Can The Swamp get Nick Saban's GOAT one last time?
I love The Swamp. Everything about it, jorts and all. The name and the noise. The heat and the humidity. The goofy "Work 'Em Silly, Gators" sign, the old-school Mr. Two Bits cheer, the ominous theme from Jaws and 180,000 tanned, toned arms chomping to the beat.
I loved Florida Field before they added Ben Hill Griffin's and Steve Spurrier's names to it, when it only felt like a swamp until Spurrier gave it the perfect tag. My crush on the place started as a graduate student in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, before I had the great good fortune to get paid to visit again and again, to witness and be wowed.
Miami's first national championship team in 1983 lost one game all season, the first game of the season, 28-3 at Florida Field. It was my first experience there, too, when I spied perhaps the most clever yet vulgar gameday sign of all time. Decorum prevents me from sharing the details.
Alabama's 1991 team lost one game all season on one of those oppressive Gainesville nights when breathing feels like sucking primordial soup through a straw. That 35-0 beatdown, Florida making good on an alleged preseason boast Spurrier swore he never made, was so abhorrent to the men in the crimson helmets they wouldn't lose again for two years, a spotless span that included the 1992 national title.
Spurrier's Gators suffered only four home defeats in the 1990s. Guess who witnessed the first three?
1993: Florida State 33, Florida 21
FSU's Charlie Ward located Warrick Dunn for a third-down, 79-yard silencer to quell a late Gator uprising and rocket Bobby Bowden toward his first national title. It was Spurrier's first Swamp loss after 23 straight victories.
1994: Auburn 36, Florida 33
Auburn's Pat Nix floated one for Frank Sanders from 8 yards out in the final 30 seconds to shock The Swamp people. That stunner moved Terry Bowden to 18-0 as the Auburn head coach and 2-0 against Spurrier while dropping Darth Visor to 15-1 at home against SEC foes.
1999: Alabama 40, Florida 39 (OT)
Alabama's Shaun Alexander sprinted to the end zone from 25 yards away on the Tide's first overtime snap. A do-over extra point after a miss and a UF penalty moved Mike DuBose off the hot seat and terminated Florida's 30-game home winning streak, one less than Nick Saban's best home run in the last decade.
I know what you're thinking, but I wasn't a total pox on Spurrier's house, watching his teams Fun 'n' Gun their way to big wins in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Atlanta and New Orleans. It was just my luck to follow Alabama and Auburn teams that made some tasty memories by getting out of The Swamp alive. Post-Spurrier, too. Like the 2007 Auburn team that handed Urban Meyer's defending national champions their first loss when Florida native Wes Byrum kicked the Gators right in the gullet with a 43-yard walk-off, chomp-off field goal.
And still, according to the UF game notes, Florida has the second-best home wining percentage (.842) in college football since 1990, when Spurrier returned to his alma mater to transform the school, the stadium and the conference. How good was the Head Ball Coach? His last two Florida teams in 2000 and 2001 beat Saban's first two LSU teams 85-24.
Too bad we never got peak Spurrier vs. peak Saban. They make up two-thirds of the short list of the SEC's greatest coaches. Their only peer was named Bryant.
This will be Saban's fifth business trip to Florida Field, where he's pretty much drained The Swamp since Spurrier schooled him on his first visit. This will be the best Florida team he's faced there since, especially if Anthony Richardson's hamstring allows him to keep doing Cam Newton things.
Florida came close to upending Alabama last December, and though each team has retooled considerably, if the Gators don't get the GOAT now, they may never have a better chance. You have to be nuts to pick against Alabama, but stranger things have happened in The Swamp.