By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 16, 2014
As the final few plays in Florida’s overtime win over Kentucky went by the boards, there were two schools of thought concerning the Gators. The first was that Will Muschamp needed to visit the nearest Laser Copy and start getting resumes ready; the second was that this Gators team, despite its struggles against Kentucky, still has enough talent to win any game on its schedule.
And, now that Florida refused to fold against Kentucky, you can add the adjective “resilient” to the mix.
Florida’s struggles against Kentucky were likely the result of two things: a canceled game against Idaho, and the change in offensive styles overseen by Kurt Roper. Any team making a wholesale offensive change will struggle at times in the transitional season. The lost game against Idaho further cut into Roper’s teaching time.
In that regard, the extra reps the Florida offense got against Kentucky did nothing but help the cause. It’s also worth mentioning that the Gators rank in the top 12 in total offense and passing offense, and are 24th in rushing offense – although the Gators have just two games’ worth of statistics from which to draw.
Alabama finds itself a large favorite in this game, but it would surprise no one who is familiar with both teams if this game was decided in the last half of the last quarter. There is simply too much talent on the Florida sideline for anyone to bet on a wide-margin Alabama win.
Florida is no longer running a pro-style attack and is now in the middle of the transition to a spread offense. Florida will use plenty of hurry-up tempo to create matchups it likes. The passing attack is ranked 12th in the nation, although Florida ran up a lot of that yardage against an Eastern Michigan team that would struggle this year in Division-IAA. Alabama has been equally balanced, 33rd in passing and 17th in rushing for a ranking of 12th overall, but Alabama hasn’t exactly faced a brick-wall defense yet, either. Alabama is based from a multiple pro-style attack, which takes advantage of different plays depending on which quarterback is running the offense.
Florida’s Jeff Driskel has had multiple chances to be a competent SEC quarterback, and he’s just now beginning to realize his potential. Driskel has dual-threat capabilities, although his running skills don’t appear to be what they once were. Moreover, his pass-rush recognition isn’t the best, and he tends to blank out when moving sometimes. Despite completing 56 passes on 88 attempts (63.6%) so far, he’s thrown for just 543 yards – an average of 6.2 yards per attempt and less than 10 yards per completion, which aren’t acceptable long-term numbers. By comparison, Alabama’s Blake Sims has thrown for 646 yards on 64 attempts, an average of 10.1 yards per attempt. Sims has completed 75% of his passes. Both quarterbacks have thrown 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. Sims has also proven to be the superior runner, collecting 102 yards on 14 carries (7.3 avg.) and scoring twice. As for depth, Treon Harris has completed every pass he’s thrown – that’s 2, by the way – for Florida, while Alabama’s Jake Coker has gotten significantly more work. So in this case, we have a veteran quarterback who is not performing optimally, versus a largely untested starter with superior numbers. The depth situation goes Alabama’s way, so the category will, as well. But it’s a close one. Advantage: Alabama
Florida is putting together depth that rivals Alabama’s, but the production isn’t there yet. But it’s not bad by any stretch. Matt Jones (37 carries, 221 yards, 6.0 avg., 2 TD) and Kelvin Taylor (23 carries, 132 yards, 5.7 avg., 2 TD) are a potent 1-2 punch, and Mack Brown (6 carries, 58 yards, 9.7 avg., 0 TD) is a good third option. Jones has also been a good option in the passing game. Florida uses Hunter Joyer as a fullback when needed, but he isn’t a threat with the ball. Alabama will start T.J. Yeldon, with Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake backing him up. Additionally, Blake Sims has proven to be as much a threat running the ball as the running backs have been. Jalston Fowler and Michael Nysewander staff the fullback position; Alabama will use Fowler more than the Gators will use Joyer. The average yards-per-carry are about equal, and it’s hard to equate the overall production given Florida has played one fewer game. But Yeldon’s career body of work is enough to make this call. Advantage: Alabama
Florida came into 2014 needing to identify playmakers at the position, and did so in a big way when sophomore Demarcus Robinson essentially fought his way into the mix from the bench. Robinson was expected to back up Quinton Dunbar coming out of the spring, but Robinson has 21 catches in 2 games compared to 7 for Dunbar. In fact, Robinson has more catches than the next three receivers ranked by yardage combined. Robinson is averaging 16.1 yards per catch and has scored three times already. He’ll start next to Dunbar and either Ahmad Fullwood or Latroy Pittman. Neither Fullwood nor Pittman has made much of an impact; both average in the 6.0-6.3 ypc range. Mark Herndon and Tevin Westbrook add depth. The most active receiver other than Robinson has been tight end Clay Burton, who has 9 catches, but is averaging just 6.2 yards per catch and is mostly a blocker. The loss of Jake McGee at the tight end position has been a killer. Alabama counters with Amari Cooper and a cast of supporting players highlighted by Christion Jones. Cooper has 33 catches already on the season, with Jones second with 9, making Alabama look a lot like Florida. DeAndrew White might be back for this game; if he’s not, Chris Black is likely to start again, with ArDarius Stewart, Cameron Sims, Raheem Falkins, Robert Foster and Parker Barrineau providing depth. Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard will likely continue to split the tight end position, but neither has been much of a factor this season. These two units look a lot alike, with Robinson and Cooper sort of canceling the other out. Alabama’s superior depth again takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Florida took a big hit when tackle D.J. Humphries was lost. Chaz Green is now the left tackle, with redshirt freshman Rod Johnson stepping in at right tackle. Max Garcia gets the start at center, with Trenton Brown and Trip Thurman at the guard slots. This was a green offensive line to begin with even before the Humphries injury, and depth has suffered, with freshman David Sharpe the only other real option at tackle. Alabama has far better depth; the Crimson Tide group goes more than two teams deep. Ryan Kelly will start at center flanked by Leon Brown and Arie Kouandjio at the guards and Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Brown’s right guard job is somewhat up for grabs, with Alphonse Taylor and Dominick Jackson still in the mix there. Neither team has faced a dominant defensive front yet, and perhaps as a result, both are ranked highly in the sacks allowed and run blocking. Alabama just has more experience and more options. Advantage: Alabama
This will be like a scrimmage for both teams. Both Alabama and Florida run the same 3-4 over/under scheme developed by Nick Saban – no surprise, given Will Muschamp’s coaching pedigree. The concern for Alabama is that the scheme matches up better with Alabama’s offense than it does Florida’s offense, and Alabama has had issues when trying to dial up the effectiveness against tempo spread teams. So far this year, both teams have been effective against the run; Florida is 12th and Alabama 1st in the nation in rush defense. Alabama has been only so-so in defending the pass, but all three of the Tide’s opponents so far have been pass-happy spread teams. Florida’s ranking of 39th in raw pass defense is actually more suprising than Alabama’s ranking of 53rd, given that Florida faced Eastern Michigan and is supposed to have one of the SEC’s best secondaries, if not the best overall.
Alabama has better depth, but the starting group of Florida has one thing Alabama’s group doesn’t: Dante Fowler, Jr. Although Fowler functions mostly like a Jack linebacker, he’s spent more time with his hand down so far than prowling the field. As a de facto defensive end, Fowler has terrorized offensive tackles and will be a challenge for Alabama’s true freshman left tackle, Cam Robinson. More than a third of his tackles so far have gone for loss, and he has 6 QB hurries already. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings start in the middle, with Jonathan Bullard as the other defensive end. Bryan Cox Jr. plays enough to be considered a starter; he’ll back up Fowler and Bullard. Joey Ivie, Alex McCalister and Jay-nard Bostwick add depth. Alabama will counter with A’Shawn Robinson in the middle flanked by Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway outside. Jarran Reed, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand provide depth on the edge, while Brandon Ivory, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier supplement the middle of the line. Robinson and Reed are still working on being 100 percent after fall camp injuries, and while Alabama has more people available, Fowler tips the scales toward the Gators. Advantage: Florida
Neither team has the kind of players it has been accustomed to having in past years. Florida is led by Neiron Ball, who leads the team in total tackles, sacks and is tied for the lead in tackles for loss. But the question is whether Ball’s breakout season is because of his own improvement, or the state of Florida’s opponents to date. Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor are the other two starters, and while they’re 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles, respectively, they’ve combined for just one tackle for loss and haven’t been particularly effective. Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone are the primary backups. Alabama counters with Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland outside, with Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall outside. DePriest has been a steadying influence since missing the opener to a suspension, while Dickson has started to assert himself as an edge player. Alabama needs more from Devall, which explains in part the increased playing time given recently to Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans. Williams and Evans are dedicated pass-rushers, but Anderson has the bulk needed to challenge for a starting job. Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton back up the middle positions, along with Dillon Lee, who flexes between both. Alabama has a tick more depth than Florida, and the emergence of Dickson and Anderson push this one to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has nothing like Vernon Hargreaves III, whose 5 PBUs are more than double the next-highest number out of the Florida secondary. It’s a good bet Hargreaves will be put on Amari Cooper for most of the game, provided Florida rotates cornerbacks to assignments, a strategy Alabama has not employed yet in 2014. Brian Poole will start opposite Hargreaves, and he is asserting himself as a formidable force in his own right. He’s also built like former Alabama running back Ray Hudson and will be a tough matchup for smaller receivers. Jabari Gorman and Keanu Neal will start at the safeties, and if Alabama can attack Florida somewhere, that would be the place. The Gators need better safety play overall, and Marcus Maye might be an option in this game. He had a stellar debut to the 2014 season against Kentucky and could supplant Neal as a starter. The depth is entirely made up of freshmen – Duke Dawson, Nick Washington, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson. Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson at the corners and Landon Collins and Geno Smith at safety, at least for the first half. Nick Perry will take over at free safety after halftime; he’s suspended for the first half as a result of a targeting foul assessed in the second half of the Southern Miss game. Tony Brown and Bradley Sylve will back up the cornerback positions, while Maurice Smith, Jabriel Washington and Laurence Jones will handle things at safety. Jackson’s aggressive play was a welcome development against Southern Miss, but Alabama will miss Perry in the first half and the Tide simply isn’t forcing turnovers the way Florida is. Advantage: Florida
Is Alabama’s improved special teams a mirage or the real deal? It will come down to kick coverage, an area in which Alabama has been solid the last two weeks after a lackadaisical effort against West Virginia. The kicking situation seems to have solidified behind placekicker Adam Griffith and punter J.K. Scott, but injuries have played havoc with the return game. Christion Jones, Landon Collins, Cyrus Jones and possibly DeAndrew White will handle those duties against Florida. The Gators counter with Francisco Velez at kicker and Kyle Christy at punter. Christy is at least Scott’s equal at punter, and has more experience as a senior. The question here is whether Velez is for real. He’s 6-of-7 (83.3%) on kicks so far, but his long is 36 yards. The return game is solid; Florida ranks in the top 20 in kick and punt returns but is 98th in kickoff return defense. Alabama has almost identical numbers. This is the closest category of all, even closer than quarterback, but Florida gets the edge due to experience at punter. It’s literally the only thing separating the two teams. Advantage: Florida
Alabama leads in five categories, Florida in three, although both special teams and quarterback could go the other way. The other issue is OL-DL matchups. We’re tempted to give both teams’ defensive lines the edge over their opponents’ offensive lines, but that would require Alabama’s defensive line to take a step forward. Still, with the injury to D.J. Humphries, Alabama’s DL has to get the edge, particularly with the Tide having the nation’s best rush defense at the moment.
The real quandary here is trying to ascertain how much weight to give to Florida’s overall talent pool. The Gators are a talented program, but have yet to play up to that talent. Between the carousel of offensive coordinators, questionable leadership from the head coaching position and a horrible rash of bad injury luck, the Gators have played to a mediocre level despite having one of the five most talented rosters in the SEC.
Florida is still finding its way, but so too is Alabama, to an extent. This will be Blake Sims’ first major challenge as Alabama’s starting quarterback. The defense hasn’t faced receiver talent like this, and as recent history has shown, Alabama’s special teams are likely to fly apart at any second.
Still, this game is in Bryant-Denny Stadium, and Alabama has once again caught Florida in injury-fighting mode, with questions of its own at quarterback and trying to learn a new offensive scheme. This one might be closer than the experts think, but Alabama should still come out on top.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN