September 27, 2008 spurs mixed emotions among the Ole Miss and Florida faithful alike. On one hand, the Rebs escaped Gainesville's mucky heat with a skin-of-the-teeth win, 31-30, due to a blown Gator field goal attempt late in the game, a handful of Tebow-stuffings alongside, and the inexorable thrust of the game clock in the end. In just his fourth game as the Rebels' frontman, Houston Nutt had upended No. 4 Florida -- in the Swamp, no less -- thus signaling the official high point of his tenure in Oxford.
On the other hand, from the ashes of destruction rose Tim Tebow and "The Promise." Tearful, slumped and sentimental, the adolescent Tebow ignored reporters' questions and looked dead into the bank of cameras. "To the fans and everybody in Gator nation," he deadpanned, "I'm sorry."
Florida of course went on to win their second national title in three years that season. An early loss to Ole Miss buoyed them in the amnesiac minds of BCS voters and computers down to Miami for the championship game against an Oklahoma team that frankly had no idea what hit them. The Rebels went on to outpace Texas Tech in 2008's Cotton Bowl, 47-34, to finish off the season 9-4 (5-3 SEC).
It's been seven years since 31-30 and The Promise, and Ole Miss' and Florida's football fortunes have flowed in parallel, then diverged wildly. Following a zany 2009 SEC Championship loss to Alabama, Florida's Urban Meyer stepped down for all of one week citing chest pain, only to reappear for the Gators' Sugar Bowl stomping of Cincinnati, 51-24. Houston Nutt's second year saw the Rebs finish yet again 9-4 (4-4 SEC) for another trip to the Cotton Bowl, where the boys turned in a relatively pedestrian 21-7 defeat of Oklahoma State.
The 2010 season marked a downward turning point for both programs. Nutt's 2009 recruiting spree had sparked a wonderful bit of NCAA machinations that would raise even Gene Chizik's eyebrows. After signing 37 recruits, the SEC -- and eventually the NCAA -- decided that Nutt's overabundance of scholarship players was creating a "farm league" system at Ole Miss and so coined the "Houston Nutt Rule," which capped the number of signees a given program could admit every year. In Gainesville, the Gators' locker room was in shambles due to an "inner circle" culture of leadership by and for veteran players, which culminated in Meyer's grand pronouncement that Florida's program was "broken" as he hightailed it out of there. Ole Miss finished 4-8 (1-7 SEC) and missed a bowl game; Florida went 8-5 (4-4 SEC) and held off a terrible Penn State team in the
Weed Whacker Outback Bowl, 37-24.
2011 could provide little more maddening for Ole Miss fans: a 2-10 record and absolutely zero conference wins. A simple Google search for "Ole Miss football 2011" ejects you from Earth's atmosphere and into the nearest black hole. Houston Nutt famously, hilariously, took a colossal shit at midfield in Starkville that year. "I got dumped two weeks ago," Nutt slurred in the presser afterwards, "If I cared any less about this team, I'd be dead yesterday." Florida too experienced something of a lost season in 2011, with the still unknown Will Muschamp steering the ship for the first time. A supposed defensive mastermind and coach-in-waiting at Texas, Muschamp seemingly brought the hardnosed face-smashing ethic back to a Gator program badly in need of direction.
Then, 2012. Hugh Freeze's impact was felt immediately in Oxford. He turned 2-10 (0-8 SEC) around into 7-6 (3-5) with a Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, 38-17. Muschamp fell backwards into a fluky 11-2 (7-1 SEC) season that could have seen a trip to Atlanta if not for a horrendous turnover late in the Georgia brawl. In the three years since 2012, though, Florida has steadily nosedived where Ole Miss has steadily improved. The touchdown machine of Meyer's squads bled out and turned anemic under Muschamp. (It's a curious feature of Florida's history that the program has always succeeded under offensive-minded coaches, and now they've got another in Jim McElwain.) Houston Nutt's ten-ring circus has morphed into a finely-tuned engine under Freeze. Where Gainesville required success right now, dammit, Oxford has patiently observed Freeze's systematic building of a juggernaut on both sides of the ball.
And so here, in 2015, with Florida rebuilding and under no presumption to make waves, with Ole Miss at No. 3 in the country and every expectation to run the table, here, with fortunes reversed from 2008, Saturday's trip to Gainesville brings the better part of a decade full circle.