By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 21, 2014
The last time Alabama fans witnessed something so dumbfounding inside the confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium, Josh Reed was involved and Nick Saban was wearing LSU colors.
That day – Nov. 3, 2001 to be exact – saw Reed catch 19 passes for 293 yards, and LSU quarterback Rohan Davey throw for 528 yards on 35 completions. After a time, the game itself almost became secondary to the Davey-to-Reed show, with fans of both teams essentially waiting to see what would happen next.
Forgotten in the discussion of that game was the fact that LSU led only 28-21 at the end of the third quarter and needed a fourth-quarter touchdowns and some defensive stops to put the game on ice. Ask an Alabama fan, though, what he remembers about that game, and he or she will probably (incorrectly) tell you that LSU won by three or four scores and that the game was never close.
Now you know how Florida fans feel today.
Alabama QB Blake Sims finished the first quarter with a career high in passing yards. He finished the half 1 yard behind Greg McElroy’s single-half passing record. He finished the game 40 yards behind Scott Hunter for the most prolific passing day in Alabama football history. A reminder, here, that Alabama has produced countless star quarterbacks in both the college and professional ranks, and has employed such offensive geniuses as Homer Smith and Jim McElwain as coordinators in the past.
Alabama ran up 645 yards – eclipsing, incidentally, LSU’s 2001 total of 621 – and watched WR Cooper go over 200 yards in the process. It was total domination of a Florida team that was thought to be, potentially, one of the SEC’s most improved teams. A blowout, if you will.
Except it almost wasn’t.
Turnovers kept Florida in the game, and Alabama needed a couple of late scores and some key defensive stops to put the game on ice. Stop if you’ve heard that line before.
After the game Saturday, all talk turned to Sims’ performance, and suddenly the quarterback few fans wanted to see is now a key factor to the Crimson Tide’s continuing success. Rather than talk about how backup Jake Coker did a nice job finishing off one of Sims’ drives in the third quarter, the topic of conversation is the injury to Sims that put Coker in that position in the first place.
The ovation that greeted Sims as he emerged from the locker room after post-injury inspection had meaning behind it, more than simply a collective expression of relief following the big hit that temporarily put him out of the game. It was acknowledgment of Sims’ success, development and thankfulness that good things can happen to good people. In Sims’ case, four years of hard work in the shadows has led to him holding the starting quarterback job at The University of Alabama.
Sims, for his part, hasn’t rested on that particular accomplishment. Instead, he went out and stuck his name squarely at the top of Alabama’s record books – right where he belongs.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Florida.
1. Alabama identified and shut down Florida’s key playmakers. Despite having a fairly high total talent level, Florida doesn’t have many key playmakers. What few the Gators do have, Alabama neutralized. Left tackle Cam Robinson neutralized Florida DE Dante Fowler, Jr. Wideout Amari Cooper looked completely nonplussed with Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III – although, to be fair, Hargreaves appeared to tweak an ankle in the first half and never looked comfortable afterwards. But he wasn’t channeling Darrelle Revis beforehand, either. As for Gator WR Demarcus Robinson, he caught 2 passes for 14 yards thanks to the efforts of Tony Brown, Cyrus Jones and Alabama’s other defensive backs. Florida fans were comparing Robinson to Alabama’s Cooper before the game, but Robinson’s success up to this point had been somewhat of a mirage. Florida wide receivers, as a group, have underachieved now for Will Muschamp’s entire tenure, and Robinson himself wasn’t even thought to be starting material coming out of spring. By comparison, Cooper has been one of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the best overall, for three straight years. Florida should have seen this coming, but didn’t.
2. Florida’s offensive gameplan was right in Alabama’s wheelhouse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel has good straight-line speed, as shown on his 14-yard TD draw in the third quarter, but he isn’t – and shouldn’t be – considered a true running quarterback. Yet, Florida is determined to make him into one. Driskel doesn’t change direction quickly and has questionable footwork, but Florida ran him 11 times and built the plan around what he could do with the football. Alabama didn’t have to over-commit speed to stop him, which allowed the Tide to clog up passing lanes with extra defenders. Add in Driskel’s just-average field vision and Alabama’s defense wasn’t challenged much. Muschamp’s decision to change offensive coordinators may be his ultimate undoing; last year’s Florida offense may have been a better fit for Driskel’s skill set.
3. Lane Kiffin is probably Alabama’s MVP at the moment. While it may sound as if we’re taking something away from Blake Sims, Amari Cooper, etc., it still must be said that the biggest difference Alabama has in 2014 versus 2013 is the change from Doug Nussmeier to Lane Kiffin at the offensive coordinator level, and Nick Saban’s decision to move Kiffin to the sidelines. It’s also worth noting that Kiffin, left to concentrate on just his offensive gameplan now rather than an entire program’s direction, appears more focused than ever. Kiffin has displayed a cunningness in his play selection that opposing defensive coordinators just aren’t keeping up with at the moment. Regardless of how good Florida really is, running up 645 yards on an SEC defense is remarkable.
4. Defensive front made the different when Florida had the ball. Perhaps Alabama just rises to meet the level of its opponent, but the defensive line, which had been so-so throughout three games, stepped up in a big way. Jarran Reed played his best game at Alabama so far; Florida had no answer for his combination of size and quickness at defensive end. D.J. Pettway finished with zero tackles, but he caused two interceptions with his work around the quarterback and redirected several runs into the arms of his teammates. Linebacker Reggie Ragland also appears to be getting much more comfortable. Denzel Devall had his best game of the year.
5. Counterpoint: Florida might not be all that good. We touched on Florida’s lack of experience in the preview – the Gators returned only 3 starters on offense and only 1 in its secondary – but those items sometimes are overlooked when discussing a team that should be a lot better than it’s been lately. The success of Alabama’s defensive line can be attributed in large part to the fact that Florida’s offensive line is in need of repairs. Chaz Green’s injury mid-game didn’t help things at all. And when Fowler and Hargreaves both began getting nicked up on defense, the Gators’ intensity level on that side of the ball took a noticeable dip. It should have been apparent to anyone who watched Florida struggle with Kentucky last week that the Gators need to make improvements in several areas of the team, but Will Muschamp might not be afforded the time to see those improvements through.
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