Showdown in Swamp: Malzahn, Mullen tip visors to Spurrier
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By MARK LONG
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Florida’s Dan Mullen first met nearly 15 years ago. Malzahn was the head coach at Springdale High in Arkansas. Mullen was the Gators’ offensive coordinator.
Malzahn had Mitch Mustain playing quarterback. Mullen was on the recruiting trail looking for someone to eventually replace Chris Leak.
They spent hours talking ball, exchanging ideas and sharing philosophies.
Both were wearing visors - and for the same reason: Steve Spurrier. So it's somewhat fitting that Malzahn and Mullen will match wits Saturday at the field named after the Head Ball Coach.
"That will be pretty cool," Malzahn said.
It's their sixth head-to-head meeting - Malzahn has won three of five - but first in the Swamp. None of the previous games was a top-10 matchup with so much at stake.
No. 7 Auburn (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) and 10th-ranked Florida (5-0, 2-0) are two of five remaining unbeaten teams from the heavyweight league, and the winner will remain squarely in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.
Both have daunting schedules ahead. The Tigers face No. 5 LSU, third-ranked Georgia and No. 1 Alabama. The Gators play LSU and Georgia over the next four weeks.
So the loser Saturday faces an uphill climb to stay in the mix for even a division race.
"We don't shy away from it," Mullen said. "The intensity needs to be there within our preparation all week. ... It's hard to keep yourself at peak intensity for every single week in a long season. This is one of those weeks you don't really need to do that.
"If we do, we're in a lot of trouble. I told our guys if they need me to give a 'rah rah' to get us going, then they're pretty messed up in the head right now. This is what you come here for: to play in these games."
Malzahn and Mullen have plenty in common beyond their visors.
They each rose through the coaching ranks while being lauded for their play-calling skills. They also won national championships with two of the best quarterbacks in college football history. Malzahn, as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010, had Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton; Mullen had fellow Heisman winner Tim Tebow in 2006 and 2008.
"He's not afraid to be an innovator within an offense," Mullen said. "He's not afraid to create outside the box within his system, put his players in position to make plays.
"He knows how to scratch where it itches: 'If you're going to show me this, I'm going to do this. If you're showing that, I'm going to do this.'"
Neither coach has nearly as much experience at quarterback this season.
Auburn's Bo Nix won the job as a freshman and opened his college career with a game-winning touchdown pass against Oregon. He hasn't thrown an interception since that game and is coming off a 335-yard passing performance against Mississippi State.
Florida's Kyle Trask was pressed into action when three-year starter Feleipe Franks broke and dislocated his right ankle at Kentucky last month. Trask rallied the Gators to 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against the Wildcats and has been better than expected in starts against Tennessee and Towson. he ranks fourth nationally by completing 77.3% of his passes.
It's up to Malzahn and Mullen to help them read and react to stout defenses.
It’s what made Spurrier so successful in the Swamp - he went 63-5 in 12 seasons there - and made wearing a visor cool.
“I've been to every other place in our league but Florida,” Malzahn said. “This will be a first. Looking forward to it. Yeah, that is pretty unique.”
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Updated October 3, 2019