University of Florida

Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp looking for a signature victory against mentor and Alabama coach Nick Saban

Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators yells during the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida.
Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators yells during the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Getty Images

Will Muschamp functioned as Nick Saban’s defensive wizard for five years.

Together, the two savvy defensive minds won a national title at LSU and nine games in one season with the Dolphins, but Muschamp’s transition from top assistant to head coach hasn’t been nearly as successful.

Muschamp tried to duplicate Saban’s juggernaut at Alabama, but it hasn’t worked at UF — at least not yet.

Florida’s embattled leader — under fire following a nightmare four-win 2013 — is waiting for his watershed moment as a head coach. An upset victory over his longtime mentor could certainly cool the flames.

The Gators (2-0) travel to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with No.3 Alabama (3-0) on Saturday, a potential statement game and referendum on Florida’s current hierarchy in college football.

“People are writing us off, but that’s just how we want it,” said senior center Max Garcia, on UF entering the matchup as two-touchdown underdogs. “We’re going to go in there and compete. We’re not playing as underdogs like, ‘This team is way better than us and if we win it’ll be because it’s just like it happened that way.’ It’s because we made it happen, not just because it just fell into place.”

Said senior left tackle Chaz Green: “Given the bunch that Alabama has, it’s a good measuring stick for us.”

Muschamp coordinated Saban’s defenses at LSU from 2001-2004, but now the protégé must beat his master to cool the hot-seat talk.

Saban acknowledged the tricky situation, saying, “My responsibility is to Alabama football and what we have to do to be successful here. But it’s never personal with me when it comes to the opponent. I never try to make it personal. We compete against each other, and we’re still friends.”

He also called Muschamp, “one of the best assistants I’ve ever had,” adding, “I never like to see anybody not be able to continue to do the things they worked hard to do for a long time. I personally think Will is doing a really, really good job. I think he was dealt a tough hand and got a lot of players hurt last year, which affected their season. And I think they have a really good team this year.”

Muschamp certainly believes so. After last season’s epic failures — a litany of injuries, attitude issues and a toothless offense — Muschamp is confident Florida cannot only compete with Alabama — but win.

“I’ve got a lot of respect facing Nick as an assistant coach and then now as a head coach,” Muschamp said. “ I probably wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for the opportunities he gave me early in my career. … It is what is. They’ve got a good football team. I think we do too.”

In 2011, the Tide routed the Gators 38-10 in The Swamp — Muschamp’s first loss at UF in his only matchup against Saban as a head coach.

Despite Florida’s woes last season and needing triple-overtime to top Kentucky last weekend, Saban views the Gators as an underrated team and real threat Saturday.

“Florida is vastly improved and really off to a good start,” he said. “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. This is a really, really good overall team, it will be challenging for us.”

Florida’s football program hasn’t been the same since Alabama routed Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer & Co. in the 2009 SEC Championship Game 32-13. The Tide has won three national titles since the beatdown, and Florida has managed just a single double-digit win season.

There’s no time like the present to flip the script.

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