BY BUDDY MARTIN
These kinds of games come along every 25 years or so. In the case of Florida-Auburn, exactly 25 years ago. Two former rivals, both unbeaten and ranked in the Top Ten, locked in a Lollapalooza of college football game.
In 1994, with a guy named Spurrier was coaching and a guy named Nix (Patrick) was pitching the winning touchdown in the final ticks. No. 6 Auburn pulled off an epic 36-33 upset over No. 1 ranked Florida in The Swamp.
Here we are two and a half decades later with another guy named Nix (Bo) playing quarterback for the Tigers on a field named after Steve Spurrier, two undefeated teams renewing an old rivalry – No. 7 Auburn a field goal favorite over No. 10 Florida.
Topped off with the Gators wearing vintage throwback uniforms from the Spurrier Era in a Homecoming setting featuring ESPN Game Day on campus.
All of college football could benefit by taking notes and noticing our cover with the Two No. 11s featured over Kassidy Hill’s brilliant headline “Back to the Future.” The perfect Old School/New School blend. This is good for what ails college football. In more ways than one.
What beautiful symmetry is spawned by this déjà vu. This game could be epic whether it turns out close or not, just because of the organic spirits which are bound to be stirred up in The Swamp. And it answers two mega-questions:
Is Auburn a dilletante masquerading as an emerging No.1, as some so-called experts are saying? On the other side, could the revival of the Florida Gator football brand with the start of a four-game Murderer’s Row of Top Tens: Auburn, LSU and Georgia?
Murderer’s Row is not new to Dan Mullen. He’s fought his way out of it before. Remember, he coached in that SEC West division full of Tigers and the Tide.
The season was 2014, full of serendipitous success, and the Bulldogs were on top of the world, holding on to the No. 1 ranking for four weeks. First time ever for Mississippi State. Mullen was sashaying down his own Mississippi State Murderer’s Row.
“At Mississippi State we played (No.) 2, 4 and 6 in consecutive weeks,” Mullen recalled. “It was actually 6, 4 and 2 in reverse order. We played No. 6, won, we played No. 4, won, played No. 2, won.” Actually, depending on what poll is used and when, it was No. 8 LSU, No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 2 Auburn at the time they played. Still impressive. Nine straight wins by the Bulldogs.
The problem is that Mullen’s team couldn’t hold serve and lost three of its last four games to Alabama, Ole Miss and Georgia Tech. After a 10-3 record and a No. 11 finish in the final poll, however, Dan Mullen had made his bones.
Once again, it’s on. Mullen is 19-3 at Florida with 9 straight wins. The last time his Gator team lost was almost exactly a year ago when it was knocked off by Missouri. Not a ton of love from the national media, but sneaky little building blocks have gotten Florida to the precipice of SEC contention which will be determined after Murder’s Row:
No. 7 Auburn, No. 5 LSU in Death Valley, with unranked South Carolina following and then an open date before No. 3 Georgia.
The bright lights will be shining on Gainesville this week, conjuring up such a rich history. You can go all the way back to Spurrier’s playing days when he struggled at Auburn in a loss which featured the ballhawking of a linebacker named Bill Cody from Orlando, who picked off one of his passes and caused him to fumble. Or the next year when Spurrier kicked the winning 40-yard field goal on Florida Field to beat Auburn 30-27 which probably won him the Heisman.
Then as a coach at Florida Steve beat those Tigers from the Loveliest Village on the Plains like a dusty rug, 10 x 13 times. One of the times he didn’t was that 1994 game when Patrick Nix hit Frank Sanders for the winning touchdown.
Now comes another No. 11 to try his hand. Kyle Trask may have to get the ball out quicker against Auburn’s stellar defensive line. Ironically, he’ll be wearing a similar uniform to what Spurrier wore 1964. And the same number.
If you can’t get jacked up about this weekend, then have your cardiologist check you for a heartbeat.
Nostalgia prevails, but the reality is that the Florida-Auburn is just what the doctor ordered to spice up some feeble cupcake schedules for which fans are sick of buying overpriced tickets. I’ve heard all the yada-yada-yada about scheduling problems and don’t buy it. Still no good reason why they can’t get this rivalry back on the front burner, but the truth is that is must be done now, somehow someway if the SEC is serious about the integrity of the game and getting rid of the ripoff prices for those cupcake games. No wonder CFB attendance is falling like the Dow-Jones of March 2009.
Paul Finebaum agrees. “It’s and going to something drastic before somebody does something,” Finebaum told me on the Buddy Martin Show. “It’s like it takes a heart attack sometimes before we start being concerned about our health.”
Finebaum has not been on the Gator bandwagon, which is why I was surprised to hear him say Florida has a real shot at Auburn, pointing out that this is the first trip to The Swamp for both Bo Nix and Gus Malzahn. “Of those three big games (Auburn, LSU and Georgia) Florida’s best chance is against Auburn,” he said.
Meanwhile, we’ve got this to live for:
Lollapalooza definition: A person or thing that is particularly impressive or attractive.
Last year’s crowd buzz for LSU was the loudest we’ve heard in a long time. Will Saturday’s game equal it?
Even Dan Mullen had a little extra juice this week when he talked about his days of coaching against Auburn – and what life was like in the West when Mississippi State was batting its own version of Murderer’s Row.
“I’ve gotten an opportunity to play a lot of top 10 teams. (he laughs). I just wasn’t always Top 10 at the same time as a head coach. But I love them. This is what it’s all about. These are a lot of fun. These are fun games to be a part of.”
This being the first time since 2007 that the Tigers have been to The Swamp, Mullen pause to reflect on a return to a regular home-and-home series which he hopes could happen someday.
“I think it would be great to get to play for the players,” said Mullen. “I think for the fans and for the players to have these games be played more often would be benefit for everyone. That's why you want to come in the SEC, to play big games and to play other SEC schools. So I think it would be great for these games to be played more often.”
And then there is “The Battle of the Visor Coach.”
It is believed that Malzahn started wearing his visor when he was a high school coach. Mullen began wearing one as a rookie coach at Wagner College.
“I wasn’t really the first one,” Spurrier said. “Maybe the first one in college. The Green Bay Packers were playing the Rams in the Coliseum one hot sunny day. And Vince Lombardi was wearing one. (Bill) Belichick wears one every now and then. Maybe I was the first in college ball.”
Somebody noted to Mullen than Malzahn was a “Visor Coach” as well. His inspiration was also Spurrier.
“That’s all right,” Mulled wisecracked on the way out of the presser. “We’ve got Coach Spurrier!”