By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 30, 2016
It’s hard to tell what will be harder for Florida to overcome Saturday when it faces Alabama in the SEC Championship Game: an injured-player list 19 names long, or the fact that the Gators have an offense that ranks 114th in the country.
For the second straight year, Alabama will face what appears to be an overmatched Florida squad in Atlanta. But just like last year, Alabama would wise to not count on unhatched chickens, because the Gator defense is strong enough to keep Florida in any game it plays.
The Gators rank 6th in total defense, and unlike Auburn a week ago, the strength isn’t contained to simply one unit. Despite a roster decimated by injuries, Florida has so much raw talent on hand that, thanks to solid coaching on the defensive side of the ball, no team can count on dominating the Gators, not even teams with offenses as high-powered as Alabama’s.
There is a lot of familiarity between these two teams, thanks mostly to Florida hiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain as head coach, who subsequently attracted former Bama staffers Doug Nussmeier, Geoff Collins and Chris Rumph. The end result is that Alabama will have a hard time surprising Florida, and with the Gators’ defense a tough customer, expect this one to be close at least until the final quarter. Alabama will need to force Florida to make mistakes in order to avoid a low-scoring stalemate.
Florida’s offense is a multiple, pro-style attack just as Alabama’s is – it’s just a lot less multiple and a lot more pro-set. Jim McElwain is a bit more straightforward in his offensive philosophy than Lane Kiffin is, although McElwain has proven, during stops at Alabama and Colorado State, that he is just as capable as Kiffin is at squeezing the most out of every skill player. Where Florida comes up short here is along the offensive line and in a discussion of overall depth, particularly at the quarterback position. The Gators rank 104th in rushing offense, 86th in passing offense and 104th in scoring offense to go along with its ranking of 114th in total offense. Alabama ranks 23rd in total offense, 15th in rushing offense, 63rd in passing offense and 19th in scoring offense.
Hard as it is to believe, Florida may have gotten better here because of an injury to season starter (and Alabama transfer) Luke Del Rio. Del Rio is one of the 19 players on Florida’s injury checklist this week, listed as “doubtful”. It will only come into play if current starter Austin Appleby gets knocked out of the game. Del Rio had completed just 56.7% of his passes and had thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns (8) prior to suffering a shoulder injury. Appleby, a Purdue transfer, has completed 60.0% of his passes and has thrown for just 2 interceptions against 6 touchdowns. Appleby is also the superior athlete, although neither he nor Del Rio are going to be confused for a dual-threat quarterback any time soon. Currently, true freshman Feleipe Franks, the star of Florida’s 2016 recruiting class – and who has seen no action yet – is listed as Appleby’s backup, but it’s hard to see Florida taking the redshirt off him in this game. Just who would play in Appleby’s place is truly unknown. Appleby has decent tools but does nothing particularly well.
Contrast this setup to what Alabama has available – one of the most dynamic young players in the sport, Jalen Hurts – and it’s already a mismatch even before you get into the discussion of depth. Cooper Bateman would be the starter for Florida if he were on the Gator roster. So, probably, would third-teamer David Cornwell. No surprise how this one gets called. Advantage: Alabama
Florida has a lot of bodies available here – more than Alabama does, actually – but the production hasn’t been what the Gators expected. Jordan Scarlett has scored 6 times, more than all other Florida runners put together. He’s run for 778 yards on 154 carries, a 5.1-yard average. But he’s rarely involved in the passing game, which is a hallmark of a Jim McElwain running back. Mark Thompson has started 3 games this year and, like Scarlett, has been a decent runner, if not a bit one-dimensional. Florida’s most versatile backs are Lamical Perine and Jordan Cronkrite, and Perine may be the X-factor here given how he’s looked at times. But Perine has seen just 18 total carries over the past 4 weeks, after getting 15 against Georgia alone. Mark Herndon adds depth but is mostly a special teams option. Alabama will use Damien Harris as its primary back; he’s averaging 2 yards more per carry for Alabama than Scarlett has managed to log for Florida. He’s also a better weapon in the passing game. So, too, is Joshua Jacobs, whose ability to make cuts in the hole is already better than a lot of senior running backs in this league. Bo Scarbrough continues to manage a minor leg injury, but if Alabama manages his snaps, there are few better at being a downhill hammer. Walk-on Derrick Gore played early against Auburn and should be considered an option, too. Neither team employs a pure fullback. Florida has good raw talent in this group and depth is more than sufficient; Alabama is simply better. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama will have to account for sophomore Antonio Callaway, who is a player with a game similar to Calvin Ridley. Callaway isn’t the biggest receiver, but he is shifty and dangerous in the open field. He’s also the only consistent threat the Gators have had. Brandon Powell and Ahmad Fulwood are listed as the other two starters for this game, but Fulwood has caught just 7 balls on the year and Powell is averaging less than 10 yards per catch, having never truly shown the breakaway talent he was predicted to have. Freshman Tyrie Cleveland probably has the most upside of Florida’s young receivers. He has also been the most productive on a per-catch basis, averaging 21.7 yards per reception on 13 catches. Josh Hammond and C.J. Worton round out the A-group. Tight ends C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby have combined for 45 receptions and 3 touchdowns, and are probably McElwain’s best weapon outside of Callaway. Alabama hasn’t faced a 1-2 punch at tight end yet this year, which will force coverage responsibilities from players not completely accustomed to providing them.
The Crimson Tide counters with its mainstay duo of Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, and the worst news for Alabama opponents at this point is that as good as Ridley is, Stewart is having an even better year. Tight end O.J. Howard has developed into a reliable receiving target and able blocker. The third receiver position remains a bit unsettled; Gehrig Dieter is the starter there, but Trayvon Diggs is beginning to step up as the most productive bench player. Cameron Sims has come out nicely late in the year, while Robert Foster and Derek Kief add depth. Miller Forristall, Hale Hentges and Brandon Greene give Alabama nice options at tight end outside of Howard. Callaway and the Florida tight end combo make this one a little closer than Alabama would like, but the Tide still takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Florida ranks better in tackles for loss allowed (33rd, versus 105th for Alabama) but anyone who has watched these two offenses operate ought to be able to spot a statistical outlier when they see one. Alabama has been much better at pass protection, and overall the Crimson Tide line is far more athletic and versatile. The real issue, though, is that Florida will have three players with an aggregate 25 starts between them sitting on the bench Saturday unless team doctors can work an early Christmas miracle. Cameron Dillard, Tyler Jordan and Martez Ivey are all ranging from questionable to doubtful, with Jordan the most likely of the three to see action.
Florida will start T.J. McCoy at center; he has played in just 5 games and started twice. Fred Johnson will start at left guard, but right guard will be manned by either Tyler Jordan or freshman Nick Buchanan, who has played in just two games in his career, if Jordan can’t go. At tackle, it’s David Sharpe and Jawaan Taylor, but Sharpe has struggled with speed rushers off the edge and Taylor is a true freshman. Florida is hoping against hope that Ivey can give them some quality snaps at guard, or else this whole thing will go as smoothly as a Ford Model T down a washboard dirt road.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, flanked by Korren Kirven and Ross Pierschbacher at the guard slots and Jonah Williams and Cam Robinson at tackle. Kirven has been elevated to feel-good story of the year, stabilizing the right guard position in his fifth season after having been just a minor contributor at best up until now. Josh Casher may end up splitting some time with him at the position, but it should be mostly Kirven on Saturday. Given how Alabama’s line performed against Auburn especially, this one isn’t very close. Advantage: Alabama
Coach Saban’s Pre-Game Press Conference