A week after pummeling Arkansas in a key SEC West showdown, Alabama arguably faces an even more difficult, though less heralded, foe this weekend in Gainesville. While many observers have dismissed Florida as a rebuilding program, instead choosing to worship at the garnet and black altar of South Carolina, a word of caution should note that the plentiful harvest of prep talent signed by the Gators in recent years didn't follow Urban Meyer into retirement. With the exception of LSU in early November, Alabama will have to make its way to New Orleans before possibly facing another opponent with the quality of raw talent that will be presented tomorrow night in the Swamp.
Last year was an orange and blue haze, likely due in no small part to Meyer's mental vacation, but prospects for 2011 look much improved. Fundamental play has been better (i.e. they can snap the ball this year), John Brantley has been more efficient, the offensive line has significantly improved, and the intensity of the defense is far beyond what it was a year ago. Perhaps they are just imbibing the Kool-Aid, but at 4-0 and facing a weak division this Florida team legitimately believes they can make a serious challenge at an SEC championship this season and truth be told it is a fairly reasonable belief. With both Alabama and LSU on the schedule in the next eight days, the opportunity is certainly present for the Gators.
Admittedly, however, the Gators are something of an unproven commodity, just like Arkansas was a week ago. Florida Atlantic and UAB were obvious cupcakes and neither Tennessee or Kentucky look to be serious contenders. Kentucky, in fact, might be fielding its worst team since the Bill Curry era, and Tennessee will struggle to get far beyond .500, so though Florida was not legitimately challenged by either team in and of itself that says relatively little.
Even so, it's hard to dismiss this team simply based on the raw talent alone, and on a variety of levels they present Alabama challenges that Arkansas simply could not. When Nick Saban said in his midweek press conference, "[t]his is the biggest challenge we've had all year, which makes it the greatest opportunity," that should have served as a wake-up call to all those who bleed crimson and white. As should the fact that Vegas only has 'Bama as a four-point favorite heading into this weekend, after being a ten and a twelve-point favorite, respectively, against Penn State and Arkansas.
Of particular concern is the Florida defense, led by Nick Saban protege Will Muschamp. While Alabama fans usually relish in the thought of confusing opposing quarterbacks with aggressive blitz packages, complicated pre-snap alignments, and multiple cover packages on the back end, with Muschamp on the opposing sideline the shoe is largely on the other foot this weekend, and Florida will be applying that same strategy to AJ McCarron.
The strength of this Florida defense is clearly on the defensive line, led by Omar Hunter, Dominique Easley, Jaye Howard, Ronald Powell and a slew of other talented linemen, and to a somewhat lesser extent in the linebacker corps. The weakness here is found in the defensive backfield, where two true freshmen have seen playing time along with Moses Jenkins and Matt Elam. Of the group only Elam is a standout and the freshmen have been picked on at times, particularly Marcus Roberson against Tennessee. Junior cornerback Jeremy Brown will miss this game due to a lingering knee injury, and that will only further highlight the depth concerns in the secondary.
Accordingly, given the ability of the front seven to stop the run and rush the passer, clearly the best way to attack this defense is to make them cover on the back end in the vertical passing game, but unfortunately for Alabama that looks to be a risky strategy. With McCarron making his first road start in conference play in a hostile environment, asking him to throw, likely under duress, into complicated cover schemes could be a plan for disaster. Realistically, though, the strength of the Florida front seven may make it difficult for 'Bama to establish the run, and the foot injury suffered by Eddie Lacy last weekend will not help matters. For better or for worse, the Alabama coaching staff may be forced to rely on McCarron far more than they have to date and if so he will simply have to rise to the occasion.
Fortunately for Alabama, the saving grace again looks to be the defense. The Florida offense has looked much improved under Charlie Weis with respectable showings from Brantley, an improved offensive line, and production out of Chris Rainey, but the strength of the Alabama defense will make for a difficult night for any offense. Making matters worse for Florida, with two tailbacks that tip the scales at roughly 5'8 and 185 pounds, running between the tackles will be extremely difficult, and the lack of size in the wide receiver corps will prove to be a difficult assignment against a very physical and aggressive Alabama secondary. While Brantley has had a solid showing in the opening month of the season, it should be noted that the most productive receiver for Florida on the year (Deonte Thompson) has only seven catches in four games, and the bulk of the receptions have gone to Rainey and Demps out of the backfield. Alabama will take full advantage of the Gators passing game if that inability to throw the ball outside continues.
Having said that, though, the true danger in the Florida offense remains in the explosiveness of Rainey and Demps. What the Gators lack in an interior running game and an outside passing game can be largely mitigated by the big play ability of its two speedster tailbacks. Stopping an offense for much of the night largely goes all for naught when you surrender two or three big play touchdowns, as Arkansas can attest to after their appearance in Tuscaloosa last weekend, and combined Rainey and Demps present such a threat even in the face of an otherwise stifling Alabama defense. Not having C.J. Mosley, the most versatile linebacker for the Tide, will not make things easier in that regard, and 'Bama will need another strong showing this weekend from senior Jerrell Harris, who expects to pick up much of the burden in the absence of Mosley.
The upshot for Alabama is that, regardless of what happens tomorrow night in Gainesville, the Tide will still control its own destiny in the SEC West and therefore in the SEC championship race as well. The problem, though, becomes the continued successes of Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Boise, and with that harsh reality in mind a 12-1 season capped off with an SEC championship will be small consolation when watching, say, the Sooners and the Badgers square off in New Orleans. SEC dominance be damned, the margin for error is practically non-existent as Alabama chases a fourteenth national championship, and even the most excusable and narrow of defeats -- regardless of the circumstances -- may prove fatal come early December.
One year ago after posting a dominant way over these same Gators in Tuscaloosa, Alabama followed that impressive showing with a disastrous road performance in Columbia, and 'Bama must avoid that same pitfall this year in the aftermath of the thumping of Arkansas. Even if many have written them off, Florida remains a very talented team, arguably the favorite in the SEC East, and they will present 'Bama with a variety of challenges that the Crimson Tide has not faced to date. Victory in the Swamp rarely comes easy, and tomorrow night will probably prove no exception to that general rule.
Hope for the best.