Nineteen games into the Dan Mullen era, the only clear-cut definition about Florida's football program appears to be the Gators tend to play to the level of their opposition.
How else to explain being in dogfights both years with Kentucky, getting spanked at home by Missouri, and defeating three top-10 teams, including Saturday's 24-13 conquest of No. 7-ranked Auburn at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium?
Up next is possibly UF's biggest test of the entire season: facing No. 5 LSU in Death Valley. Las Vegas oddsmakers don't give Florida much of a shot Saturday, installing the seventh-ranked Gators as a 13-point underdog. That large a spread is unusual for teams just two places apart in the AP poll halfway through the season, but much of it is a function of the Tigers' boisterous home-field advantage and quarterback Joe Burrow directing an offense leading the nation at 54.6 points per game.
No question, this matchup could be a crash-and-burn for the unbeaten Gators (6-0). Especially if LSU gets out to an early lead and its amped-up crowd begins to unnerve UF quarterback Kyle Trask, just as Auburn freshman QB Bo Nix (11 of 27, 145 yards, three interceptions) appeared to get rattled at times with 90,000-plus fans screaming in Gainesville.
Mullen felt forcing Auburn to play from behind the entire time took its toll until the Tigers were extinguished by Lamical Perine's 88-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
"By taking the early lead, getting the lead and holding the lead all day long, you kind of put pressure on them, get them out of their comfort zone and let us dictate the game," Mullen said.
It's probably going to take a similar formula for the Gators to spring the upset in Baton Rouge. Not necessarily always playing with a lead, but staying within one score of LSU is imperative. With Ed Orgeron's team finally having a legitimate threat at quarterback, it's going to take a special defense or an equally potent offense to derail the Tigers.
Florida is clearly still a work in progress on offense, where Trask has done a respectable job since taking over after a season-ending injury to Feleipe Franks. The Gators have plenty of weapons at receiver, but the lack of a formidable running game could be a hindrance against an elite team like LSU. They had only 27 yards rushing on Auburn until Perine's game-breaking run.
But if Mullen has demonstrated anything in his short UF tenure, he has a knack for getting his team adequately prepared for big games. He's already won four games as an underdog against ranked opponents, which is more than predecessor Jim McElwain (3-9) had in four years and nearly as many as Will Muschamp (5-14) over the same time frame. Mullen's only loss to a ranked team was a 36-17 loss last year to Georgia, a somewhat misleading score since the Gators trailed by only six points in the fourth quarter.
What has to be particularly encouraging for Florida is how Todd Grantham's defense pretty much stonewalled Auburn except on Nix's 32-yard TD pass to Seth Williams, which came one play after Mullen's fake-punt call backfired and gave the Tigers their best field position.
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But the rest of the game, Gus Malzahn's offense did almost nothing. Auburn had 10 possessions where it failed to get a first down. The Tigers ran 13 plays inside the UF 40 and gained just 29 yards, which included taking a 22-yard sack.
With Florida's defense at full strength for the first time since the Miami opener - its best pass-rusher, Jabari Zuniga, is expected to play after being held out against Auburn – the Gators at least have a chance to slow down LSU's potent attack.
Burrow (22 TD passes, 3 INTs) will be facing a UF secondary that has earned its reputation as DBU, picking off 12 passes this season while allowing just four TDs. In Mullen's five games against ranked opponents, the Gators have only allowed 17.9 points per game, including a 27-19 win over then fifth-ranked LSU at The Swamp.
No question, this rematch might well be UF's toughest hurdle this season, perhaps right on par with a showdown against No. 3 Georgia at TIAA Bank Field on November 2. But as Mullen's teams have demonstrated, the big moments haven't overwhelmed them.
Whether it's a defensive battle, which would presumably give the Gators a better chance at an upset, or more of a shootout-type game, Mullen feels his team will adapt accordingly and be in contention.
"If we win the game 3-2 or we win the game 49-48, we're winning," said Mullen. "Whatever we need to do to make that happen as a team and as a program and we get everybody bought in doing that, you have success.
"So I don't get overly caught up in, 'OK, what do our offensive statistics look like? Or what do our defensive statistics look like for show?' I'm more into winning and losing."
Clearly, Florida doesn't worry about style points. Until the Auburn game, most people doubted whether the Gators were worthy of a top-10 ranking. They were fortunate to survive a game with five lead changes against pedestrian Miami. And UF might have lost to Kentucky again had it not been for the Wildcats missing a critical fourth quarter field goal.
But somehow, the Gators under Mullen tend to rise up when you throw them in a big-game atmosphere. That may be give them more than a puncher's chance Saturday in Death Valley.
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