GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Last week, we had Tim Tebow on The Saturday Down South Podcast and we asked him a rather simple question.
How would you describe “The Swamp” in one word?
Tebow was likely harkening back to his days as a Gator when he helped the program win two national championships. That was back when The Swamp was as difficult of a place to play as there was in college football, and not home to a team coming off a four-win season.
During Saturday’s game against No. 5 LSU at The Swamp, Tebow was inducted into the Florida Ring of Honor, and he was honored along with other members of the 2008 team for the 10-year anniversary of their national title. He bore witness to something that he had probably been waiting to see for quite some time.
The Swamp was indeed ferocious. Finally.
Ferocious was just one of many words that could’ve been used to describe the place that’s also known as Bill Hill Griffin Stadium.
That was the feeling when Brad Stewart Jr., the only Louisiana native on Florida’s roster, intercepted Joe Burrow’s pass in the final minutes to help put away the previously-unbeaten Tigers.
“I couldn’t hear a thing,” Stewart admitted after returning an interception for a touchdown to halt LSU’s comeback attempt.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 6, 2018
It was a place that got exponentially louder with each third down, and with each realization that the Gators were every bit as talented as the No. 5 team in the country. Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks said that there was one point during the game when he put on the headset and he couldn’t hear the Florida coaching staff. And as wild as his Hail Mary against Tennessee was last year, Saturday was a different kind of noise.
“Consistently for a full game, I’ve never heard it that loud before,” Franks said.
That was what new Gators coach Dan Mullen wanted to see. Florida hadn’t closed out a win against a top-5 team since it took down No. 3 Ole Miss in 2015. Fittingly, that was also the last time that the Gators beat a ranked team at home.
Perhaps even more fitting was that Saturday had shades of the 2008 team. There were plenty of moments that probably brought Tebow and Mullen (a UF assistant 10 years ago) back to that magical 2008 season.
There was Vosean Joseph taking Stewart’s pick-six and punting it into the crowd, just like Brandon Spikes did against LSU at The Swamp after his pick-six in 2008. There was Franks nearly operating the identical rock-back touchdown pass that Tebow made famous.
But according to Mullen, the goal wasn’t just to pay tribute to the Gator legend who was in the house on Saturday.
“It wasn’t really an ode to Tebow. It was an ode to score touchdowns,” Mullen said.
And much to the raucous crowd’s delight, Mullen’s squad did. After Lamical Perine’s 2-yard score gave the Gators the lead back with 8 minutes left in in the fourth quarter, Mullen did what he could to make sure The Swamp was rocking down the stretch.
Dan Mullen's visor has come off!
I'm telling you, the visor is coming off! pic.twitter.com/jiYzGiB92a
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 6, 2018
I asked Mullen about that moment and whether he had ever been that kind of juiced during a game before. His answer said a lot about why he was so hyped.
“You know what part of it is? There are a lot of students who weren’t here 10 years ago,” Mullen said. “There are a lot of people who are maybe new Gator fans or they haven’t experienced it. I’m watching them, too. That wasn’t just about our team. That was to make sure that every single person in that stadium knew that the game was on the line right there.
“They needed to get up on their feet and go crazy for the student body and the Gator Nation to help us close out that game. And they did that.”
That game could’ve easily followed a different script, one in which Burrow repeated his late comeback against Auburn a few weeks ago, and sent the Gator faithful home with the same, pit-in-the-stomach feeling that was all too familiar since Tebow left Gainesville.
It was easy to forget that, while this was a Florida team coming off two road victories, the Gators sought their first win against a Power 5 team at The Swamp since Sept. 30, 2017 against Vanderbilt. That could’ve happened Sept. 8 against Kentucky. Instead, The Swamp was home to the UF program’s first home loss to the Wildcats in 41 years.
Embarrassing was the last word one would use to describe The Swamp on Saturday.
“(Mullen) wants us to protect this house and that’s what we did tonight,” Perine said. “It’s something we’ve been doing for the past three weeks.”
Florida (5-1) already has more wins in 2018 than all of last season. The Gators are inevitably due for a significant jump in the Associated Press Poll Top 25 on Sunday, though that ranking wasn’t the most important thing at stake on Saturday. It was about delivering in an atmosphere that at times felt all but impossible to handle.
Franks and other Florida players thought about that as they celebrated on the field after their statement win.
“It just feels so good getting the Gator standard back,” Franks said. “I ran to the fans because those were the people who were helping us out. When we got The Swamp back like that, it’s hard place to play in.”
Mullen referenced that repeatedly on Saturday. “The Gator standard.”
The Florida coach described that as his team showing those 2008 players that they can play exactly like they did 10 years ago. That year was also Mullen’s last year as the offensive coordinator in Gainesville.
It was one thing to beat his former team on the road at Mississippi State last week. It was another to go into Knoxville and win convincingly against a rival.
But to deliver against a top-5 team at home? That took Mullen back to a special time in his career.
“I came back to Florida and there’s a Florida that I know and there’s a Florida that I love,” Mullen said. “There’s a certain Gator standard that they expect the team to live up, but they also expect the Gator Nation to live up to. And it was that way tonight. The Swamp was an intimidating place to come play. It gave us an unbelievable home-field advantage.”
Mullen repeated after Saturday’s win how great it was to see “The Swamp back to being The Swamp again.” There’s no guarantee that Florida wins the rest of its games at home, though Mullen did sound enthused about the fact that after next week’s game at Vanderbilt, the Gators won’t leave the state for the rest of the year.
For one day, the highlight of Florida’s home atmosphere wasn’t just belting out Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. A crowd of 90,283 witnessed the beginning of a new phase. Mullen, Tebow and the rest of the Gator faithful could probably come up with a new word to describe The Swamp.