GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is no stranger to facing Alabama.
In six seasons as an assistant at Ole Miss from 1999-2004, he was in the same division. The Rebels were 2-4 over that span against the Crimson Tide, who had three head coaches during that period: Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula.
When Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, Roper was an assistant at Tennessee, and the Vols lost 41-17 at Bryant-Denny Stadium that season.
In 2008 Roper joined David Cutcliffe at Duke and said goodbye to Alabama on the schedule. Well, or so he thought.
The Blue Devils had traveled to Tuscaloosa in 2006 in the first game of a home-and-home series, and lost 30-14. In 2010 Alabama fans packed Duke’s Wallace-Wade Stadium for only the third meeting between the schools — the first time they played was in the 1945 Sugar Bowl.
Some called then-No. 1-ranked Alabama’s visit the biggest game in the history of cozy Wallace Wade Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 33,941, or less than half of the average SEC stadium.
Roper uses another description.
"That was a long day," he said.
The Crimson Tide literally rolled, winning 62-13 as Mark Ingram, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 151 yards on nine carries in his season debut following knee surgery. Alabama racked up 626 total yards, the first time in 21 years the Crimson Tide eclipsed 600 yards.
Meanwhile, Duke managed only 302 yards.
"That was an interesting ballgame," Roper said. "I’ve watched [the game film] since then to try and learn anything from it, but we felt like, for that season, that really hurt us a couple of weeks. That was a tough loss to get over, but you’re talking about a bunch of first-rounders running around out there."
Two weeks later, in an early-season SEC game between two undefeated teams, Alabama defeated the Gators, 31-6, in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s roster was loaded with future NFL players such as Ingram, Julio Jones, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Marcel Dareus.
Florida makes its first visit to Bryan-Denny Stadium since on Saturday.
In his first season at UF, Roper has more talent to work with than four years ago at Duke. He is after a much different result, too.
"That was a great collection of college football players," he said. "There were guys all over the field that are making money playing this game now. But again, that was a long day."
MUSCHAMP, SABAN FACE OFF
A common storyline leading up to Saturday’s Florida-Alabama game is the relationship between the head coaches. As long as Saban is at Alabama and Will Muschamp is at Florida, they will be a story when the schools play.
Muschamp was Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU and later joined him for a season with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. The first time they met as opponents was in the 2007 Iron Bowl.
Muschamp’s Auburn defense got the best of Alabama’s offense in a 17-10 victory. Two years later Saban won his first national championship at Alabama in a 37-21 win over Texas, where Muschamp was defensive coordinator.
Their only previous meeting as head coaches was in Muschamp’s first season at UF. Alabama knocked off the Gators 38-10 at The Swamp.
Saturday’s showdown is an opportunity for the Gators to prove they are back among the SEC’s elite. Saban sees a "vastly improved" Florida team on film.
"They have a lot of really, really good football players and they’re showing great balance on offense and really playing well on defense, like they typically do," Saban said Wednesday. "This is a really, really good overall team. It will be a challenge for us."
Muschamp acknowledged Saban’s role in his career earlier in the week: "I probably wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for the opportunities he gave me early in my career and he’s an outstanding football coach."
While Muschamp led the Gators to an 11-2 season in 2012, the Gators fell to 4-8 a year ago as injuries and offensive struggles doomed the season.
Saban expects a tough test from Florida and once the game starts, he won’t be thinking about their past connections.
"It’s never personal with me when it comes to the opponent," Saban said. "We compete against each other and we’re still friends. That’s the way it’s going to be. I personally think Will is doing a really, really good job. He was dealt a tough hand and got a lot of players hurt last year, which affected their season."
HE LOOKS BACK
Gators senior punter Kyle Christy earned SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his performance against Kentucky. Christy averaged 48.7 yards per punt and pinned the Wildcats inside the 20-yard line four times.
When Christy was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award in 2012, performances such as Saturday’s were common. And then he lost his job last season to freshman Johnny Townsend.
However, Christy is once again atop the SEC in punting, averaging 48.6 yards per kick with five punts of 50 or more yards. He averaged only 39.6 yards on 21 punts in 2013.
"It feels good," Christy said. "I’m excited about it."
So, what has triggered Christy’s turnaround?
"It’s a lot about timing," Christy said. "It’s mostly about having a consistent drop."
Christy attributed his improvement to renewed confidence as much as anything. To help in that department, Gators strength-and-conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman put him in touch with Philadelphia Eagles punter Donnie Jones, who Dillman knows from their days together at LSU.
"He said he actually kind of went through the same kind of thing," Christy said. "He said he struggled a lot his junior year and lost his starting spot, too. It was good to know I wasn’t the only one it’s ever happened to."
DRISKEL AS A RUNNER
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel took several questions from reporters Monday about his lack of runs in the first two games. Driskel rushed for 413 yards in 2012, including a 177 yards in a win at Vanderbilt, a school record for a quarterback.
He ran only seven times for 24 yards in wins over Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. While it appeared Driskel could have gained yards running on a few zone-read plays against Kentucky, he said the plays are not always what they seem.
"Not all plays are called for me to be able to run the ball," Driskel said. "That’s just you guys assuming that all plays are zone-read. The defense that we played against had a lot of double overhangs, where it’s hard to get the ball outside. That’s where the quarterback component of the zone-read is.
"They commit to taking the inside away and then the quarterback goes outside. I don’t think the looks that we got against Kentucky [were] perfect for me keeping the ball."
Muschamp and Roper want Driskel to make wise decisions when he does run to protect himself and avoid injury. While he might run less, there will be designed runs in Roper’s up-tempo spread offense.
"It all depends on the structure of the defense," Roper said. "It’s something that obviously he’s got the ability to do. We still want to be smart."
Florida true freshman defensive tackle Gerald Willis knows at least one Alabama player well. He’s family.
Willis’ older half-brother, Landon Collins, leads the Crimson Tide with 27 tackles.
Collins told reporters he is lobbying to play special teams for a chance to get on the field against his brother. They have never played against each other.
"Trying to get on kickoff return to see if I can block him one time," Collins said.
Their mother is April Justin, a big LSU fan. Collins and Willis grew up in Louisiana. Willis played at Edna Karr High in New Orleans and Collins at Dutchtown High in Geismar, La.
"She’s not rooting for nobody," Collins told TideSports.com. "She says she’s got a split household. She’s just gonna be in the middle of the field and cheer for me and Gerald at the same time."