Well, it’s SEC Championship time. After a couple of epic matchups in 2008 and 2009, the two teams met in Atlanta again in 2015 and 2016 without quite as much at stake. This year is kind of in-between. A week ago, this was coming down possibly the two best offenses in the nation for a spot in the playoffs (and the loser likely to still be in the playoffs). Instead, some shoe-throwing shenanigans and a 57-yard field goal saw the Gators lose improbably to LSU last week, and the narrative has shifted from a clash of Titans to something a little less meaningful.
In any case, this game likely decides who wins the Heisman trophy: Kyle Trask, Mac Jones, or DeVonta Smith.
To prepare us for what the enemy is thinking, I talked with Chris Adams at Alligator Army about this Gator team. You can also head over there to check out what I said about Alabama.
1) Let’s get the elephant out of the room: Was the LSU game just a sheer fluke that nobody saw coming, or was it something that exposed some warts that more astute fans have been seeing all season? And whichever is the case, is a single week enough time for the coaches to get that fixed?
Maybe this is a bit of a cop out, but it’s a little bit of both. Last Saturday was both an uncharacteristically good performance from LSU and poor performance from Florida. There was little that indicated that Kyle Trask would turn the football over three times, nor would anyone have predicted LSU’s defense to play so well in the red zone. With that being said, there were some warning signs.
Since beating Georgia in early November, there’s been a real sense of complacency at times. Especially in the past couple games, it’s felt like more of a chore, just a speed hump along the way to the conference title game. At times, Florida’s played like they’d already won the game, and that lack of intensity really hurt against LSU.
I don’t expect these to really be a problem against Alabama. Especially now that the College Football Playoff is all but out of the equation, this is it for Florida, so I expect Dan Mullen and his team to give the Tide everything they’ve got. Obviously there’s still issues with this team, but I don’t expect to see the same type of listless football that led to defeat against the Tigers.
2) While studying up to write a preview on the Gator offense, I found that your new OC, Brian Johnson, was the very same guy that beat Alabama as the Utah QB right after the Tide lost to Tim Tebow and crew. It all comes full circle. His offensive scheme seems to be much more similar to the air raid than it is to the typical power-spread we’ve seen from Mullen in the Tebow years and at Miss State. How have you guys felt about his scheme so far this year, and how quickly do you think he’s going to become the next “shiny up-and-coming young head coach?”
Both Johnson and Mullen have done a good job of tailoring their scheme to their players. Kyle Trask is a pure pocket passer with obvious limitations as a runner, so they’ve done a good job crafting an offense that allows him to distribute the football to a wealth of playmakers. It’s not a complete detachment from a traditional Dan Mullen offense, especially when backup quarterback Emory Jones gets to run his package of plays, but the core element is pass heavy, and that has worked well this season.
I do not expect Johnson to be at Florida much longer. I don’t know if he’ll be a head coach next year or the year after, but with the success he’s had coaching Kyle Trask the past three seasons and the way Florida’s offense has clicked this year, he absolutely deserves to be considered amongst the brightest young coaches in football.
3) Your three running backs, Pierce, Davis, and Wright, all seem to be more dangerous as receiving threats than running threats. Obviously, a lot of that is scheme-based, but are they all pretty interchangeable, or do they each serve different roles with different talents?
I’d say they’re all pretty interchangeable. They all have a similar skill set with good speed and shiftiness to compliment their solid receiving chops. The rotation is less of a systematic decision and more a lack of a lead back. Nobody has asserted themselves as a must-start playmaker, though nobody has played overwhelmingly poor either.
Davis had 81 yards on just seven carries last week, so maybe there’s a chance he can solidify a solid running game on Saturday, but given how streaky all the running backs have been, we’ll still see a heavy rotation of backs.
4) How does one go about stopping Kyle Pitts? Asking for a friend.
I don’t know if anyone at this level can. When Pitts is healthy, he makes this team borderline unstoppable. He is just an unbelievable football player who takes this team to another level. His combination of size, speed, and ball skills make him near unrecoverable one on one, but with Florida’s cavalcade of other playmakers, it’s a big risk to commit two or more men to him.
It’s a real shame he didn’t play last week, his game breaking ability would’ve been very useful especially in the red zone, but hopefully he’ll be fresh and ready to give Bama’s secondary headaches.
5) Tell us a bit about your defensive scheme. Nose tackle Zachary Carter actually leads the team in sacks... But how does the team go about trying to rush the passer?
This defense has been less than stellar for much of 2020. They’ve had moments, but overall it has not been good. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham loves to get after the quarterback with exotic pressures, and it has worked to varying degrees of success. There’ve been times where the blitzes take too long to develop leaving a less-than-elite secondary exposed. If Florida had played better quarterbacks this season, their already suspect defensive record would be even worse.
To be fair, they’ve actually been pretty good at generating pressure for much of the season. Outside linebacker/defensive end Brenton Cox Jr. has shown flashes of elite pass rushing ability and can be a serious problem for opposing offensive lines. They’ve also gotten solid production when they blitz linebackers, with Ventrell Miller and Khris Bogle both registering over three sacks. If Florida has any chance of stopping Alabama, they need their blitzes and front three to get home more consistently.
6) As a follow up, what’s the weakest unit on your defense that Alabama can try to exploit?
With all due respect to Kaiir Elam who’s had a pretty good season, the secondary is the weakest part of this team. Marco Wilson has been poor for much of the season as have most of the safeties. When Grantham is dialing up overly exotic blitzes the defensive backs can easily get exploited in one v. one situations and they’ve also shown a propensity to get beat on play action.
I am very worried for Saturday, with Alabama’s endless droves of playmakers combined with solid quarterback play, and especially their ability on play action and with the deep ball, it seems as though the Tide’s biggest strengths are Florida’s biggest weaknesses, which isn’t exactly great.
7) Give me one non-household name on offense and on defense who’s going to make a big play.
The Gators have a pair of receivers outside of Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney who’ve proven to be lethal weapons in their own right; Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland. Grimes is probably the better of the two with eight touchdowns and over 500 yards in his senior season while Copeland has slipped under the radar with 429 yards and 4 touchdowns. Grimes has been excellent in the red zone with his size and physicality while Copeland provides a true vertical threat to an offense. If the Gators want to keep up with the high flying Alabama offense, they need their complimentary receivers to play a big role.
A defensive name to look out for is Mohamoud Diabate. The sophomore linebacker is still young and can make the occasional mistake, but his defensive playmaking and tackling, including a season high 11 total tackles last week, have been a welcome sign in a troubled defensive unit.
Tedarrell Slaton is another underrated performer for Florida’s defense. Slaton is a massive presence on the defensive line and his combination of size and strength inside are a big asset to this defense.
8) If you haven’t already talked about them in a previous question, are there any true freshmen who have looked like they have the makings of a future superstar?
There aren’t too many true freshmen making an impact for this team as this is a veteran team but there are some who deserve a shout. Receiver Xzavier Henderson, younger brother of former Gator and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback C.J. Henderson, has shown glimpses of a bright future even if his output thus far is underwhelming. He only has eight grabs for 136 yards and has made some mistakes when given the chance to play, but he’s the closest thing to a breakout freshman.
Defensive tackle Gervon Dexter deserves a shout as well. He certainly looks the part of an elite interior lineman with an enormous 6’6” frame, but outside of a few big plays against Ole Miss in the season opener, he’s largely been a non-factor this season, though his future is bright.
9) What’s your prediction for this game?
Florida will be motivated for this one and is talented enough to hang around at least for a while. Kyle Trask and company will put up some points and keep the game close for a while, but eventually Florida’s shortcomings and Alabama’s clear quality advantage will take hold. It should be a fun one, but Alabama will edge out the Gators in a shootout 52-38.