I find it odd that whenever rivalry games are mentioned in the SEC, the Alabama v. Florida series almost never gets discussed. Sure the normal makings of a traditional rivalry are not at all present here, but if the goal of big-time football is to win games and be an elite program, no other series in the post-expansion history of the SEC embodies that more than Alabama v. Florida.
And, undoubtedly, no other series in the SEC since the conference expanded has had anywhere near the implications of this one. Seven times these two have met in the SEC Championship Game -- with an eighth meeting widely expected in two months -- and four times the winner of that game has gone on to win a national championship. Put simply, more so than any other series, Alabama v. Florida has defined the SEC in its modern form.
In many ways, the Alabama v. Florida rivalry is what the Alabama v. Tennessee rivalry is supposed to be but really isn't, and by that I mean a match-up of the southeast's two powerhouse programs. Obviously I love beating up on the Vols, but the dirty little secret to the Third Saturday in October is that it's routinely a relatively uninteresting match-up (to the non-diehards, anyway). Bryant dominated the Vols for two decades, and after his reign ended Alabama and Tennessee traded turns dominating the rivalry for years on end. Far from being an annual showdown of powerhouse teams, more often than not the Alabama v. Tennessee series involves a good team playing a bad team with the underdog merely hoping to spike the proverbial punch bowl. But Alabama v. Florida, well, that's another story, and that story will continue tomorrow night.
And speaking of past history, clearly Florida comes to Tuscaloosa this weekend looking for revenge. Urban Meyer has tried his best to downplay that as a relevant factor, but his players have been very candid and revealing this week. They've been itching for this rematch for ten months, and this is their opportunity to atone for their thumping last year in Atlanta. By all accounts, their loss in Atlanta in 2009 motivated them in many of the same ways that our loss in Atlanta in 2008 did. To that end, the reasonable expectation is that Florida will likely show up with every bit of energy and intensity imaginable, and Alabama will have to respond in kind.
Offensively, Florida has had their fair share of issues transitioning away from the Tim Tebow era. John Brantley has posted a solid stat line, but that's somewhat of the problem. He has been solid, but he has not brought the consistent vertical element to the Florida passing attack, and if anything his 9.5 yards per completion indicates that the passing game has been a bit dink and dunk. The physical interior running game seemingly left with Tebow, and to date Deonte Thompson and company have proven to be very imperfect replacements for the likes of Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. On the other hand, it's best not to poormouth the Florida offense too much, considering they have scored over 30 points in every game to date, not to mention putting 48 on the board in their last outing against Kentucky.
It will help our cause that Chris Rainey will not play, and that even if Jeff Demps does he won't be 100% (and for the record, I still doubt that he plays at all). That takes away Florida's two best rushers, but even so it's still Florida and they are still loaded with speedsters, and if we don't do a better job controlling at the point of attack they will gash us on runs on the edges regardless of what happens with Rainey and Demps. Furthermore, say what you will about the Gator offense, but they have protected Brantley very well this year -- only two sacks on 115 passing attempts -- and that combined with our surprisingly non-existent pass rush will likely mean that Florida will get the opportunity to test our defensive backfield with their skill talent in the passing game.
The real strength of the Gators, though, comes on defense and on special teams. The defensive front seven has proven stout against the run, the linebacker corps may be the best in the conference, and the secondary has been able to overcome the departure of Joe Haden and an early season injury to Moses Jenkins and still play at a high level. A month into the season, Florida finds itself 13th nationally in run defense, 6th in pass efficiency, and 3rd in turnovers generated, and as much as I would like to write otherwise to date their defense has looked a good bit better than the 'Bama defense. And as for special teams, well, just know that both Caleb Sturgis and Chas Henry are still on the team.
Now, on the whole, no, Florida is not as good of a team as they were a year ago, but unfortunately neither are we as of right now. These two teams seemingly match up as pretty even, and in many ways are identical in terms of having one strong unit matched with a unit that should be strong but that is nevertheless disappointing to date despite loads of raw talent. Despite a few differences, these two squads actually have a lot in common and are quite similar.
I get the strange feeling that some people want to sell Florida a bit short and think this is going to be a relatively easy game for us. Hopefully that turns out to be the case, but it's hard to legitimately expect that going in. Admittedly it is a bit tough to accurately evaluate the Gators because they really haven't played anyone of note prior to this game, but even so it's still Florida and it's still Urban Meyer. As I said on the radio interview earlier this morning, if there is one team in the country that may have more talent than Alabama it is Florida, and if there is one coach in the country that may be on par with Nick Saban it is Urban Meyer. Combine that with the intensity that Florida will bring, and rationally you've got to expect one hell of a fight. And, frankly, the physical and emotional toll from playing in another nailbiter just six days ago probably will not help our cause. The point is that this is not the kind of game where you will just casually stroll to victory.
We've been saying here at RBR for months that if there was one game to lose this year, this game would be it. Florida is the best team we'll face all season, they are the highest ranked team we'll face, it's still relatively early in the season, and even with a loss tomorrow we can still avenge it in two months in Atlanta. Having said that, losing is never the preferred outcome for obvious reasons, and while we may be able to overcome a loss here, the point remains that with any loss -- regardless of how mitigating the circumstances surrounding it may be -- we would cede control over our own destiny with regard to a national championship run and submit our future to the whims of the Football Gods. The desired path is to simply win, win decisively, and stamp your ticket to Atlanta for the rematch.
Hope for the best.