"I think that, in games like this, players really get excited. If they don't, they don't understand Alabama football, and they don't understand playing in the Southeastern Conference." - Coach Nick Saban
This is it. The time has come for trial by fire.
No longer can the Tide rest on its laurels, picking off undermanned opponents like shooting so many carp in a birdbath. A familiar foe looms on the horizon, a team that, at least for the last two-and-a-half decades, can claim a similar pedigree of championships and success. Despite their recent failings, the Florida Gators are still every bit as dangerous as the lurking swamp beast which serves as the team's mascot and namesake.
For Alabama, this will be no dip in a cool, refreshing lake. No, this will be a terrifying, waist-deep wade through the murky-dark of an SEC bayou with a vicious defense and an offense that one simply can't underestimate.
The gauntlet has been cast, the challenged offered in earnest. If this Alabama team is going to enter into the halls of greatness, where previous championship teams reside, this will be the week in which that campaign truly takes flight...or plummets to the ground on wax-feathered wings.
Alabama has, for the most part, been dominant against lesser opponents to start the 2014 campaign. However, that ends this Saturday when the Florida Gators march into Tuscaloosa to test the Tide's mettle. The Gators represent not only Bama's first challenge in terms of quality of athlete, but the squad that UF head coach Will Muschamp has assembled in Gainesville is a doppelganger of head coach Nick Saban's version of Alabama football. While the results have been decidedly different, Saban knows what to expect out of Muschamp and his cohorts...after all, Muschamp is the acolyte to Saban's master, the Vader to Saban's Sidious.
While Coach Boom (as Muschamp is known in some corners) may be more emotionally demonstrative on the sidelines, his scheme and modus operandi are not unlike Saban's vaunted Process. While Saban has used The Process to boost a program with the championship pedigree of Alabama, Muschamp has struggled to enjoy the same success in the Swamp. Blame it on injuries, blame it on the disparity between schemes and the talent left behind by former Gator coach Urban Meyer. But one cannot dispute that Muschamp's tenure in Gainesville has left something to be desired, even among the ever-dwindling group of his ardent supporters.
After a historically fruitless season for the Gators in 2013, when Florida went 4-8 and had an offense with a triple digit NCAA ranking, many have begun to call for the head of the man Gator Nation once lauded as their savior. Muschamp's ever-warming seat would be chilled like a polar vortex with a win over Alabama, and the wise among us would expect to get the Gators' best effort this Saturday.
Can Florida really beat Alabama? After all, since sand-blasting away the rust in the opener versus a talented West Virginia team, Alabama has looked like the dominant champion of previous years, if only with a slightly different cast of role players. But that wasn't Florida; that was Florida Atlantic. That wasn't Ole Miss, that was Southern Miss. Yes, Alabama looked great against weaker opponents, but then again, that's what we expected. While Florida may not have returned to past glory under Muschamp's tenure, like their slow-moving-but-explosive namesake, the Gators are as dangerous as ever.
Many questions will be answered this weekend, questions about the Tide's overall team, the offense and defense, and individuals in key positions. How will the players respond when they are challenged by Florida's athletes to give 100 percent effort? How will Alabama's still-young team deal with the physical, abusive type of football the Gators love to employ on both offense and defense? Time will tell, but we won't have to wait too long.
Let's take a closer look, shall we?
The Alabama offense versus the Florida defense
This, quite honestly, will be the battle upon which the outcome of the war will ultimately depend. The Gators' offensive travails have been well-documented, especially in 2013. But one must give the Gators the benefit of the doubt regarding last season, as their roster was gutted by injuries early and often. This season, despite the departure of a great deal of NFL talent, Florida will once again be loaded on the defensive side of the ball. In early action in 2014, the Gator defensive line has looked great, even though it's the Gator secondary that is oft believed the strongest unit on the squad. Nose tackle Darious Cummings is a beast in the middle, a powerful, large-framed defender who can fill rushing lanes and collapse the pocket. Joined in the Gators' base 3-4 by defensive ends Jonathan Bullard (Jr) and Leon Orr (rSr), the defensive line will offer Alabama's gelling offensive line its greatest test of the early season.
Thus far, Alabama's O line has been effective and efficient with only a few mental breakdowns of note along the way. But Alabama will not be able to physically overpower Florida the way it has bullied previous opponents in the trenches, as UF is one of the few programs, even in the SEC, with the defensive horses to take Alabama out of its game plan.
That said, Alabama's game plan through three games has been reliant on the short pass, giving new quarterback Blake Sims a chance to get comfortable while still exploiting soft seams in the underbelly of defenses expecting a run-first philosophy. That doesn't mean Alabama has abandoned the run, or that it will in this game. However, Florida opponents in 2014 have had a difficult time making hay in the ground game, as evidenced by the fact that Florida has averaged only 80.5 rushing yards allowed per game thus far. Granted, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky don't bring the stable of backs to the fight that Alabama can wield, but if Florida can limit the running game and find a way to contain the short-passing/ proxy-rushing attack Alabama has used this year, the Tide may be frustrated when trying to gain ground (and more importantly, points) against a fearsome Gator defense.
And that doesn't even bring the secondary into account. While Florida's safeties may be the defense's weak link (as mentioned here), there is no weak link at the corner position. One could argue that Gator corner Vernon Hargreaves III (more on Hargreaves here) is one of the nation's top three corners, as he brings a type of explosiveness, work ethic and football savvy that the Tide rarely sees in its opponents. To make matters worse, Hargreaves will likely be in the pocket of Tide's leading offensive weapon, WR Amari Cooper, all afternoon long. Cooper has been the workhorse of the Bama offense thus far, and if Hargreaves and his fellow DBs can stifle Cooper (or even contain him), Sims will be forced out of his comfort zone.
A word about Sims. Much has been said about his fitness as a quarterback after his unlikely rise to the starting position. However, despite my own misgivings, I've seen little to convince me that Alabama can't win with Sims. Sure, eventually a team will stifle the run and short passing game, and Sims will be forced to win through the air. But the same could have been said about former Tide championship quarterback Greg McElroy, truthfully. And Sims has the added element of fleet feet, something that should be refreshing for an offense that has traditionally used the QB position as an immobile turret from which the field general manages the game.
Sims gives Alabama a good chance of winning any game on the schedule, so long as he plays within himself and has a healthy supporting cast around him. He will be called upon to win a game for Bama, maybe in Death Valley, maybe in Oxford, or maybe this weekend against the Gators, in front of the home crowd at BDS. While Sims may not be able to throw the long ball with ease and accuracy, it's up to the coaching staff and his surrounding players to give him chances to be successful while playing to his strengths, which are many.
However, this weekend may not be the best one to test Sims' prowess with the passing game. If OC Lane Kiffin is smart, and I believe him smarter than most give him credit for being, he will continue to do what has worked for Bama thus far. He will let Sims be Sims, and put him in a position, from a playbook perspective, to be successful. That means no deep routes, no long crossing routes over the middle, plenty of play-action roll outs, and the continued emphasis on the short passes/ screens. If Bama can continue to execute that brand of efficient offense against Florida, then the prospects for the development of this unit are good, and the ceiling is higher than many expected with Sims under center.
The Alabama defense versus the Florida offense
The 2013 campaign was a comedy of errors for the Gators, as things honestly could not have gotten any worse. They lost to Georgia Southern, people...Georgia Southern. Even the best defense in the land needs some offensive production if the team is to be successful, and last season, the Gator defense was left on a bit of an island in that regard. To say the Gator offense last season was putrid is an exercise in understatement. Florida had the 112th ranked offense in the nation despite fielding a defense that finished in the top 10 of every major defensive category. Defense wins championships, but offense gets you to the game. Last year, Florida's 4-8 record disqualified the Gators from visiting a bowl for the first time since 1990.
Hope springs anew for the Gator offense in 2014...kind of. Muschamp unceremoniously dispatched previous offensive coordinator Brent Pease and hired Duke's Kurt Roper to take the helm as the Gators third OC in as many years. It was a good move, and one Muschamp had to make. Roper is a good hire, as he was part of building a Duke team that was surprisingly successful in 2013, a team that took the vaunted Texas A&M Aggies to the wire in their bowl game. (To read more about what Roper is doing with Florida's offense and Driskell, click here.)
However, the greatest OC in the world can only do so much without players that fit his system. Roper uses some spread concepts but his scheme features the pro-style quest for balance between the rushing and passing games. The Gators have their rushing issues handled, with a duo of backs that could start at many school across the country. Thus far in 2014, running backs Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor have shown why they are so highly regarded, averaging 6 ypc and 5.7 ypc, respectively, with four touchdowns between them. They are running behind a veteran line that has looked rough at times early on, and will be without starting left tackle D.J. Humphries for this week's game against Alabama.
That does not bode well for the Gators' chances in the passing game, as third-year quarterback Jeff Driskell still hasn't proven that he can win the big games or execute the offensive game plan on a level the likes of which will be needed to beat Alabama. Originally recruited for Meyer's spread option, Driskell has the size and strength that one would think would project well in the position. However, his results have been less than exemplary overall, as he's shown a propensity for bad decisions and turnovers. His development as a quarterback has been stifled by injury and the revolving door at offensive coordinator.
If that trend continues, the Alabama secondary could finally see the levy break in regard to the dearth of turnovers caused this year. Through three games, the Tide defense has an uncharacteristically low one turnover, which has given the Tide one of the lowest turnover ratios in the SEC. Saban put an emphasis on creating turnovers in his appearances this week, and you can believe that the Tide secondary will be ball-hawking against an already shaky Florida offense.
UF's offensive stats are respectable...after all, they put up 532 total yards of offense against Kentucky. However, one must remember, that midway through the third quarter, the game was tied at 6 a piece. Not exactly what one would consider explosive offense, to say the least. Make no mistake, this Gator offense is still a work in progress, and they will have a difficult mountain to climb if they hope to rip Bama's defense. A win is not unattainable, by any stretch. But the Gators definitely have their work cut out for them.
The one ray of sunshine for the Gator offense, outside of the running game, has been the 2014 emergence of wide receiver Demarcus Robinson as a play-maker for the Gators. Last year's chief offensive playmaker, Solomon Patton, graduated after the 2013 season, but Robinson offers an upgrade at the position. The Tide will be forced to bottle him up, in much the same way that the Gators will call upon Hargreaves to lock down on Cooper. However, the Tide doesn't have a lock-down option at corner just yet, though there is promise. Eddie Jackson looked good in his first action of the season, though one would expect that his reps will be somewhat limited as he recovers from spring knee surgery. Saban made a point to mention that true freshman CB phenom will see extensive playing time this week, which is encouraging. Brown was touted as the Tide's possible messiah in the secondary, and his early enrollment and work ethic have allowed him to ascend the Saban-verboten depth chart rapidly. The Florida game could be Brown's coming out party, as Driskell is not known for his passing accuracy, and the Gators will be forced to throw the ball enough to keep Bama's defense honest versus the run.
Finally, Alabama's defensive line is still a work in progress, despite the declarations in the pre-season that this is Saban's best D line unit at Alabama. And while the line looks quicker and more powerful, the results are still up for debate. The future looks promising, however, as the still-young defense overall continues to develop. In the Tide's most recent game against USM, Saban said the defense tallied about a dozen quarterback knock-downs, and a dozen quarterback hurries. They've punished the offensive lines they've faced, but then again, there have been times when opposing quarterbacks operating behind inferior offensive lines were able to stay in the pocket and complete passes.
Alabama simply must get pressure on Driskell, as once flustered, he can be forced into additional mistakes. However, if Driskell's jersey stays clean and he is allowed time to operate and go through his progressions, he is far more effective as a passer than his numbers would lead one to believe. If Driskell gets into a groove and begins to make plays through the air, Bama will be forced to commit assets to the passing game, creating additional opportunities for the Gators' potent rushing attack.
This intangible is a bit of a tangible, truthfully. Bama's defense will likely be able to keep the balanced Gator offense in check, and the Gator D will give Alabama's offense fits. A closely-contested, defensive football game would likely make both Saban and Muschamp as giddy as school-girls. But a closely contested game will also put an emphasis on special teams, and in particular, the kicking game.
Bama fans have been pleasantly surprised this year by the effectiveness of Bama's special teams, as players at the skill positions have proven their worth early and often. Placekicker Adam Griffith has been automatic, his kicks cleaving the uprights symmetrically every time he's been called upon. Griffith has displayed amazing power and control, and if his early play is any indication, he will be another in a long line of kicking greats at Alabama.
Griffith could also be Bama's ace-in-the-hole if this Saturday's game evolves into a purely defensive battle. If he continues to be as accurate as he's been in the early going, Alabama can be more confident that it has been for years when the time comes to kick.
The picture is less clear for the Gators, who have a bit of turnover at the position after a rough 2013. Former Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy was replaced by Johnny Townsend at punter, and the collective of Florida placekickers managed only 12 successful kicks in 22 attempts. Sophomore Austin Hardin is the likely best option for the Gators at PK, but even he was only 4-for-12 last season. If a close contest comes down to the Gator kicking game, Bama has a decided advantage.
Another pleasant surprise has been the punting of newcomer J.K. Scott, a lanky kid with a mortar of a leg. In a defensive stalemate, Saban's ability to dictate and control field position with Scott's kicking prowess could be the debilitating straw that break the Gators' backs. Nothing I've seen of the Gator offense convinces me that Driskell and Company will be able to successfully put together numerous 80- and 90-yard scoring drives, so Scott's ability to flip the field and pin the Gators deep in their own territory time after time could be huge in the tone and momentum of the game.
True, the Gators are a formidable opponent stocked with SEC players and a talented, veteran defense. Make no mistake, Alabama will be tested mightily, if at no other time than when the Bama offense toes up with Florida's D. This is a game Alabama should win, as the Tide has the more adept offense and a defense that is as good, or better, than the all-star unit Florida brings to the game. And don't underestimate that rowdy BDS crowd, as the stadium will assuredly be full for this SEC opener against a traditional foe.
But that said, the season is still young. We haven't seen Sims and the Bama offense in the crucible of adversity. And while this year's Gators squad may seem to be the same song, different verse, as Saban admonished members of the media this week, Florida has the potential to be a much better team than most observers think. None of us really know what Florida can accomplish when they put their very talented pieces together.
Let's hope we don't find that out this weekend. As always...hope for the best.