Probably the greatest accomplishment of the Alabama defense is that is has managed to put up solid numbers while having to take the field so much in relief of the quick-scoring offense. Alabama ranks 27th in total defense, 18th in rushing defense, 16th in pass efficiency defense and 11th in scoring defense. Only raw pass defense, where Alabama is 57th, is well above standard.
Florida, by comparison, has struggled. The Gators are 50th in total defense, and the top-ranking single category is rushing defense at 45th. Scoring defense ranks 48th, but the real struggles are in pass defense, where Florida ranks 78th in raw pass defense and 76th in pass efficiency defense. Both teams play a version of the 3-4 over/under that Nick Saban has popularized across college football.
Florida may be struggling with its overall defense, but it doesn’t struggle in getting after the quarterback. Florida ranks 18th in the country in sacks, and leads the SEC in the stat. Tedarrell Slaton and Zachary Carter are quality defensive tackles that cause a lot of disruption up front, especially Carter.
The biggest question for this game is whether Brenton Cox Jr., who is listed as a linebacker but almost always aligns as a defensive end, is going to be able to play. He’s the biggest mismatch on the field for an offensive tackle, because he has linebacker quickness with enough bulk to hold his own against the run. He’s currently listed as questionable with an arm injury. If he can’t go, Andrew Chatfield will be forced into the lineup, and he’s not nearly as dynamic. Florida has better depth inside with Kyree Campbell, Marlon Dunlap and true freshman Gervon Dexter, who is a star of tomorrow.
Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis and D.J. Dale at the tackles, with Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young the ends. Christian Barmore will rotate across all positions. LaBryan Ray, who was thought to be on the road to recovery a couple of weeks ago, will probably miss this game. Like Cox for Florida, Ray is a destablizer and his absence makes Alabama less dynamic. Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs, a pair of freshmen, continue to see their snap counts go up.
The starters are comparable across the two sides but Alabama has better depth, and the loss of Cox would mean more to Florida than Ray’s loss means to Alabama. Plus, Florida has no one like Barmore at the moment. Advantage: Alabama
Just when Alabama was beginning to stabilize its linebacker play, Christian Harris suffered a shoulder injury on the first play of the Arkansas game and is 50/50 to make it back in time for Florida. Fortunately for Alabama, Jaylen Moody came off the bench to play the game of his life against Arkansas, and brings hope that Harris’ loss won’t be the killer it otherwise could be. Dylan Moses will start at middle linebacker, with Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. on the edges. Ben Davis will back up the outside and Josh McMillon the inside.
For Florida, Ventrell Miller has been the team’s defensive MVP, leading by almost 30 tackles on the team’s stat chart. He is also very active behind the line of scrimmage and creates havoc just about everywhere. He just doesn’t have much help. Amari Burney, who will start alongside Miller, hasn’t had an impactful season.
The problems continue outside, where Jeremiah Moon will probably miss this game with a foot injury. Khris Bogle will take his spot, and while Bogle has been effective in relief, the loss of both Moon and the LB/DE combo player Brenton Cox means depth is thin. David Reese becomes the only other backup available outside of Andrew Chatfield, and Chatfield can’t play as many roles.
This basically comes down to a comparison of Miller against Moses, with the supporting cast defined by injury. Florida would win the battle there, but with Allen and Anderson being healthier than Cox and Moon, Alabama takes the slim edge. Advantage: Alabama
The improvement in Alabama’s secondary following the Ole Miss debacle has been the storyline of the 2020 Alabama defense. It’s also the one category on the defensive side solidly in Alabama’s favor. Florida lost to LSU last week largely due to Marco Wilson’s discipline gaffe at the end of the game, and Wilson was being overshadowed at cornerback anyway on the year by Kaiir Elam, who has nearly three times the pass breakups that Wilson does. Both Elam and Wilson are big corners, measuring in at around 6’2”, and Alabama doesn’t have a lot of height in its receiver corps.
The safety trio of Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart Jr. haven’t been dynamic in any way for Florida, a team that ranks mid-pack in the SEC in interceptions and doesn’t get a lot of run support at or behind the line from its DBs. Alabama will start Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe at the corners, with Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle at the safeties. Malachi Moore and Brian Branch will play Star and dime, respectively. DeMarcco Hellams gives Alabama good depth behind the safeties.
Anyone who has watched the last month of Alabama’s season has seen the improvement in the safety group, especially, and the emergence of Branch has been a big reason for that. Advantage: Alabama
Florida ranks 3rd in the country in net punting, and Kadarius Toney gives the Gators a dangerous return man on punts and kicks. Evan McPherson is one of the best kickers in the conference and is able to hit from long range. The Gators cover kicks well and punts adequately.
While Alabama has some weapons – placekicker Will Reichard continues to be reliable, while DeVonta Smith has developed into a solid punt returner – Alabama isn’t as good on kickoff returns, and punting, while decent in the hands of Charlie Scott, is not exactly at “weapon” status. In summary, both teams have good special teams, but Florida’s is just better, especially the punting game. Advantage: Florida
Despite this being an SEC Championship game, Alabama’s six-category lead, to just two for Florida, outlines just how dominating Alabama has been all year. There are several close categories – quarterback, linebacker, defensive line – in which Florida could claim the lead, but Alabama is also very close on special teams and receiver. Only defensive backs and running backs are decidedly a one-team affair, and that one team is Alabama. In regards to OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds leads in both, although the comparison of Alabama DL to Florida OL is very, very tight.
Florida, with the exception of quarterback play, is simply about one year away from being a true contender. The Gators are here a year early because Georgia spent the first half of the season playing the wrong quarterback. Florida will get back here again under Dan Mullen, and may win the game the next time, but a Florida victory probably isn’t in the cards in 2020.
For it to happen, Alabama would probably have to turn the ball over three or four times without getting any in return. And for that to happen, Florida would have to do better in turnover margin than it has done all year. Alabama ranks 15th in ball security; Florida ranks 71st.
Throw out what you saw last week when Florida lost to an LSU team Alabama dominated. LSU is completely schizophrenic. The Tigers, despite all their defections, still possess probably the third-best overall talent level in the conference behind Alabama and Georgia – ahead of, yes, Florida. What happened last week is evidence of what LSU could have been capable of all year if Ed Orgeron could actually function as a head coach on a week-to-week basis.
Dan Mullen is a much better sideline general than Orgeron is, but he’ll be in this battle without some of his key pieces. The injuries on the edges of the Florida defensive line won’t help, and if Kyle Pitts is anything less than 100 percent at tight end, the chief offensive mismatch goes away.
Alabama simply needs to play within itself, take care of the ball and stay healthy, especially at positions like split end and cornerback that can’t take a lot of attrition. If that happens, Alabama should comfortably move into the College Football Playoff with SEC trophy in hand.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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