Florida’s football team playing Alabama in the SEC Championship Game last Saturday and its men’s basketball team tipping off with Duke this Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden is a heck of a challenge for the Gators athletics program.
The Crimson Tide and Blue Devils are obviously among the most successful programs in their respective sports. Alabama’s 11 poll-era national championships and five national titles since 1992 are the best in Division I college football, and Duke’s five NCAA Tournament crowns, all donned since 1991, are the most since the Tournament’s expansion to a 64-team field.
I was born in 1990, so I can also note this: Alabama and Duke have the most national titles in major college football and men’s basketball in my lifetime.
Florida’s own success in my lifetime isn’t shabby, obviously. The Gators have five combined football and men’s basketball titles in that time, and no other program has even won a single championship in both sports.
Florida is also still the most recent first-time national champion in both sports — 20 and 10 years after breaking through in football and men’s basketball, respectively — which seems like a rather powerful testament to just how difficult it is to enter the rarefied air of the college sports aristocracy.
But Florida’s success isn’t really the point today — challenge is. And in the modern era, it’s been rare, though not unprecedented, that teams have seen the kings of the gridiron and the hardwood in such close proximity.
Surprisingly, the three-day span between the Gators’ meetings with Alabama and Duke isn’t even the shortest distance between games with the two titans of 2016: Clemson fell to Alabama in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship on January 11, then upset Duke at home on the court on January 13.
Michigan State played both teams in Final Four games in 2015, with the Spartans getting thumped by Duke in Indianapolis in April and to Alabama in Dallas — sorry, “North Texas” — on New Year’s Eve in a national semifinal.
Beyond that, it gets harder to find Alabama-Duke doubles. In 2013, Duke played Alabama in hoops, defeating Anthony Grant’s team by 10 in Madison Square Garden, but that was a rare meeting with an SEC team for the Blue Devils. Duke had not previously played Alabama since 1986, has not played Florida since the 2000 Final Four, and had not played Kentucky in 11 years prior to a 2012 meeting between the two blue-bloods.
Other SEC schools haven’t seen Duke more than once on the court since prior to World War II, if at all. Georgia’s last game with Duke was in 1932. Mississippi State’s NCAA Tournament matchup with the Blue Devils in 2005 was the Bulldogs’ first since 1938. Mississippi has never met Duke.
But the SEC intersections sometimes mean SEC teams get to see both Duke and Alabama in close proximity. Alabama beat Tennessee in October 2011, and Tennessee topped Duke a month later. Kentucky defeated Alabama on the field in October 1997 — yes, the 1990s were a different time — and then defeated Duke in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, part of the same academic year. Vanderbilt faced both the Tide and Devils in the fall of 1996.
And the SEC’s ties to bowls that pit SEC teams against Big Ten outfits produce other crossed paths. Michigan State saw Duke in non-conference play in both the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, meaning that the Crimson Tide’s 2011 Citrus Bowl blowout of the Spartans gave the latter team the dubious honor of playing Duke and Alabama both in the same academic year and same calendar year over an 11-month period — 11 years after an Alabama-Michigan Orange Bowl did the same thing for the Wolverines in 2000.
Florida’s back-to-back games appear to be matched only by Clemson’s, however — and Florida gets the unique honor of playing both of those games at neutral sites that heavily favor the Gators’ foes, while Clemson is geographically slightly closer to the site of January’s title game than Tuscaloosa is, and got Duke at home.
The SEC Championship Game is notorious for its crimson-swathed stands when Alabama appears in the game — both because it’s just three hours from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta, and because, allegedly, some tickets bought when Alabama appeared in two SEC Championship Games in Birmingham have entitled their holders to reorder for more than two decades. Madison Square Garden is, in many ways, Duke’s home away from home: The Blue Devils have played there several times in non-conference games over the past decade, including once already this season, and enjoy strong fan support in the New York and New Jersey areas thanks to Duke drawing much of its student population from the region.
Alabama in Atlanta and Duke at the Garden is about as daunting a double as there is in all of college sports. Florida is running that gauntlet in the space of four days.
Good luck, Gators.