GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Dan Mullen celebrated his 24-13 win over No. 7 Auburn on Saturday like a rock star.
He jumped around in a makeshift mosh pit. He waved his arms up and down to pump up the deafening Ben Hill Griffin Stadium crowd one final time. And as he left the field after the third win over a top-10 team in his 11/2 seasons at UF, he thrust his arms into the twilight sky in a triumphant victory V.
A minute later, the buzz at the stadium was wearing off as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham pumped his fist on his way to the locker room. But make no mistake, Grantham was the star of No. 10 Florida’s biggest win of the Mullen era.
“That’s the type of defense we expect to play around here,” Mullen said.
And if UF keeps playing that way, that defense will be good enough to lead the Gators (6-0, 3-0 SEC) to much bigger victories with much higher stakes than the Swamp’s first top-10 matchup of unbeatens since 2012.
The numbers are impressive enough on their own.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix had thrown 18 consecutive passes without an interception, dating to the Tigers’ season-opening win over Oregon. The Gators picked him off twice in a span of 13 throws.
UF held Auburn to 269 total yards. That’s the ninth fewest the Tigers have amassed since Gus Malzahn took over Auburn (5-1, 2-1) in 2013.
Only eight defenses have held Malzahn to fewer points than UF did Saturday; four of those teams made the College Football Playoff.
Midway through the season, the Gators at least belong in this season’s playoff conversation.
They also proved that the defense is good enough to bail out the Gators when the rest of the team sputters.
Saturday’s much-hyped matchup began bizarrely. UF lost three fumbles. The Tigers muffed a punt. The Gators botched a fake one, then watched starting quarterback Kyle Trask exit with a knee injury.
And that was just in the first 21 minutes.
Two of UF’s early fumbles — one on a Trask strip-sack and another on a Dameon Pierce rush — handed Auburn the ball in UF territory. Both turnovers led to field goals.
Then five minutes into the second quarter, UF called for Tommy Townsend to fake a punt. It didn’t work, and the Tigers scored on the next play when Nix, a true freshman, hit Seth Williams for a 33-yard touchdown.
“They gave up one score, and that was on me,” Mullen said. “If I don’t fake the punt, they probably don’t give up the touchdown.”
Aside from the short fields UF gifted Auburn, each of the Tigers’ other first 11 drives ended in either a turnover or a three-and-out. The Gators allowed only two first downs and 92 yards in the first half.
Even when Auburn started to crack UF’s defense, the Gators kept finding ways to respond.
“It was like a bend-but-don’t break mentality,” safety Donovan Stiner said.
UF caught a break when Stiner intercepted Nix in the end zone late in the third quarter to kill a drive that could have given Auburn the lead. The Gators caught other breaks, too.
Safety Shawn Davis snared a one-handed interception two plays after Trask — who had exited the game with a sprained left knee, missed two series in the second quarter and then returned to finish the game — lost one of his three fumbles. That interception not only killed an Auburn drive, it led to Trask’s touchdown pass to Josh Hammond.
When the Tigers drove inside the UF 40-yard line in the fourth quarter, Hillsborough High alumnus Zachary Carter was among the Gators who chased Nix into a 22-yard drive-killing sack.
And when Auburn tried to rally in the closing minutes, cornerback Marco Wilson came up with a diving interception to seal the statement win and silence any doubts about whether these Gators are for real.
“I think we proved,” Stiner said, “our record speaks for itself.”