By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 3, 2016
Alabama’s resounding victory over Florida on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game did several things: It extended Alabama’s win streak to 25 games, its SEC championship strength to 3 years and ended any speculation of what the College Football Playoff committee might do in the event the Crimson Tide lost this game.
Meanwhile, Florida could only do one thing, and even that – stifle Alabama’s passing game – only really lasted for a quarter, and in the end, had no effect on the score anyway.
One-dimensional teams don’t have much success against Alabama, and Florida was a textbook example in this case. Florida couldn’t run – literally. The Gators recorded zero rushing yards in the game. The Gators also couldn’t stop the run (Alabama had 234 on the ground) and its passing game, which managed to put up 261 yards and a pair of touchdowns, more than negated its own production by also accounting for 3 interceptions, one of which was run back for a touchdown by Bama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Were it not for a blocked PAT that Florida ran back for 2 points, though, the biggest mismatch of the day might have been on special teams. Alabama blocked a punt for a touchdown, and Trayvon Diggs rolled up 90 yards of punt-return yardage. J.K. Scott, called on to do something he rarely does – directional punting – kept Antonio Callaway from making an impact beyond the first drive of the game.
This year’s game was simply a better-executed version of last year’s Alabama win over Florida, which is saying something given that Alabama played a sloppy first half. The Crimson Tide allowed two long scoring drives from a team that has been bereft of any kind of consistent offensive production for at last the past month, if not all year long. If Alabama had actually put all the pieces together for four quarters, there’s little doubt Alabama would have broken the all-time scoring record for the game.
Florida, though, was simply too beaten up coming into the game, and then continued to get beaten upon for four quarters. Alabama’s offensive line dominated the Florida defensive line in ways not thought possible beforehand. TideFans.com’s game preview noted Florida’s DL had been somewhat vulnerable to rushing attacks and maybe not all it was cracked up to be, but the damage had been covered up by its elite secondary. Alabama proved capable of exposing the fault lines in the Florida front. Even though it was the second quarter before Alabama even attempted a running play with an actual running back, the Crimson Tide was dominant on the ground and still came within 12 yards of its season average for rushing.
Part of the reason for the mismatch was simply that the SEC East has looked like the remnants of wheat fields after a locust attack . The second-best SEC team to Alabama, LSU, was still so far behind the Crimson Tide that the SEC Championship Game was seen as more of a threat to Alabama’s roster health than as a competitive affair. And unfortunately, those fears turned out to be true, as key defender Shaun Dion Hamilton was lost to a knee injury that is expected to be season-ending in nature.
Alabama will now wait for the playoff committee to do its work, although Ohio State is believed to be safely in the field despite not playing for its conference championship. There are things from the Florida game that will need cleaning up, Hamilton must be replaced, and Lane Kiffin’s ultimate status must be determined. For now, though, Alabama fans can claim to have seen perhaps the most dominating regular-season run in SEC history, capped off by a decisive SEC Championship Game win that should leave no doubters as to which program is setting the tempo for the rest of the league.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Florida:
1. Alabama won this one on the shoulders of its offensive line. As good as the defense played for most of the game, the offensive line was the most consistent single unit of the team Saturday. Alabama’s running backs carried the ball 29 times and 27 of those plays went for positive yardage. The two that didn’t resulted in a total loss of 4 yards, and one of those came on Derrick Gore’s clock-burning drive at the end when the reserves were playing. Hurts was sacked twice, but was largely given a good pocket for the day. All five of Alabama’s linemen deserve praise, but the left side of Ross Pierschbacher and especially Cam Robinson were dominant. Robinson made himself a ton of money in April’s draft off this game, as he consistently drove his man around like he had a steering wheel.
Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge how Korren Kirven’s ascension at right guard has seemed to have a calming effect on the line as a whole. For the first time all year, Alabama looks comfortable up front, something that began to really shine through against Auburn last week. Alabama won’t see a defensive line remarkably better than Auburn’s the rest of the way in (Clemson is close), and while Florida’s had hidden issues, the Gator DL is still a quality front overall. Alabama controlled both with relative deliberation.
2. Florida secondary lived up to billing; Hurts’ inexperience was more obvious. Alabama seemed to simplify the offense at the half based on what it was seeing from the OL. It was the right move, as Hurts was struggling with his reads early in the game. Alabama wasn’t going to throw the ball much against Florida anyway, and Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson certainly lived up to billing. Alabama will not be sorry to see either of those players move on to the next level. One thing Florida’s front seven doesn’t lack is speed, and it became clear early that Alabama wouldn’t have the perimeter success it had enjoyed up to this point. Hurts should be commended for coming out of the game with zero turnovers, but this was more a function of Kiffin and Saban reacting to what the defense was or wasn’t going to give up, and adjusting the playcalling accordingly.
3. Kiffin’s future is still up in the air. After a rough first quarter, perhaps Kiffin’s single worst of the year against a contender, Alabama’s play choices the next three quarters were inspired. This is Lane Kiffin in a nutshell, alternately brilliant or ludicrous. Obviously the best thing for Alabama is continuity – losing coordinators during a title run is never a good thing. On the other hand, if Kiffin is going to jump ship to another program, particularly if it’s a lateral move to another coordinator-level role, there is going to be the question of where his focus is.
TideFans.com believes the information that Kiffin will interview with Houston sometime this week is reliable, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see him leave Alabama to become Ed Orgeron’s offensive coordinator at LSU. The latter would be treated in Baton Rouge as sweet revenge for Saban going to Tuscaloosa via the NFL, and surely would be touted as an even swap by hopeful Tiger fans. Regardless of the fallout, whatever is going to happen needs to happen before Alabama gets too close to the College Football Playoff.
If Kiffin left now, it would be a shock if anyone other than offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian, wide receivers coach Billy Napier or some combination of the two gets elevated to the coordinator post, whether that’s a permanent move or not. It just needs to happen before Christmas.
4. The loss of Shaun Dion Hamilton will be felt. Rashaan Evans’ first play after replacing Hamilton was a coverage bust that allowed Florida’s second touchdown. Evans, though, later did something that is not considered his strong suit – met a Florida running back in the hole in a goal-line situation and stuffed the play – for what potentially was the snapshot defensive play of the night. Hamilton has been overshadowed somewhat by Reuben Foster’s greatness this year (and as an aside, has anyone ever looked more surprised, humbled and full of gratitude than Foster, when it was announced he was named the game’s MVP?), but Hamilton has quietly become one of the best all-around linebackers in college football in his own right. He has particularly been a weapon against spread teams for his ability to drop into coverage, as was seen in this game, too, in his first-quarter interception that set up Alabama’s first score.
Alabama fans probably aren’t paying enough attention to this issue at the moment, as Evans’ ability to rush the passer when lined up at SLB or at defensive end has caused a lot of people to think those abilities will automatically translate to success at ILB. The fact is, in Alabama’s defense, those two positions are so different that it’s almost misguided to even treat them both as being in the same unit. The SLB/Jack/rush end spots operate like defensive linemen more than linebackers. Hamilton’s spot was responsible for far more things, and on top of that, Hamilton was by far the more complete player.
Alabama won’t simply turn Evans loose to rush the passer from an ILB spot just because he was adept at it at OLB. Additionally, Alabama’s depth situation is problematic now, as Keith Holcombe and Mack Wilson have very little experience with the 1s and Wilson has almost no experience at all, anywhere. You can bet the other three teams in the playoffs will be looking here first to create mismatches.
5. Quick hits: Walk-ons play key roles, refs shined, Diggs becoming a weapon. It’s always nice when walk-ons can contribute, and Saturday was a crowning moment for several. RB Derrick Gore blocked a first-quarter punt, then later scored his first career touchdown on a nice 10-yard run. CB Levi Wallace played a significant role all day on defense, playing in virtually all of Alabama’s nickel and dime sets in relief of the injured Marlon Humphrey and sometimes getting snaps with Alabama’s base defense.
PK Andy Pappanastos made a PAT in relief of an injured Adam Griffith. On the officiating front, the SEC has undergone a lot of transition the last couple of years with the departure of names like Tom Ritter, Penn Wagers and Matt Moore. On Saturday, Matt Loeffler’s crew had a strong outing, missing nothing truly obvious and also navigating a difficult sequence that saw Florida DL Taven Bryan ejected after losing his cool.
Many crews are prone to simply calling offsetting fouls and moving on, but Loeffler’s crew correctly assigned the blame on the play and made a gutsy call to eject Bryan, especially as Florida’s defense was getting more frustrated by the minute and taking more liberties. Finally, true freshman WR Trayvon Diggs was solid all day as Alabama’s punt returner, and seems to grow more comfortable with each kick. He’ll be a weapon to watch in the playoffs, and Alabama’s punt-return blocking has been a strength of the team all year.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN