A few early thoughts from the initial aftermath of Alabama's 38-10 victory over Florida:
As impressive as the victory over Arkansas was, given the quality of the opponent, the difficulty of the environment and the level of the adversity, 'Bama likely one-upped itself last night in Gainesville. Making any meaningful evaluation of a team is a difficult exercise at any point, much less this early in the season, but taking the overall performance last night as a whole it seemed to that this team could be something truly special. With two of the three most difficult regular season opponents now in the rear view mirror, it's hard to restrain the optimism for this team.
By all accounts everything that could have went wrong early did go wrong, and yet 'Bama scoffed at the adversity like it was little more than a passing housefly. The opening play of the game was a disaster and the first ten minutes in general were really nothing more than an attempt to avoid a complete meltdown. After Trent Richardson tied the game near the end of the first quarter, though, the storm was weathered, 'Bama settled in and from there on hammered the Gators without mercy. Florida raced out to ten points on its opening two possessions, but after seizing the 10-3 lead managed a meager 107 yards of total offense and zero points while watching 'Bama put the ball in the end zone five times. In the final analysis it was a bad start that was quickly overcome with a dominating performance the rest of the night.
The disastrous start with the deep pass to Andre Debose is simple in explanation. The 5'11 and 190 pound Debose is one of the fastest players in the conference and Dre Kirkpatrick was out on an island against him with no safety help over the top (Robert Lester was concerned with something down the seam). When Kirkpatrick allowed Debose to get a clean release he had no real chance of chasing him down in the open field. Kirkpatrick was beaten and beaten badly within five yards of the line of scrimmage with no real chance of recovery. The quicker Debose ran right by him and to his credit Brantley delivered an absolute strike.
The struggles of the pass defense continued the following drive, and weren't limited solely to Kirkpatrick. Florida receivers continued to gash the Alabama secondary, and Deonte Thompson had two big receptions to convert key third and long situations. 'Bama largely lucked out when the Gators made its way to first and goal, first with a dropped touchdown pass by Debose and then the sideline monster stopping Chris Rainey short of the end zone, but after the second drive the Alabama defense controlled the line of scrimmage, cleared up the coverage breakdowns on the back end, and set off after John Brantley. When Courtney Upshaw returned an errant Brantley throw for a touchdown, the 'Bama defense took on an aura of invincibility.
In particular, the explosive Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps were non-factors against the swarming 'Bama defense. Demps picked up a mere five yards on six touches, and was KO'd for the night by Cade Foster slamming him to the ground on a kick return. Chris Rainey fared a bit better with one twenty-five yard completion, but outside of that he had a mere 11 yards on 13 touches, and that includes a walk-in touchdown averted when Rainey couldn't keep his balance near the sideline (which would have given Florida a 14-3 lead). This duo carved up previous defenses, but 'Bama maintained leverage, pursued to them as a group, and stonewalled any interior running attempts, rendering all of their explosive ability as wholly irrelevant.
Offensively, Trent Richardson became the workhorse with a career-high twenty-nine carries, and as Nick Saban mentioned in his postgame press conference he became better and better as the night went on. Eddie Lacy saw little action before being given carries in mop-up duty and did nothing overly impressive in what little action he saw, but Richardson was the star player all night and powered the running game, working almost at will against an outstanding defensive front seven.
AJ McCarron had the performance that we have come to expect out of AJ McCarron. His final stat line is not impressive, and he missed at least two big throws downfield to wide receivers running free, but he kept the offense composed despite the crowd noise early, kept the 'Bama offense in the right play all evening, and made all of perhaps two bad decisions on twenty-five passing attempts. McCarron will probably have to be more productive to beat LSU, but a performance of that caliber was plenty enough to beat Penn State, Arkansas, and Florida, and with a relatively weak schedule on down the stretch outside of the Bayou Bengals, performances like he had last night should be more than sufficient if he can continue to protect the football.
And who is worried about the offensive line now? After three shaky-at-best performances to open the year, the Jones-Warmack-Vlachos-Steen-Fluker combination followed up a strong showing against Arkansas by largely dominating a very strong defensive line last night in Gainesville. 'Bama ran the ball with effectiveness whenever needed, and on twenty-five passing attempts AJ McCarron generally stayed upright and free of duress. The offensive line has gone from being a potential liability to a clear asset the past two weekends. Outside of LSU, no one else on the schedule will have a front seven in the same league as Florida.
The biggest offensive concern for 'Bama moving forward might be the clear lack of a reliable short passing game. With no real size on the outside, Alabama wide receivers struggled against the Gators to fight for positioning with Florida defensive backs and convert in situations where such a passing game is crucial. Aside from one extremely impressive third quarter catch by Marquis Maze, 'Bama had no real success in the short passing game except when the football went to either Brad Smelley or Michael Williams. That ultimately proved to be harmless last night in Gainesville, but against a team like LSU that shortcoming could prove fatal.
The absence of C.J. Mosley largely turned out to be harmless. Nico Johnson had his typical struggles against the pass, and Adrian Hubbard was caught in no-man's land once in zone coverage, but on the whole Johnson was stout against the run, Hubbard provided pressure off the edge, and Jerrell Harris had another strong game, and together they made the absence of Mosley almost a non-factor. Mosley will not have a month to get healthy, and his return could be key for the stretch run.
Florida had a potential opportunity to make for a competitive game down the stretch when the Alabama offense badly sputtered in the third quarter, opening the half with three consecutive three-and-outs, and narrowly averting a fourth thanks only to an impressive sideline catch by Marquis Maze. In particular, Mark Barron failed to re-direct a route deep in the Gators' own end, allowing a Florida receiver to run free up the seam, but Jeff Driskel missed the streaking receiver badly and shortly thereafter David Lerner trotted back onto the field for yet another punt. In all likelihood Driskel will be a star in this league someday, but he looked like a lost child against the Alabama defense, and the injury to John Brantley effectively ended any chances of Florida successfully mounting a comeback.
In other quick thoughts, Cody Mandell punted noticeably better after being slapped around by the Florida punt block team. Three straight passing attempts in the red zone to end the opening drive for 'Bama seemed like odd play selection. Alex Watkins looks fully recovered from his torn ACL. Kenny Bell is perhaps now the fourth wide receiver in the rotation. DeQuan Menzie lowering the boom on the Florida punt returner had the feel of retribution, even if unjustified in nature. How did a Florida linebacker think it was a good idea to go swinging a punch at a 6'7, 350 pound man wearing a helmet and pads? Nearly every player on the travel roster seemingly got into the game at some point.
All in all, another outstanding performance for Alabama and another dominating showing against the Gators. In the three meetings since Florida torpedoed the Tide's national championship hopes in 2008, 'Bama has outscored Florida 101-29 and has generally made mince meat of the Gators. Florida came into this game as the clear favorite in the SEC East, but a thumping at the hands of Alabama and a potentially serious injury to John Brantley could derail hopes of the Gators returning to Atlanta. Perhaps nothing is more indicative of Nick Saban's revitalization of the Alabama football program than its recent dominance of Florida.
For Alabama, the SEC is a top-heavy league with little quality depth, and after taking down both Arkansas and Florida the Crimson Tide now gets the luxury of facing the struggle middle and bottom tiers of the conference in the weeks ahead. The showdown against LSU in early November will probably feel like a Game of the Century, but in the next four weeks Alabama draws Vanderbilt at home, Ole Miss in Oxford, Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, and a bye week before the Bayou Bengals come to town. And on the back end of that, 'Bama gets Mississippi State, Georgia Southern, and Auburn, none of which looks to be a particularly strong team. In other words, outside of LSU, 'Bama probably does not have a team on the schedule that will get beyond 8-4, and several won't even get anywhere near that. Having dominated in back-to-back weeks against strong competition, 'Bama now moves into upset avoidance mode, trying to continue its winning ways while staying healthy in preparation for the showdown with LSU.