On Friday during game weeks I generally post a preview of the upcoming game, but I've decided against that this week. Both Alabama and Florida are already well known commodities, and in general everyone is aware of the key players, so I see little need in recapping something that most already knew in the first place.
Instead, I want to take a look at the things that we must do in order to pull off the upset. Florida knocked us off a year ago in Atlanta, and despite another 12-0 start by the Tide, the general consensus is that the Gators will send us to New Orleans once again. And unfortunately, I'm afraid to say that the general consensus is indeed probably the correct one. We're fighting an uphill battle here, and victory will not come easy for the Tide. Let's look at some key things the Tide must do in order to pull the upset.
Avoid the slow start. Sluggish performances early have plagued the Tide all year, and truthfully did for much of the second half of last season as well. That continued last week against Auburn as we found ourselves down 14-0 before we could even blink. Likewise, we got off to a slow start last year against Florida. We received the ball on the opening kick-off, went three and out, punted, and Florida marched right down the field for a touchdown. Simply put, we cannot afford another slow start this year against the Gators. We don't necessarily need a blitzkrieg from the beginning -- like the Blackout two years ago -- but we cannot get ourselves in a hole early and still expect to overcome that and get the victory over a team like Florida.
Win the field position battle. Offensively Florida is still a juggernaut, and giving this offense a short field is almost guaranteeing a touchdown. Last year, for example, the combined average starting field position of Florida's four touchdowns was past their 40-yard line. Likewise, Florida is very good defensively and any offense consistently forced to drive 60+ yards against them to get points is likely to be very limited in point production. Given that, we must win the field position battle in this game.
Limit the big play from Florida offensively. You heard all that talk about how Florida cannot generate the big play? Don't buy the hype. They might not be producing them at the prolific clip that they were last year, but this is still a big play offense. Riley Cooper had a 51-yard reception against 'Bama last year, and has had four catches of 35+ yards in 2009 (not to mention averaging over 17 yards per reception). Aaron Hernandez and Deonte Thompson both have big play ability. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey both average over 7 yards per carry, and have had several 40+ yard runs this year. Again, they aren't producing the big plays at the prolific clip they were last year, but don't interpret that to mean that they haven't generated big plays. They can still strike you at any time, and we must limit big plays for the Gators.
Get off the field defensively on third down. Last year, in many ways, the difference in the game was the ability of Florida to convert on critical third downs. And once again the Gators bring that reputation to Atlanta... they are one of the top teams in the country in third down conversion percentage. Simply put, we must get them off the field when we have the opportunity. A breakdown defensively on third down gives them new life, which with an offense of this caliber will more likely than not result in points.
Stop the dive play and control the interior run by Tebow. For all of the talk of speed and spreading the field, Florida relies heavily on the inside running game on the halfback dive and the draws by Tebow. It is of the utmost importance that our defensive line can stop this on their own. If they can shut down Florida in this capacity, that allows the linebackers to play sideline-to-sideline, and it allows the safeties to stay back and limit big plays. If you cannot do it in the trenches, however, linebackers and safeties have to come up to stop the run and that is what really allows all of the elements of their spread game to expose you.
Establish a consistent pass rush with the defensive line. Blitz packages can be great, but against a spread team -- one that will always have checkdowns to high end players at their disposal -- led by a senior quarterback they can be of limited effectiveness. If you have to rely heavily on them in order to rush the passer, much like we did last year, it will many times be ultimately futile because you get picked apart on the back end. And to that end, we have to be able to rush the passer with the defensive line. Florida is young at the tackle position (one of their few weaknesses), and we must take advantage of that. Along with controlling Florida's interior running game, our defensive line needs to get to Tebow. Simply put, they need to play the game of their lives.
Greg McElroy must be a game changer. Remember earlier in the year when we were saying that McElroy had transcended the game manager label and had turn himself into a legitimate game changer? Well, that hasn't been true in the past two months, and McElroy hasn't played particularly well since the Arkansas game. He has been checkdown happy, hasn't been able to throw the football vertically, has missed key throws, and has made a lot of poor decisions. That is acceptable enough against teams like Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Auburn, but that all must change on Saturday if we are to win. McElroy will have to be able to throw the football vertically, and will have to eliminate dumb mistakes, especially turnovers. There is simply no two ways about this one... if McElroy plays at the game manager level, we'll need an almost perfect performance by the rest of the team in order to win, and that is simply not feasible against a team like Florida.
Offensive line must get the job done in pass protection. Lost in the very low Adjusted Sack Rate that the Tide's offensive line has posted this year is the fact that our offense almost never throws the football vertically, and thus the ball generally comes out quickly on three and five step drops. That makes the offensive line's life very easy, but against Florida they will probably not get any such luxury. We'll have to throw the football vertically and in turn they will have to protect on long drops. And don't think the suspension of Carlos Dunlap is going to dramatically change things. Florida still has a ton of talent coming off the edge, and remember last year that the Gators clinched victory not with Dunlap, but with a key sack from Jermaine Cunningham.
Run the football relatively well. Injuries are really limiting our running game right now with Mark Ingram, Mike Johnson, and James Carpenter all being slowed by some ailment or another, but they must overcome that this week and still play at a high level. Florida has a great run defense in their own right, and as a result we aren't just going to run over this team. Much worse run defenses than Florida have been able to shut down our running game (see Arkansas and Auburn), and we cannot allow that to happen in Atlanta. Again, we aren't going to be able to run it down Florida's throat regardless, but we do need to be able run the football relatively well (and do it on a consistent basis).
The wide receiver corps must make plays on the outside. Julio Jones had a big game last year in Atlanta, and he will need another one this year. Likewise, Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze -- both of which had big catches in the Georgia Dome in the season opener against Virginia Tech -- will need to use the fast track of the Dome to their advantage once again. We haven't been able to get the football to our receivers consistently all year long, and that must change tomorrow.
Kick and punt return defense must hold up. It's going to be tough enough to control the Florida offense and move the football on the Florida defense as it is, but it's going to create an almost impossible task if we have one major breakdown in either kick or punt coverage. Brandon James is as good as any returner in the country, and we cannot afford to give Florida a cheap score in the return. Again, given how difficult of a task we face in the first place, giving up a cheap score on special teams will likely be the death knell for us.
All in all, simply put, we need to play at a very high level. We need to play our best game of the year in order to win on Saturday, and anything short of that will likely result in defeat. We cannot afford to play like we did against Virginia Tech. Or Kentucky. Or South Carolina. Or Ole Miss. Or Tennessee. Or LSU. Or Mississippi State. Or Auburn. We're going to have to take our game to another level if we truly expect to beat Florida.
In short, what we really need is perfection. Of course, a football game (not counting kicks) usually consists of 120-130 snaps, and that's just entirely too many snaps to not expect some breakdowns, particularly against a team of Florida's caliber. Thus, as with most things, perfection is an elusive goal in football, and it is one that we will not attain tomorrow. Nevertheless, the harsh reality is that we are going to have to come very close to that level if we are indeed going to knock of Florida. They are on the verge of a bona fide dynasty, they have one of the top three coaches in the country, they probably more talent and depth than any other team in the country, and they are led by a senior quarterback who will undoubtedly go down as one of the great college football players to ever live. A "good" performance will probably not bring down the mighty Gators, rest assured. We had a "good" performance last year and it was not enough. It likely won't be enough this year either. Perfection may be an unattainable goal, but Alabama will need to come almost as close as humanly possible in order to pull off the upset tomorrow night.
Hope for the best.