By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Sept. 27, 2011
It’s been nearly 30 years since Florida was “normal.”
Somewhere back in the mid-1980s, Florida ran a standard offense and standard defense. There was no cult of personality surrounding its head coach. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Florida wasn’t a significant blip on the college football radar screen.
Then came Steve Spurrier and his “Fun ‘N’ Gun” passing spread attack, the first of its kind in major college football. Then came Ron Zook, who in addition to his somewhat high-profile goofiness as Gator coach, brought in Larry Fedora as offensive coordinator. Fedora was among the first to employ the full spread offense seen today at most large schools. Once Zook left, Florida, of course, hired spread-option guru Urban Meyer.
Now, Will Muschamp is the Gators’ head coach, and with his hiring, Florida finds itself being reintroduced to a standard pro set attack. Florida has seemed to take to the reprogramming well this year, opening with wins over Tennessee and Kentucky in SEC play. But neither of those teams is expected to make much of an impact in the SEC East, and Alabama will represent Florida’s sternest test yet by a wide margin.
It will take Muschamp a couple of years to fully transition Florida from a spread-option team to a pro set team in personnel terms. The Gators’ current running backs are not ideally suited to running his offense. But Florida is on much firmer ground than it was when the 2010 season closed.
Alabama’s offense is rooted in the pro set, but if you want to know the philosophy, think New England Patriots rather than a traditional pro-I. Alabama’s production is based on balance, despite having a running back stable to die for. Alabama is slightly outpacing Florida at the moment, given the level of competition the two teams have faced. Alabama ranks 19th in rushing offense and 64th in passing offense. Scoring offense ranks 21st and total offense 26th. Florida is right there with the numbers, but the Gators haven’t played a defense as good as either Penn State’s or Arkansas’.
Florida ranks 10th in rushing offense, 79th in passing offense, 15th in scoring offense and 22nd in total offense. Florida uses a fullback more often than Alabama, which uses its fullback primarily in goal-line work only, but it’s still not a traditional fullback when Florida uses one. Both teams will use three receivers as often as not.
It’s rare for a new starter in his first road start to be more highly thought of than a second-year senior starter playing at home, but that’s what you have here. Florida’s John Brantley and Alabama’s A.J. McCarron have almost identical stats, and both are tall quarterbacks with average-on-their-best-day mobility and good arms. But that’s where the similarities end. Brantley’s confidence was in near-collapse in 2010 following a season in which he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9) and perhaps will be most remembered for bobbled snaps. He’s doing better in 2011 (55-for-86, 64.0%, 752 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT), but against four poor secondaries. His backup is a true freshman, Jeff Driskel, who will be a star in the league someday. Driskel won’t play unless this game gets out of hand or Brantley gets hurt.
Alabama’s McCarron is 63-of-95 (66.3%) for 779 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s looked comfortable, for the most part, while facing two good defensive backfields (Penn State, Arkansas) and one that was borderline respectable (North Texas). Backup Phillip Sims has about three times the numbers Driskel does, as well as about 18 months more experience in the college game. Advantage: Alabama
One of the hallmarks of the spread-option offense is small running backs with a lot of speed. Florida did a fantastic job recruiting that type of running back to Gainesville during Meyer’s tenure. But the Gators no longer run the spread-option, and small running backs in a pro set usually aren’t a good fit. Chris Rainey is trying hard to break the stereotype, and he’s off to a good start, running for 411 yards on 63 carries (6.5 avg.). Rainey has just 2 touchdowns, though. Jeff Demps originally had decided to skip 2011 to concentrate on track, but he’s back, and brings 4 touchdowns and 320 yards on 34 carries (9.4 avg.) to the table. That’s a good 1-2 combination, and Mike Gillislee (22 carries, 182 yards, 8.3 avg., 2 TD) and Mack Brown (12 carries, 42 yards, 3.8 avg.) fill out the depth chart.
Florida uses Trey Burton (16 carries, 82 yards, 5.1 avg., 3 TD) as a fullback and sometimes as an H-back, but he’s built oddly and doesn’t run with good pad level. He was a quarterback in high school and still looks like one now, but he’s a good athlete and Alabama will have to account for him.
The Crimson Tide responds with Trent Richardson (67 carries, 441 yards, 6.6 avg., 8 TD) and Eddie Lacy (41 carries, 365 yards, 8.9 avg., 4 TD) as its primary players, with Jalston Fowler (11 carries, 100 yards, 9.1 avg., 1 TD) as the third-team running back and short-yardage fullback. Blake Sims adds depth. Alabama’s duo gets its yardage in a much different way than Rainey and Demps do for Florida, and while the statistics are similar, give the edge to Alabama based if nothing else, on pure fit for the offensive scheme. Advantage: Alabama
Surprisingly, given the speed of high school players in Florida and the offensive reputation of the Gator program, this is a team without great wideouts. The leading receiver is Rainey, who has caught 11 passes for 214 yards (19.5 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. The other two receiving touchdowns were thrown to the fullback Burton and to a reserve tight end. Deonte Thompson is the leading wideout in terms of catches, and he has only 7. Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond are the other two starters, and they’ve combined for 10 passes between them. Gerald Christian, the reserve tight end with the lone non-running-back touchdown catch, may start this week if regular starter Jordan Reed can’t go. Reed is nursing a hamstring injury. Andre Debose and Solomon Patton provide depth at wideout, but neither player has made much of an impact yet, a surprise especially in Debose’s case.
Alabama counters with Marquis Maze, who has already caught 20 passes for 226 yards (11.3 avg.) and 1 touchdown, along with Darius Hanks, who is playing just his third game of the year. He is already just one catch short of either Dunbar or Hammond for Florida. Kenny Bell, Brandon Gibson, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White provide depth. Like Florida, Alabama uses its running backs in the passing game often. Tight ends Michael Williams and Brad Smelley are both having strong seasons, and Chris Underwood is a quality backup to both slots. Brandon Lewis will play in short-yardage situations. This is somewhat of a surprise given Florida’s history, but Alabama takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Neither team has put together a flawless unit, but Florida deserves kudos for making a workable group out of less talented parts. Alabama’s starting group of tackles Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker, guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen and center William Vlachos has better pedigree than Florida’s starting five, which includes a transfer from Notre Dame (G Dan Wenger), a little-used sophomore reserve (C Jonotthan Harrison) and a right tackle (Xavier Nixon) who would probably be playing guard for most other teams.
Added to that trio is left tackle Matt Patchan and guard Jon Halapio, and what you get is a surprisingly cohesive unit. Depth isn’t the best, however, as a freshman (Chaz Green) has been tasked with backing up both tackle slots. Things are a little better inside, with Sam Robey at center and a host of players at guard, headlined by Nick Alajajian and Kyle Koehne.
Florida leads the conference and is ranked 7th nationally in sacks allowed, while Alabama is far behind at 68th. The two teams are about equal in run blocking. Alabama has superior depth, and the single best player plays for the crimson and white (Barrett Jones), but Florida has been a little more consistent. Advantage: Florida
Both teams employ some version of a 3-4 over/under scheme, not surprising given that Nick Saban taught Will Muschamp how to run it. Both teams try to apply pressure to the quarterback and use superior speed to disrupt running plays. Florida’s pass defense has been better than expected so far, ranking 8th nationally in efficiency defense and 20th in raw pass defense, but the quality of the opposition is part of the equation. Florida ranks 5th against the run and in total defense both, and 4th in scoring defense. Alabama’s numbers are similar, but the Tide has faced unquestionably the toughest competition based on the strength of Arkansas alone. Alabama ranks 2nd in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, 3rd in rushing defense and 3rd in raw pass defense.
The one place Florida has a clear edge on Alabama is in sacks, as the Gators lead the conference in the stat and rank 43rd overall compared to Alabama’s ranking of 87th. But both teams pressure the passer well. Florida has a big depth advantage inside, with four players with starting experience, Earl Okine, Omar Hunter, Dominique Easley and Jaye Howard. Freshman Leon Orr looks like a star in the making. Outside, Sharrif Floyd and Ronald Powell make a good 1-2 punch, with William Green and sophomore Kedric Johnson adding depth.
Alabama counters with Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry in the middle and Damion Square and Jesse Williams outside. Ed Stinson, Undra Billingsley and Quinton Dial provide depth there. Alabama really stepped up its game against Arkansas and if the Tide continues to improve on the pace it did from North Texas to Arkansas, it will surpass Florida in short order. But the Gators have an edge in both experience and depth, and have been slightly more effective in 2011. Advantage: Florida
Florida had a fairly no-name group heading into 2011, but the starters have done a good job thus far. Jon Bostic, Lerentee McCray and Jelani Jenkins are the primary starters; Ronald Powell is the Jack linebacker but Florida tends to favor the four-down look more than Alabama does, so he is evaluated as a defensive lineman in this comparison. Of the starting three linebackers, Bostic is the most complete (and veteran) player, and leads the team with 26 tackles, including 4 for loss and 2 sacks. McCray is a big player, but may not be quite as laterally mobile as Florida would like. Jenkins is cut from the same mold as Arkansas’ Jerico Nelson, meaning he’s more of a big safety than a traditional linebacker.
Alabama counters with Dont’a Hightower and Nico Johnson inside, Courtney Upshaw at Jack and Jerrell Harris at outside linebacker. C.J. Mosley sustained an elbow injury against Arkansas and will likely miss this game, and that’s a loss that will definitely be felt. Harris will get an expanded role in pass defense as a result. Alabama also figures to have Trey DePriest and Tana Patrick ready to go.
Chris Jordan hasn’t played this season, and the unconventional thinking was that the coaches were going to redshirt him and have him return next year to replace Hightower, but that plan might be off the table if Mosley takes too long to recover. Adrian Hubbard and Alex Watkins back up the outside positions along with Jonathan Atchison. Walk-on senior DeMarcus DuBose might make the traveling squad if Mosley is out.
Even with Mosley out, however, Alabama has the edge here. Florida has nothing like Hightower on its side, and Upshaw is a beast off the corner. Harris played undoubtedly the best game of his Alabama career against Arkansas, and if he can continue to play at that level, Mosley’s loss won’t be as critical. Advantage: Alabama
To take nothing away from Florida’s starting four, Alabama’s secondary is playing at a level not seen anywhere else in the conference at the moment. Florida also has injury concerns, as cornerback Jeremy Brown might miss this game. If he does, Florida will have a true freshman, Marcus Roberson, starting across from fifth-year senior journeyman Moses Jenkins. Matt Elam starts at safety along with another true freshman, De’Ante Saunders. Josh Evans provides experienced depth at safety, along with yet another freshman, Joshua Shaw. Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins back up the corner slots.
Alabama counters with Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner at cornerback and Mark Barron, Robert Lester and Will Lowery at safety. Anyone who saw the Arkansas game gained a clear understanding of just how good this group is, and unlike Florida, Alabama has no injury concerns – much less two true freshman in the starting group. Advantage: Alabama
Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis leads the nation in field goal kicking at the moment. Not only is he hitting 2.75 kicks per game, he hasn’t missed an attempt of any distance yet. Having said that, the good news pretty much ends there, although Florida is a respectable 32nd in punt returns. Punter David Lerner has had a rough 2011 to say the least, and the Gators rank 102nd in net punting. Kickoff returns have been poor.
Alabama’s Cody Mandell has had his own problems punting, and the kicker combination of Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster is average, but Alabama smokes the Gators in the return game. Marquis Maze is 9th in the nation in punt returns, and the Crimson Tide is 31st in kickoff returns. Both teams are in the middle of the SEC pack in kickoff coverage. Sturgis is definitely a weapon, but Alabama is more consistent across the board. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Florida in two. But those two categories are offensive and defensive line. However, while a team that leads both those categories usually wins the game, things change somewhat when a discussion of line matchups comes into play.
Both teams’ defensive lines beat the other’s offensive line. The margin by which this is so suggests each team is going to have trouble moving the ball on the ground against the other.
For Florida, though, this is a bigger problem than for Alabama. Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy can create their own holes. That’s not necessarily true of Florida’s Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. The other issue is in the passing game, where Alabama will be facing a much more vulnerable secondary than Florida will be.
However, there are the more obvious factors that need to be considered: location, and the revenge factor. This game is not in Tuscaloosa; it is in Gainesville, and Florida enjoys a decided advantage there over most opponents because of the crowd noise. This will be A.J. McCarron’s first road SEC start. Florida’s players also have fresh memories of Alabama’s 2009 team that obliterated the Gators in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game.
Even though Alabama holds marginal leads over Florida for most categories, these teams are not that far apart. Talent-wise, Florida is right on Alabama’s doorstep. The real advantage for Alabama is simply one of consistency of systems, and knowing what to do in a particular situation.
Betting lines figure this game to be close. We see no reason to disagree.
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