So it was in the beginning, so shall it be once again.
Despite the long odds one would have given at the beginning of the season that the two teams involved in the SEC's inaugural Championship Game would meet once again in the 2015 edition of the play-off play-in, here we sit...awaiting the meeting of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators this Saturday.
The storylines in this game are myriad: the aforementioned history between the two SEC blue-bloods in previous championship games, the number of national championships won by the pair in the last 15 years, the coaching match-up that pits Alabama Nick Saban against former Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain...the game offers plenty of angles of interest from which to choose. In addition to those tangential plots, there's the real-world gridiron match-up of what could be two of the best defenses in college football, with both teams occupying the top 10 in almost every major defensive category.
However, despite the defensive firepower found on both rosters, it could be the offenses that spell out the story of the 2015 SEC Championship Game. In that regard, the two squads couldn't be much more different, at least in terms of their trending directions.
When McElwain took the job at Florida, many believed that he would remedy the problems on the offensive side of the ball that plagued former coach Will Muschamp. For several years, the Gator offense has been one-dimensional and lackluster, and despite the stellar defense, the Gators were not an offensive team opponents feared.
Given time, McElwain will surely right the offensive ship, and he began doing just that earlier in the season before the suspension of starting quarterback Will Grier in an act of NCAA injustice. McElwain was stuck with quarterback Treon Harris, who has struggled for much of the year in doing the things that he has been asked to do. As a result, Gator running back Kelvin Taylor has taken a pounding between the tackles, and the Florida attack has been somewhat one-dimensional (or no-dimensional, as was seen against Florida State last week).
On the other hand, the Alabama offense has continued to gain momentum as the season has culminated. In the opening stanza, Alabama struggled to find the answer at quarterback before Jake Coker use a trial-by-fire performance against Ole Miss to turn the tide in his favor. Since then, the Tide passing attack has developed incrementally, and Alabama has found its next Julio Jones-Amari Cooper receiving phenom in freshman Calvin Ridley.
And then there's Derrick Henry, the Tide's Heisman trophy front-runner who has morphed into a defense-crashing, rumbling, stumbling Juggernaut who outweighs all but nine (two of whom play for Alabama) SEC linebackers and has the break-away speed to leave defensive backs in his dust. Henry has always been a special talent, but what "El Tractorcito" has accomplished in 2015 (especially against SEC competition) is the stuff of legend. Henry is less than 100 yards from eclipsing Herschel Walker's single-season SEC rushing record, and he already has taken hold of most of Alabama's rushing records with at least two games left to play in the 2015 season.
As previously mentioned, the defenses are both outstanding and will give fits to their respective opponents. But in this game, it will be the success of each offense that will likely determine the outcome. Can Florida find a way to muster the kind of offensive consistency needed to move the ball against the daunting Alabama defense? Can Alabama have the same type of success on the ground it has had against lesser defenses like LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn? Can the Gators force the Tide to be one-dimensional with a loaded secondary? Will Alabama be so stingy in run defense that Harris has no choice but to take chances through the air against the Tide's opportunistic defensive backs?
We'll know more Saturday evening. In the meantime, let's take a closer look...
The Alabama offense versus the Florida defense
When it comes to what one can expect from the Alabama offense against Florida, it is a well-worn script, indeed. There are no surprises up the sleeve of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in regard to the Alabama attack. It is blunt, it is brutal, it is simple. Alabama will line up behind a behemoth line that has continued to gel and progress, and they will allow Henry to do what he does best: run over, through and around anything that has the misfortune of getting in his way.
Florida has the one defense that could, in fact, offer some resistance to the Force-choke grip the Tide seems to hold over their opponents. Firstly, the Gators have the most loaded defensive roster outside of Tuscaloosa, with future NFL Draft picks on the defensive line, linebacking corps and secondary. Where most teams simply cannot match talent with the Crimson Tide, when it comes to the Florida Gators overall roster, there is little if any talent disparity. The Gators have been excellent against the run on the whole, coming into the game with the nation's seventh best rushing defense, allowing 111.25 yards per game.
However, one must bear in mind that in the last three SEC games, Henry has broken the 200 yard mark three times. Something else to consider is that against some of the nation's elite backs (specifically LSU's Leonard Fournette and FSU's Dalvin Cook), the Gator defense struggled. Part of those struggles relate to the fact that the Florida offense is so inept that the Gator defense spends a great deal of time on the field, thus creating a depth issue. Still, both backs put up in excess of 180 yards, and if Fournette and Cook could do it, there's no reason to believe Henry can't have very similar success.
That said, the Gator defense isn't all about talent, but rather the confusing scheme that defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has installed in Florida since moving over from Mississippi State. Collins is a great defensive mind who always fielded good defenses in Starkville. But with Florida's fully-stocked cabinet of defensive talent, Collins' scheme has blossomed into full-fruition. The priority for the Gator defense is taking away the run and creating pressure with unique drops and blitzes that confuse quarterbacks, while the secondary simply smothers opposing receivers. There are equal parts aggression and subterfuge involved in Collins' defense, and though Coker has come a long way in 2015, he will have a difficult time navigating the field against a defense loaded with blind blitzes and soft zone robbers. His vision and decision-making, along with his accuracy and velocity, will have to be superb if he's going to find a way to throw against the Florida defense.
As god as the Alabama rush has been, there is no doubt that, at some point, the Tide offense will need to loosen the lanes and create some semblance of balance by tossing the ball around. Ridley has the elite skills to match up against the Gator defensive backs, and Richard Mullaney has proven that he is at home battling against the best in the business in the middle. ArDarius Stewart is also coming into his own with circus-like catches and the consistency that has been his primary short-coming all season long. Those receivers will work their way open at times, as Collins' drop zone schemes allow for receivers to find the seams between zones for short gains occasionally. However, on the long haul, it will be a tough row to hoe for the Tide passing attack against this Florida secondary.
The worst thing that could happen to the Tide passing attack would be early turnovers. And make no mistake, the Gator defensive backs are given free reign by Collins to jump routes and create those turnovers, and with the knowledge that their offense will likely struggle, the Florida defense will be looking for non-offensive ways to create scoring opportunities. The starting corners, Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor, have four picks a piece in 2015, and the Gators on the whole have proven adept in creating interceptions (14 thus far, good for 24th nationally).
Alabama's best bet will be to take advantage of short, safe passes early to keep the Gator defenders honest against the run. Given the aggressive nature of the Florida front seven, there will be opportunities to take advantage of their pursuit with Kiffin's magic hat full of screens, catching the Gators out of position and ill-positioned to make a play. While Alabama hasn't used conventional screens as much in 2015 as it did in previous years, it is still a weapon that can be lethally deployed when defenses push upfield in the pass rush or run defense.
Coker will need to be careful when he is given the license to throw the ball down the field. His decision-making must be precise, from pre-snap reads to RPO selections to execution, and any wavering in any regard could lead to stagnation (or worse) against a talented defense.
On the topic of Coker, some observers have postulated that the signal-caller has a phantom injury to his throwing shoulder, as he has taken a good bit of physical contact in the last three SEC games, particularly when he calls his own number and scrambles. There were savage blows against LSU and Mississippi State that could have done the damage, and for what it's worth, Coker didn't seem to have the usual zip on the ball against Auburn that Tide fans have become accustomed to seeing. Considering that nearly every Tide quarterback of the Saban Era has played with a secret injury that was later revealed only in the post-season, it wouldn't be surprising to find out in a month or so that Coker is playing injured at this point of a long season.
That lack of velocity wasn't an issue against an Auburn secondary that has not been particularly effective this season. But against Hargreaves, Tabor and nickel Brian Poole, it will most definitely be an issue. Coker won't be able to take chances if he can't zip the ball, because the ball-hawking corners and safeties are aggressive and the scheme allows them excel in creating takeaways.
In summation, expect Alabama to try safe passes early to test the waters, along with a steady diet of Henry. As has been the case against good defenses, the ground game may not pay huge dividends early, but as the defense wears down, Henry's level of success will increase. When the running game begins to flow, the play-action opportunities will open up, and Coker will begin to see the seams between the loose zones.
Alabama's primary vector for victory will be through the ground game, as Henry must have in excess of 125 yards for Alabama to achieve its goals on offense. If the running game struggles, the offense will struggle. The Tide, quite simply, will have a hard time making game-breaking pass plays against this defense, and if the Gators can force turnovers, the defense could provide the offense that the Gators will need to win the game.
The Alabama defense against the Florida offense
The Florida offense has been a mess for much of the season, especially after the suspension of Grier following the Gators victory over Tennessee. Treon Harris has struggled, to say the least, and though he does have a degree of mobility, Florida hopes that his dual-threat nature will give the Alabama defense trouble are snuffed with the mention of Dak Prescott's stats from MSU's meeting with Bama three weeks ago.
The good news for the Gators is that they will get top receiver DeMarcus Robinson back for the championship game, and if the Gators have any hope of moving the ball offensively against an impregnable Alabama defense, they will need every weapon in their arsenal. Robinson and Z receiver Antonio Callaway are both quality targets who could give Alabama's secondary fits...if, in fact, Harris can get them the ball consistently.
Alabama should be familiar with the offensive minds at work for the Gators, as both McElwain and Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier were once members of the Tide coaching staff. Both coaches have excellent organizational skills, and both have innovative offensive minds. With an undermanned offensive unit, Florida has used a lot of one-read simple pass plays that keep Harris (with his limited skills) confident and playing within his skill set. Much like the Alabama passing game, the Florida offense has few vertical concepts, and focuses instead on screens and short passes over the middle to Robinson and Callaway to move the ball.
Because of Harris' limitations, and to augment his scrambling ability, the Gators will line up in a shotgun look a great deal of the time, something that also works to the Gators' favor in the running game. Handing off to Taylor from the shotgun gives him a few extra steps to slither and slide between the tackles, as the tailback, though somewhat physical, is not known as a pure banger. Nussmeier will run draws and screens to keep defenders honest, just as he did in his time at Alabama. Because the Gator offensive line is a patchwork mélange this season, they don't do a great deal of zone running at Florida (though as McElwain develops line talent, such a strategy will definitely come into play.)
Another thing one can expect is to see from Florida is a lot of package plays, a description which would stand true for the bulk of SEC offenses in this day and age. But McElwain was into package plays before package plays were cool, as he loves to create versatile situations in which he can get the ball in the hands of his playmakers on offense, whether it is Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Kelvin Taylor or DeMarcus Robinson getting the rock. The Gators use a simplified one-read scheme that gives players a read-and-react responsibility, combining several concepts within a single play call and giving the quarterback a chance to make the read on which play to run.
For some defenses, this kind of unpredictability is problematic, just as it is designed to be. But Alabama has dealt with these types of offenses before, some of which had far more offensive talent than the Gators will field Saturday. After years of battling HUNH offenses, Saban has developed a defensive unit that can adapt to almost anything with brutal efficiency, and unless Florida plans on reinventing the football wheel this Saturday, they won't throw anything at Alabama that the Tide hasn't seen at least once this season.
This offense will go as Harris goes, and there's little reason to believe that (short of some Stephen Garcia Redux) he will be able to give Alabama much trouble on the ground or in the air. The Alabama defensive line is the nastiest unit in college football, hands down. Kelvin Taylor is a quality back when his line can create gaps, as he is shifty with a little power, and he likes to slash and slide his way to the second level. However, no team this season has been able to run the ball effectively against Alabama's top-ranked run defense (allowing only 78.92 yards per game on the ground), and there's no reason to think that a fair-to-middlin' Gator ground game will pound the Tide front seven into submission.
There's also little reason to believe that Harris will be able to effectively move the ball at all on the Alabama defense. Between the buzz-saw pass rush and the aggressive opportunism of the Bama defensive backs, Harris will have as difficult a time as Coker in attacking the opposing defense through the air. Without a downfield threat, or the dominating presence of a back like Henry, Florida will have a hard time keeping Bama from teeing off with reckless abandon in the pass rush.
It's difficult to conjure a scenario in which the Florida's offense will find much room to roam against Alabama's defense. The match-up will pit the Gators' weakest link against the Tide's ultimate strength. If Florida's offense found the prospect of Florida State's defense stifling (FSU's defense shut out the Gators, the only Florida score coming on a safety), then they have little hope of doing anything productive against Alabama's "Great Wall of Hell Naw."
Again, the Gators and Tide find themselves on opposite ends of the trend line when it comes to the kicking game. Adam Griffith has regained the confidence of Tide followers with a strong performance in the last two-thirds of the season, including his 5-for-5 outing against hated rival Auburn. Florida's kicking game has been so rancid that the Gators held open try-outs for the student body to find someone, anyone, who could consistently put the ball through the uprights. Between Austin Hardin and Neil "The Dentist" McInnes, the Gator kicking game leaves a lot to be desired. If the game turns into a defensive battle as some expect, that Bama edge in the kicking game could be critical.
Alabama's Cyrus Jones has emerged as an explosive return man late in the season, though there are still breakdowns at times in the return game. Kick coverage has been good for both Alabama and Florida on the whole, and the Gators have shifty, athletic Antonio Callaway bringing back punts. Alabama will need to stay disciplined in coverage to hold Callaway in check, as again, with a struggling offense, the Gators will depend on an opportunistic defense and special teams to put points on the board and create pressure points for the Tide.
There are some intangibles at work here, with the 5,000 pound elephant in the room being the imminent departure of long-time defensive coordinator Kirby Smart for the position he has long coveted as head coach of Georgia. It's a done deal by all accounts, though no announcements will be made until after the SEC Championship Game.
On a more morale-related note, there are rumors that Smart pal Scott Cochran will join the defensive genius in Athens. Such would be a blow to the heart and soul of the Crimson Tide, as Cochran has become the face (and voice) of the program for players when they can have no other contact with coaches. While both men will be missed, Cochran's departure, if it happens, will leave a vacuum in Tuscaloosa. Not that Smart will be easy to replace, but Alabama likely already has the man on staff that Saban wants as defensive coordinator in secondary coach Mel Tucker. There simply is no replacing Cochran, as he is one of a kind.
How will Alabama's players react in real-time to these developments? The attention this week from a media and fan perspective has been squarely upon the Smart-Cochran situation. It's almost as if the SEC Championship Game is an afterthought in some circles. Can the players retain their focus and slough off the coaching search talk? One won't know until the players take the field, as it's difficult to predict how 18-22 year old men will react under such circumstances.
While the two teams possess rigid defenses, it is likely the offensive side of the ball where the game will be won or lost. If Alabama can play its usual style of grinding, methodical, error-free football, then there is little reason to think the Tide won't win going away. If the Gators can parlay the return game and a few well-placed turnovers into points, then the odds will be much more even. Expect a white-knuckled first half, with the above-mentioned factors telling the tale as the Tide pulls away in the final stanza.
This is not a given win for the Crimson Tide, regardless of how inept the Gator offense has looked. McElwain is an excellent coach and motivator, and with a defense to hold the rope, it's possible this game could be much closer than many expect. The Gators have had something of a miracle season to date, and there's a chance that they could defy the odds and pull the SEC Championship's biggest historical upset.
Alabama and Florida are in the SEC Championship Game again, and all is right with the world. Hope for the best...