AUBURN — Wes Byrum sprinted across the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, raising his arms and doing the “Gator Chomp” in front of a raucous crowd of 90,685 that fell silent as soon as the Auburn place-kicker’s game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights.
Urban Meyer dropped his head and ran his hand through his hair. The Florida head coach called a timeout just before the freshman’s first attempt, but it didn’t matter — Byrum made the second attempt as time expired, giving unranked Auburn a 20-17 victory over No. 4 Florida.
Brandon Cox charged onto the field, both arms raised above his head. Kodi Burns chased after Byrum to start the celebratory dogpile. Rod Bramblett, from his familiar perch in the radio booth, shouted “See you later, Alligator!”
Tim Tebow crouched down, his eyes staring into nothing as he tried to comprehend what just happened.
“That was a tough night,” the then-Florida quarterback recalled last week. “Gosh.”
A lot has happened since that Sept. 29, 2007, game. Auburn is on its third different head coach, going from Tommy Tuberville to Gene Chizik to now Gus Malzahn. Florida is on its fourth, following Meyer with Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and now Dan Mullen. Byrum is now an assistant state attorney based in Fort Lauderdale. Tebow has had time to play three seasons in the NFL, start a minor league baseball career and become an SEC Network analyst.
One thing that hasn’t happened: A rematch at The Swamp. That will finally take place Saturday, when No. 7 Auburn makes the 300-mile trip south to face No. 10 Florida in Gainesville for the first time since Byrum made that kick 12 years and three days ago.
“That is pretty unique,” Malzahn said this week.
Malzahn is in his 10th season at Auburn, spending the first three (2009-11) as the offensive coordinator and the last seven (2013-19) as head coach. During that time, he has visited 13 out of 14 stadiums in the SEC. Florida’s is the only one he hasn’t been to.
In fact, the two teams who share a border and recruiting territory have met on the field only once since that 2007 game — Oct. 15, 2011, at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn won that game 17-6.
The once-great annual rivalry was a casualty of conference realignment. The Tigers and Gators met 83 times between 1912 and 2011 (Auburn leads the all-time series 43-38-2), including 48 consecutive years from 1945-2002. That run ended with a 30-23 Florida victory in Gainesville where Gators defensive end Bobby McCray blocked Damon Duval’s game-winning field goal attempt and Rex Grossman threw a 25-yard game-winning touchdown to Taylor Jacobs in overtime.
Since then, the Tigers and Gators have met just three times (2006, 2007 and 2011). The reduction from two permanent cross-division rivals down to one in 2002 was a body blow. The addition of Texas A&M and Missouri to the conference in 2012 proved the death knell — the current seven-season gap between meetings is the longest the two teams have gone since a nine-year stretch between the 1917 and 1927 campaigns.
That won’t change anytime soon — after Saturday’s game, unless the two teams meet in an SEC Championship game, they’re not scheduled to see each other on the field again until 2024 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I think for the fans and for the players, to have these games be played more often would be benefit for everyone,” said Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator at Florida from 2005-08 before spending nine years as Mississippi State’s head coach then returning to Gainesville last season. “That’s why you want to come in the SEC, to play big games and to play other SEC schools. So I think it would be great for these games to be played more often.”
The rivalry has created plenty of unforgettable moments. Mullen should know that better than most — he remembers that 2007 game at The Swamp for a much different reason than Byrum’s game-winning kick.
His story that year started Thursday, when he sweated through a staff meeting and “just felt like something wasn’t right.” He got some treatment, went to practice and did a radio show that night, but he still didn’t feel well when he came back to work on Friday. He made it through meetings, a walk-through and a team dinner before it was finally decided that he needed to go to the hospital.
At 10 p.m. on Friday night, less than 24 hours before kickoff against Auburn, Mullen underwent an emergency appendectomy. He spent the morning of the game chugging water, doing laps around Shands Hospital and going to the bathroom as many times as necessary to be discharged, which he said finally happened at around 3:30 p.m. And if that wasn’t enough complications before a game, Mullen said his police escort got into a minor fender-bender on the way to the stadium.
“Everything’s just insanity,” he recalled this week.
Mullen did end up calling plays that night.