If you believe the oddsmakers, No. 1 Alabama’s trip to No. 11 Florida isn’t that big. Despite having a sold-out crowd at one of the loudest stadiums in the country, the Gators are two-touchdown underdogs.
“Fifteen points, against ‘Bama?” running back Dameon Pierce asked. “They being nice, ain’t they?”
Maybe, considering how dominant Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide have been. And that’s what makes this matchup so enormous for UF.
It’s a chance for the Gators to show that they’re finally one of the nation’s elite teams again, too.
“Anytime you get the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country is a great, great deal,” coach Dan Mullen said. “I think it’ll be great for this team to see where we’re at, at this point of the season.”
Mullen is underselling it. This is the clearest sign yet for where his team is as an overall program in his fourth season.
His Gators used a historically talented trio (Kyle Trask, Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts) to get within six points of ‘Bama in last year’s SEC title game. They played the Crimson Tide tighter than anyone else did during Alabama’s national title run.
But that was one year. The top programs are the ones that can withstand attrition and the natural ebbs and flows of roster management. They reload rather than rebuild.
Like ‘Bama, which lost six first-round picks and still looks almost unbeatable.
“The fact that they’re a two-touchdown favorite in a place like The Swamp against a team that won the division last year says a lot,” ESPN’s Chris Fowler said. “There’s no foregone conclusions in this sport, but Alabama, I guess, is as close as you can get to it.”
While there is only one ‘Bama, there are a handful of consistent contenders in the next tier: Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, maybe Oklahoma or Notre Dame.
Because UF hasn’t sniffed the College Football Playoff yet, it doesn’t belong in that mix, despite its three consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
Beating the Tide would be enough to break through. It would show that Mullen’s Gators have made the jump from good (or very good) to great.
“We’re just trying to get over that hump,” edge rusher Brenton Cox said.
History suggests that’s not happening this week. UF hasn’t beaten ‘Bama since the 2008 SEC title game. Six of the Gators’ seven consecutive losses in the series were by at least two touchdowns. Mullen is 0-10 as a head coach against the Tide — the only SEC team he has never beaten.
The Gators can point to a few reasons for optimism. The defense looks better than the one Alabama torched nine months ago in Atlanta. But maybe that’s because UF has faced two lackluster opponents (Florida Atlantic and USF).
Those three-touchdown wins gave the Gators’ offense time to tune up without revealing too many secrets.
“They haven’t seen everything,” receiver Jacob Copeland said. “... You can’t expose your hand like that before you see Saban.”
Don’t expect UF to hold anything back Saturday, especially because of what happened last year. The 52-46 loss served as both a confidence-booster that the Gators can play with anybody and a painful reminder of how much they still have to prove.
“I just kept it in the back of my head, used it as motivation,” defensive lineman Zachary Carter said.
If the Gators needed any more fuel, being a two-touchdown underdog at home for the first time since the 2013 Florida State game would provide it. But they don’t seem to be seeing it that way. Alabama is just that good.
“They deserve the hype that they’re getting,” Pierce said. “... Every comment that’s been made, you know, is based on Alabama being a great team, which they are.”
But are the Gators a great team, too? We’ll find out today.
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