By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 6, 2015
As gameplans go, the one Alabama used to defeat Florida for the 25th SEC championship in school history was stunningly simple: Alabama would use its defense to choke the life out of an anemic offense forced to work behind a thin, under-talented offensive line. Then the Crimson Tide would feed Florida a steady dose of Derrick Henry until the Gators wilted under the constant pressure.
Sometimes, gameplans don’t play out the way they’re put together on chalkboards. But this one did.
Credit Alabama for its efficiency and good planning, or fault Florida’s former coaching staff for not doing its job relative to recruiting offensive linemen. Either way, Alabama pulled off the plan in grand fashion, whipping Florida on both sides of the line for much of the game and thoroughly dominating the second half on its way to a 29-15 win.
Whether the speed of the turf in the Georgia Dome did it, or if it was simply a case of two strong defenses doing their best to rise up for the moment, both Florida and Alabama appeared to play faster than at any point in the season. Not faster in regards to offensive tempo, but faster in regards to the way the players moved across the field. It was especially evident on defense, watching the linebackers from both teams cover ground with the quickness of impalas. And once they arrived at their destinations, defenders from both teams delivered hits with the kind of force usually found in a hydraulic press.
It is nothing short of amazing, then, that RB Derrick Henry was able to amass 189 yards rushing in this game, given the ability of the Florida front seven to make plays in the running game. Florida’s secondary – good enough on its own that if transplanted to most any other team, would be considered the best unit on said team – couldn’t keep Alabama QB Jake Coker in check. Coker’s two touchdown passes, 204 yards and completion percentage of 69.2 kept Florida on its heels and unable to concentrate all fire in Henry’s direction.
Thanks in large part to SEC fatigue in other areas of the country, there has been no shortage of comments recently from sportswriters and other media personalities that the conference was overrated in 2016. And it’s not a bad argument, if one is being truthful. While Alabama looks like the real deal at the moment, the entire SEC East is flawed. As for the SEC West, LSU and Ole Miss both suffered three losses on the year, while Auburn fell apart and the rest burrowed down into a den of mediocrity. Florida, the best the SEC East had to offer, could barely mount a competent game plan thanks to deficiencies at quarterback and along its offensive line.
Alabama now awaits its playoff fate, which is in the hands of the playoff selection committee. Alabama will almost certainly be the 2-seed, matched up against either Michigan State or Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Derrick Henry’s Heisman Trophy fate rests in the hands of voters, with Stanford’s Christian McCaffery and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson the only other real contenders at this point. The 2015 season certainly didn’t feel like a title year or a Heisman year following the loss to Ole Miss in Week 3, but the resiliency showed by Alabama as it rebounded from its early setback has changed the narrative. If Alabama’s defense continues to play up to the level it has exhibited over the past two months, the Crimson Tide will be tough to beat in any playoff setting.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for the 2015 SEC Championship Game:
1. Alabama’s grind-it-out gameplan, defensive dominance wore down Florida. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 of this list will be interconnected this week; the overarching point is that Alabama’s gameplan, particularly as it unfolded in the second half, broke Florida’s resolve and wore the Gators down until Florida ran out of hope. Alabama held the ball in the second half for a whopping 25 minutes and 17 seconds, to just 4:43 for the Gators. To pull something like this off takes not only a defensive line that stifled Florida’s offense, but also an offensive line that could control the point of attack and a playcalling strategy that maximized time off the clock. The most unexpected development was probably the play of Alabama’s offensive line. After a ho-hum first half that saw Derrick Henry struggle to get on track, Alabama focused its running efforts between the tackles in the second half and mixed in just enough passing from Jake Coker to keep the Gator defensive backs from crashing the line of scrimmage at will. While Alabama’s offensive line did occasionally lose individual battles, that was to be expected; the Florida defensive line is second-best only to Alabama’s in the SEC and the Gator linebacker corps is probably the best Alabama has faced or will face in 2015. For the most part, the Tide OL held up, and the Gators gave out.
2. Bama’s defensive line stopped the Florida running game before the game even started. Florida apparently decided earlier this week not to even bother with the running game. Kelvin Taylor, who was already nursing a sore ankle, carried 7 times for 8 yards. Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett combined for 3 carries for 11 yards. Florida was determined to ride the arm and legs of QB Treon Harris (more on that later), a strategy that appeared doomed to fail from the outset. Alabama has yet to play an offense that can force Alabama to blitz to get sufficient pressure. The Crimson Tide ranks 14th among SEC teams – that’s dead last, folks – in number of blitz plays on the year, and that’s a good thing. Alabama was further helped in this game by getting to face a Florida offensive line that was just plain bad. Once freshman Martez Ivey went down with a shoulder injury, the Gators had no hope. Right tackle Mason Halter was almost useless against Alabama’s pass rush, and the middle of the Gator offensive line acted like a funnel for Alabama’s middle pressure. Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier will be criticized for the Gator gameplan in the coming days, but what other choice did they have?
3. The game fell on Treon Harris’ shoulders, but he wasn’t capable of holding up the weight. Harris was already in a difficult spot in McElwain’s offense. Recruited for some form of spread attack, Harris isn’t a pro-style quarterback and he was playing only because of Will Grier’s failed PED test. Harris looked clearly overwhelmed from the start of Saturday’s game. His crowning moment came when an Alabama defensive lineman batted a pass back to him, and he threw it a second time out of panic, drawing a penalty. Harris’ strength is in his ability to scramble and extend plays, but Florida never found a way to play to his skill set. The Tide’s front seven was mostly the reason for that, as an effective run-pass gameplan requires there to be a threat of both. With Florida eschewing the running game early on, Harris couldn’t check the defense with play-action. Forced into service as a downfield thrower, Harris’ lack of accuracy and field vision finished off the Gators’ hopes. It’s unclear whether Harris can be made into a serviceable passer – or if he’ll even get the opportunity, as Grier will return next year and Florida’s QB recruiting seems to be in good shape. But if McElwain and Nussmeier expected Harris to be a positive factor in this game, it was a gross miscalculation.
4. Tide’s wideouts have a standout game, and make a case for most underrated unit on the team. With the exception of TE O.J. Howard dropping a fourth-quarter pass that would have converted a third down, there was really nothing to complain about from the Tide’s wide receiver unit in this game. Most of the focus since Robert Foster was lost with a shoulder injury has been on true freshman Calvin Ridley, whose quick cuts and glue-like hands have made him one the SEC’s best young talents. But steady slot man Richard Mullaney and flanker ArDarius Stewart have been overlooked. Stewart is good for an easy drop or two nearly every game, but he is also a human highlight reel on difficult catches. Stewart’s touchdown on a ball thrown into triple coverage blew this game open Saturday, and his ability to work the single-side receiver screens, either as the blocker or the receiver, was a big part of this game and have been a key part of Alabama’s gameplan all year. Foster will return next year, and Cameron Sims should be fully recovered from a knee injury by then. Combined with Derek Kief, Daylon Charlot and others, Alabama’s receiver corps could be a focal point of the 2016 team.
5. Special teams played familiar role(s): Jeckyl and Hyde. Keith Holcombe blocked a punt for a safety. Then D.J. Pettway blocked a field goal. All was looking good until Antonio Callaway ripped off an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown to put Florida up early in the second quarter, giving the Gators a lead that held up almost to halftime. Alabama followed up that gaffe with a pair of punt returns foiled by blocks in the back, and PK Adam Griffith put a bow on it all by missing a 24-yard, chip-shot field goal. Given the damage Holcombe and Pettway did to Florida’s psyche, it’s hard to say special teams were a disaster Saturday, but everyone involved looked as hungover as the regular weekend crowd in Buckhead on the morning after. Alabama will need to tighten up for its 14th game of the season, or there might not be a 15th game – or a 16th national title.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN