SECCG Preview: Gators have the defense, but offense is offensive

Dec 4, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain pose with the SEC trophy between the SEC coaches press conference at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Crimson Tide head coach and Gators head coach pose with the SEC trophy between the SEC coaches press conference at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Dec. 3, 2015

When failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs after Florida’s sixth game of the season, the Gators were forced to turn to former starter .

Few people could have expected the results.

While Harris’ first two outings were promising – a close loss to then-undefeated LSU, followed by a 24-point slaughter of Georgia in the Cocktail Party game, the result of which probably sealed Mark Richt’s fate with the Bulldogs – it didn’t take long for SEC defenses to figure out Harris’ limitations. Florida didn’t score a touchdown against Vanderbilt, needing a last-minute field goal to win 9-7. After a closer-than-it-should-have-been victory over South Carolina, the Gators had to go to overtime to beat a Florida Atlantic squad that currently ranks 106th in FBS power rankings.

Last week? Florida was drubbed by rival Florida State, 27-2.

Were it not for distractions in Tuscaloosa, this game wouldn’t be very hard to pick. But Alabama is suddenly dealing with a whirlwind of activity, and hardly any of it is favorable to the Crimson Tide. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will likely be officially named as Mark Richt’s replacement at Georgia, perhaps as early as the postgame Saturday. The Internet rumor mill has fired up in earnest, with Smart supposedly taking every Alabama assistant with him, along with perhaps Avery Johnson to organize the cheer squad, Robert Witt to come out of retirement as the team’s academic advisor and even Harvey Updyke to serve as the Bulldogs’ new groundskeeper.

Meanwhile, Nick Saban is charged with navigating the situation and, hopefully, putting together the next-level plan – college football’s Final Four playoff. But with attention scattered this week across multiple fronts, this game against Florida might end up closer than expected.

OFFENSE

Both teams run multiple, pro-style systems. Jim McElwain, Florida’s head coach and offensive architect, built the groundwork for Alabama’s current offense during his time as Alabama offensive coordinator. McElwain’s successor in Tuscaloosa, , is now the Florida offensive coordinator. This game is going to be more of a family reunion than anything else. Currently, Florida is struggling: 104th in total offense, 103rd in rushing offense, 74th in passing offense and 92nd in scoring offense. Alabama’s version, modified by , is faring much better: 51st in total offense, 28th in rushing offense, 73rd in passing offense and 34th in scoring offense.

QUARTERBACKS
Although Alabama and Florida are next to each other in passing offense rankings, 73rd and 74th, much of Florida’s output came when Will Grier was still at the helm. Treon Harris has thrown for more yards than Grier did, but Grier completed 65.8% of his passes compared to 53.7% for Harris, and his passing efficiency was more than 20 points higher. Harris’ best attribute is his ability to escape pressure – he’s the team’s second-leading rusher with 193 yards on 73 carries (2.6 avg.) – but his accuracy and field vision are lacking. Vanderbilt transfer and part-time receiver Josh Grady is listed as the backup, but he’s thrown exactly 1 pass on the year and won’t play unless Harris gets hurt. Alabama counters with , who isn’t especially productive in regards to raw numbers (2,285 yards over 12 games, an average of 190.4 yards per contest), but who has developed into a hard-nosed leader who has a reasonable level of dual-threat ability. Coker’s touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart against Auburn showed what he’s capable of, and he’s becoming more capable of that kind of play on a more regular basis. Backup Cooper Bateman is adequate, but adequate is several steps better off than what Florida’s depth situation is like. Not close here. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Florida will be in big trouble if ’s ankle hasn’t healed. Taylor has been hobbled off and on throughout the season, and while he’s a tough inside runner, his stats (241 carries, 977 yards, 4.1 avg., 13 TD) are average at best other than the touchdown output. Depth is an issue, as well: Jordan Scarlett has shown flashes of ability (33 carries, 178 yards, 5.4 avg., 1 TD) but isn’t used enough to be a real factor. Jordan Cronkrite (39 carries, 132 yards, 3.4 avg., 3 TD) isn’t ready for prime time yet. Somewhat surprisingly – and probably affected by the recruiting of the previous staff more than anything else – Florida doesn’t have a true fullback available under McElwain. Tight ends occasionally fill the role, but Florida would kill to have someone like Alabama’s Michael Nysewander. Instead, Nysewander will be blocking at times for a certain running back named , who has a real shot at amassing 2,000 yards rushing in 2015. Henry’s performance against Auburn was one of the gutsiest, most dominating efforts from an Alabama running back in the long, storied history of the school. Kenyan Drake may be available this week as Henry’s backup, but it’s just as likely that the Tide turns again to freshman Damien Harris to fill the role. If there’s any question Drake can’t provide proper ball security, Harris will play. Bo Scarbrough provides depth. Even though Taylor has had a solid year, this one just isn’t close at all. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
McElwain made a curious decision to allow his team to vote on the length of suspension for Demarcus Robinson (47 catches, 505 yards, 10.7 avg., 2 TD), and the team voted to allow him to play. Robinson’s availability is a huge plus for this unit, which is led by true freshman Antonio Callaway (29 catches, 557 yards, 19.2 avg., 4 TD), a true deep threat. Robinson is the possession receiver, and Brandon Powell (28 catches, 364 yards, 13.0 avg., 3 TD) adds a weapon in the slot. Tight end Jake McGee (38 catches, 338 yards, 8.9 avg., 4 TD) isn’t involved much in the downfield portion of Florida’s offense, but he’s tough on third down and around the goal line. Tight end depth, in fact, is what makes Florida so dangerous; reserves DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis are weapons in their own right. Florida, like Alabama, has had trouble getting production from its bench receivers. Veterans Valdez Showers and Ahmad Fullwood have combined for just 10 catches on the year. The Crimson Tide will lean on its own impressive true freshman, , whose 67 catches and 791 yards (11.8 avg.) leads both teams. Ridley has caught 5 touchdown passes on the year. ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney provide a competent supporting cast, although Stewart lacks consistency and Mullaney is not a big-play threat. Tight end O.J. Howard makes for a nice complement to them and a nice answer for Florida’s McGee, but Bama’s tight end depth (Brandon Greene, Dakota Ball, Hale Hentges, Ty Flournoy-Smith) are rarely part of the offense outside of their blocking skills. This one’s a close call, but the addition of the veteran Robinson pushes Florida ahead by a nose. Advantage: Florida

OFFENSIVE LINE
This was a known problem spot for Florida in the preseason, and is one of the chief reasons the Gators have been unable to mount a strong rushing attack in the fall. Florida ranks 98th in tackles for loss allowed and is a dreadful 116th in sacks allowed. Cameron Dillard starts at center, with Martez Ivey and Trip Thurman flanking him at the guard slots. Mason Halter – a transfer from Fordham – starts at right tackle, with David Sharpe at left tackle. Thurman is probably the best of the lot. Ivey is also the primary backup for the tackle positions, pointing to the lack of depth outside. Antonio Riles and Tyler Jordan provide depth at guard. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, flanked by Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor at the guard positions and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson at the tackle spots. Bradley Bozeman is the primary backup inside, while Korren Kirven backs up the tackle positions. Alabama has had its moments of poor play, especially on the right side, but Florida is several steps worse. Florida will also be facing a tougher task going against Alabama’s defensive line than Alabama will in going against the Florida DL. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Like on the offensive side of the ball, where Alabama’s and Florida’s resumes mix, so it goes on the defensive side of the ball as well. Former Bama staffer has put his own take on Florida’s 4-3 base defense, using 3-man fronts at times, and the Gators have gotten good results. Florida is 5th in total defense, 7th in rushing defense, 9th in raw pass defense, 8th in pass efficiency defense and 5th in scoring defense. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme ranks the following in those same five categories: 2nd, 1st, 16th, 5th and 3rd. Alabama is 3rd in sacks while Florida is 5th. Florida is 13th in tackles for loss; Alabama is 24th. This game could turn into an old-fashioned slobberknocker.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard has amassed 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and is 5th on the team in tackles. For an interior tackle, it’s rarely seen, and Bullard will be making quite a bit of money in the NFL very soon. Caleb Brantley starts alongside him for Florida and, although not equally productive, could easily be the No. 1 guy on many teams. Ends Bryan Cox Jr. and CeCe Jefferson aren’t always the most consistent players, but they’re both explosive and can pressure the passer. Florida’s primary issue is depth outside. The Gators will only rotate three ends – Justus Reed is the other – unless Alex McCalister can get back from a foot injury. He’s listed as questionable. Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark provide depth up the middle. For Alabama, Darren Lake, Daron Payne and Josh Taylor will man the inside spots, with A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jarran Reed and Da’Shawn Hand coming from outside. Reed and Robinson will also work the middle. Both groups are solid, but Alabama has a bit more depth and is healthier at the moment. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis are experienced, productive players and are tied for the team lead in tackles for Florida. They’re always on the field in some capacity. The makeup of the defensive sets could depend on whether Alex Anzalone is ready to play just his third game of 2015 due to injury. He’s listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, but is also listed as a starter on at least one advance depth chart. If Anzalone can’t go, Jeremi Powell will be the third starter. Anthony Harrell and Daniel McMillian provide depth. Alabama counters with , Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, with Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans outside. Devall tweaked a knee toward the end of the Auburn game but is expected to be at full speed. Florida’s group compares favorably to Alabama’s, but Ragland’s status as the stud of the game at the position gives Alabama the slightest of edges here. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
will be looking for redemption in this one, having been torched in last year’s regular-season meeting by Amari Cooper. Hargreaves projects as the SEC’s top-rated corner for next year’s NFL Draft, and he’s a hard worker who will pressure Bama’s receivers physically. Jalen Tabor and Brian Poole are the other corners who will rotate between the off-corner and nickel corner slots. Marcus Maye and hard hitter Keanu Neal get the call at the safety positions, with Nick Washington and Marcell Harris providing depth up the middle. Alabama counters with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the corners, with Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith at the safeties. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Maurice Smith, Jabriel Washington, Ronnie Harrison and Tony Brown provide depth there. Florida has a slight edge in overall depth and experience, and the Gators are healthier than Alabama at the moment, as Fitzpatrick is still nursing a slight knee injury. Again, a very close call. Advantage: Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
Alabama’s turned in a masterful performance against Auburn last week and has become one of the best kickoff men in the country. Together with ace punter J.K. Scott, Alabama’s special teams suddenly appear loaded. The Crimson Tide doesn’t return kicks very well – although Kenyan Drake’s return might improve the situation to some degree, unless the Tide sticks with Damien Harris there – but punt returns, with Cyrus Jones doing the work, have become solid. Alabama also covers kicks and punts extremely well. Florida, on the other hand, has a mess on its hands at kicker, where Austin Hardin and Jorge Powell are just 7-of-16 in field goals and have combined to miss 4 PATs. Somewhat unbelievably, Florida is just 5-of-12 on field goals of 30 to 39 yards. Kicking in the Georgia Dome should give Florida’s kickers more room for error, at least. The Gators, on the other hand, are 3rd in net punting behind Johnny Townsend, and like Alabama, excel in punt returns but don’t do much on kickoff returns. While Adam Griffith struggled in his last trip to Atlanta, Florida’s troubles are on another level entirely. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Florida in two. But the Gators are close at linebacker and defensive line. Both teams’ defensive lines hold significant edges over the opposing offensive lines.

Because of the defensive prowess we expect to see on the field, this game should be low-scoring and the margin of victory therefore much closer than would probably be expected. Alabama should still win the game. But Florida can keep this one close, particularly if Jake Coker struggles in the passing game or Adam Griffith’s Georgia Dome woes return. If the Gators are within a possession midway through the fourth quarter, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Gators could pull the upset.

But Alabama is just a better team overall. Alabama’s defensive line is expected to dominate Florida’s OL, and Alabama can create more plays for itself in the running game. If Alabama can tamp down the distractions of its assistant coaching staff for one more week, the Crimson Tide will record its 25th SEC championship.

Alabama 20
Florida 7

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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