) heat. The fact Alabama is still breaking in a new quarterback. It’s the stuff upset dreams are made of.

“You get the opportunity to go out there and go play in an unbelievable environment against an unbelievable team,” Mullen said. “The crowd is going crazy. This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this.”

He hasn’t done it very well against Saban, but most of that 0-10 record came at undermanned and under-monied Mississippi State. There are no excuses at Florida.

Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer showed what can be done here. The only thing missing is a swanky football facility, but that $85 million facility is under construction.

A truckload of top-flight recruiting prospects is in town. You can be sure those young men were given hardhats and got a nice tour of the new digs. Once the facility opens, about the only thing Alabama will have that Florida won’t is Saban.

Can Mullen end slide vs. Saban?

There’s only one of those, of course, but we’re still not sure if Mullen can do a sufficient imitation. He’s a top-10 coach in a conference that demands top-five performance.

Nobody questions his X-and-O acumen. If Mullen can scheme up a win over the top-ranked Tide, it would validate the entire program is in good hands.

So, back to the duck test. What should we make of this game?

“There’s a lot of football to still be played throughout the course of the year,” Mullen said. “But it’ll be a good measuring stick to where we’re at this point of the season.”

At this point, it’s not a must-win game. But it will define how this season will go, and whether Florida is back on a championship path.

That makes it a very big duck.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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