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September 28, 2011Tweet Follow @InsideTheGators
MORE FLORIDA FOOTBALL: Weis - line gives Florida a chance | Kyle's Files: Nameless, faceless approach the right one | Scout's Eye View: Breaking down big plays | East vs West Showdown: Alabama - Florida headlines
Since falling to the Florida Gators in the 2008 Southeastern Conference Championship game, the Alabama Crimson Tide and have had their rivals' number. In the last two meetings between the programs, head coach Nick Saban's Alabama team has trounced Florida by a combined score of 63-19.
Yet with four wins already under his belt this season - including two against ranked opponents - Saban believes Saturday's contest with the Gators will be the toughest match-up the Crimson Tide have had to take part in up to this point.
"This is the biggest challenge we've had all year which also makes it the greatest opportunity for our team in terms of playing a really good Florida team that has played extremely well in the first four games," he said Monday during the SEC's weekly coaches teleconference.
"Will [Muschamp] has done a great job there from a discipline, execution and technique standpoint. Their guys are playing hard, and we're certainly going to have to match that intensity on the road and get the kind of execution that we need and play smart so that we give ourselves a chance to play winning football. This is going to be a real test and a real challenge for us."
By now one has undoubtedly heard that Saban and Muschamp have a decade-long relationship dating back to the former hiring the latter as a linebackers coach and eventual defensive coordinator at LSU. The two coaches met in December 2000 at the Peach Bowl and hit it off right away, talking for 20 minutes and leaving with a mutual respect for each other.
"Sometimes you just meet somebody and you really get a good feel for them. Will was a real good person, real genuine," Saban recalled. "You could tell he was hard-working and had a special intensity about him in terms of what he wanted to do. And a passion for football and how important it was to him. That first impression really held true in this case. It is pretty obvious based on the career he's had and what he's done so far as a head coach that all those things are correct."
Saban hired Muschamp just months later after a position opened up on his staff and even took him to the NFL for one season with the Miami Dolphins. Now going head-to-head with his former assistant for the first time, the veteran coach is impressed when looking at how much Florida has changed from just one year ago.
"I think Florida has a very, very good team," he said. "I think they're significantly different. There's not the zone read option-type basis for what they do. It's more 'pro-style' in terms of they run a lot of sweeps and some direct runs with these guys. They do a good job upfront. The drop-back passing game is certainly a lot different in style in terms of what they've done in the past. To me, there's not many similarities."
Saban attributes a big part of the Gators' turnaround to the improved play of redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley, who has become more of a game manager in his second season as a starter.
"I think he's playing extremely well. I think he so far has taken what the defense gives and we certainly feel like he has the capability to throw the ball down the field," he said. "A lot of what they've done to this point has been to utilize some of the playmakers that they have, which are two really, really good running backs who have great speed and explosive ability. They've gotten the ball to them a lot of different ways, and I think that's probably good coaching on their part to take advantage of that.
[UF-BAMA CONTEST: WIN FREE GATOR GEAR]
"I do think they have capable receivers, good athletic tight ends, and John Brantley is certainly capable of throwing the ball down the field. There's no lack of their respect for their ability to do that on our part. He's obviously a guy that benefitted from the experience that he had a year ago and has matured and growing and seems like he's playing with a lot more confidence. "
Yet while Saban and Muschamp know each other quite well, their prior relationship will not have much impact on the result on Saturday, a fact Muschamp took to heart during the team's media day on Monday.
"I know there will be a lot of [wondering] if there is an advantage. There is no advantage. He knows me as well as I know him. There is no advantage in this game," Muschamp said. "Thank goodness for the 90,000 people in The Swamp and for the millions watching. He or I will not take a snap Saturday night, so that's the very positive thing."