Commentary

Gators-Tide ranks among great battles

Updated: October 1, 2010, 4:19 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

There have been some epic three-part battles over the years between powerhouse rivals.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame and Miami
Jonathan Daniel /Getty ImagesThe glory years of Notre Dame-Miami are among the sport's best series.

Rome versus Carthage in the Punic Wars, 264-146 B.C.

Ali versus Frazier, 1971-75.

Affirmed versus Alydar, 1978 Triple Crown.

Bird versus Magic in the NBA Finals, 1984-87.

Notre Dame versus Miami, 1988-90.

Now it is time for Florida versus Alabama, 2008-10, to take its spot on the list. A rightful spot. This is an ongoing trilogy of historic proportion and powerful impact.

(And like Rome-Carthage, there are elephants involved. Though it's unlikely that the Romans had any alligators on their side of that tussle.)

This riveting rivalry might not stop at three meetings, of course. There could be a fourth collision of superpowers in December in the Southeastern Conference championship game -- site of the first two meetings.

And if Nick Saban and Urban Meyer remain at their schools and at the top of their games, there's no telling how long the run can last.

But history says even the greatest rivalries cannot sustain white-hot intensity for extremely long periods of time -- not when both sides are performing at a peak level. Which means we better enjoy this while we have it.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDespite their differences, Nick Saban shares many commonalities with Florida's Urban Meyer.

By my measure, college football hasn't seen anything like this in two decades -- not since the aforementioned Miami-Notre Dame golden era. ESPN Stats & Information points out that Florida-LSU was huge from 2006 to '08, with the winner moving on to take the national title in all three instances. And Nebraska-Colorado had quite a three-game set from 1994 to '96, with both ranked in the top 10 in each meeting and the Cornhuskers winning titles in '94 and '95.

But this is bigger than either of those instances -- this is "Catholics versus Convicts" without the societal drama and stereotyping. The similarities are startling:

In 1988, Miami was No. 1 and Notre Dame was No. 4 when they met in South Bend. The Hurricanes were riding a 16-game winning streak. The Fighting Irish won a tense thriller 31-30 and went on to win the national title. The game is considered a classic.

In 2008, Alabama was No. 1 and Florida was No. 4 when they met in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide were riding a 13-game winning streak. The Gators won a slightly less tense thriller 31-20 and went on to win the national title. The game is considered a classic.

In 1989, Notre Dame was No. 1 and Miami was No. 7 when they met in Miami. The defending champion Irish were riding a 23-game winning streak. The Hurricanes won the game in a surprising beatdown, 27-10, and went on to win the national title.

In 2009, Florida was No. 1 and Alabama was No. 2 when they met in Atlanta. The defending champion Gators were riding a 22-game winning streak. The Crimson Tide won the game in a surprising beatdown, 32-13, and went on to win the national title.

In 1990, Miami was No. 2 and Notre Dame was No. 6 when they met in South Bend. The Irish won the game and then lost 10-9 to Colorado in a controversial Orange Bowl, as the Buffaloes earned a share of the national title.

The 2010 version of Florida-Alabama does Catholics-Convicts III one better, because neither of those teams was ranked No. 1. The Crimson Tide are No. 1, marking the third straight game that the top team in the sport is involved. The Gators are No. 7. We'll see whether the pattern holds and the lower-ranked team wins once more.

But beyond the overall excellence of both programs, what makes this matchup fascinating is the clash of alpha males in charge.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesLast year's battle with Alabama sent Meyer into an early (and short-lived) retirement.

Saban and Meyer have four championship rings and eight BCS bowl appearances between them. Their record in said bowl games: 7-1. They have pretty well owned the 21st century.

They have their similarities. Both played college football in Ohio -- Saban at Kent State, Meyer at Cincinnati. Both men were strangers to the South before moving there and becoming cult heroes. Saban was born and raised in West Virginia and cut his coaching teeth in the Midwest. Meyer is from Ohio and also worked the Midwest until landing in Utah, his launching pad to Florida.

In Dixie, both found fan bases that are perfect matches: They're as obsessive about winning as the coaches are.

Both have total command of their programs. Both are demanding of their staffs. Both are overpowering recruiters.

"I think we both recruit pretty well, at a high level," Meyer said earlier this week. "We watch their players play and when they call a certain coverage, they perform it really well because those guys play really well. When a guy breaks four tackles on the play, that means they recruited pretty good running backs, so that's another thing we have in common. They are well-coached, though."

Both are 30-2 since the 2007 season. Both detest losing. And both experienced the bitterness of rare defeat against the other.

The loss to Florida in '08 served as 12 months of obsessive motivational fuel for the Crimson Tide of '09.

"My freshman year when they beat us, for a whole year that is all we could think about," Alabama running back Mark Ingram said Monday. "Just getting back to the championship game and playing them."

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonMark Ingram and Alabama know that Florida stands in the way of their national championship defense.

Said Saban last year in Atlanta after the victory: "We had to work to beat the best team in our league. And right now the best team in our league is a team that beat us in the SEC championship game. And everything you do, every time you go to work, every time we lift weights, every time you run, every time we practice, it's not to be as good as the guy you're playing against, it's to be as good as the guy you have to beat to be the champion."

The Tide beat the champion. That loss to Alabama in '09 helped send a physically shot Meyer to the hospital, and very briefly into retirement.

"It was painful to watch that game; we watched it again this morning," Meyer said Monday. "Two years ago, you saw a team that was very well-focused, executed on a very high level, especially in the fourth quarter. Best fourth quarter I think I have ever seen. We just have to do our best. This is a completely different team -- I can talk all you want about me, but in 2008, [the current Florida freshmen] were juniors in high school, so we have to get this team ready to go."

The two men also have their differences.

Meyer is offense first. Saban is defense first.

Meyer loves a multitalented quarterback. Saban loves a defense that knocks multitalented quarterbacks on their behinds.

Saban dissed Meyer's baby, the spread offense, as a tool for developing NFL quarterbacks. Meyer disciple Dan Mullen dissed Saban for dissing the spread, saying at SEC media days, "I've had a lot more first-round quarterbacks drafted than he has in his career as a head coach."

Saban is older (58), Meyer is younger (46). Saban briefly and unwisely submitted to the lure of the NFL, Meyer has not.

And one of them will be 2-1 against the other by late Saturday night, in the rubber match of an epic three-part battle.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.