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Like many teams, Florida utilizes five DBs as its base package now, basing mainly from a 3-3-5 with front concepts that mimic Alabama’s to a large extent. Like last year, however, Florida hasn’t seen the results it has been looking for despite the level of competition it has faced. With the exception of sacks – Florida ranks 14th after two games – all other defensive stats have been mediocre. For Alabama, it’s sort of the reverse; outside of one category, pass efficiency defense (80th), Alabama has put up numbers better across the board with its 3-4 over/under scheme.
Florida’s rush defense has improved a bit out of the gate in 2021, but it also hasn’t seen an Alabama yet. Up the middle, it’s a pair of graduate transfers, Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Valentino. Both have decent ability but they’re both more complementary parts than the guy who is going to take over the game. Depth behind them is at a premium; Florida lists only two reserves. Gervon Dexter and Jalen Lee. Dexter has recorded a couple of impact plays already this year.
Outside, Zachary Carter is Florida’s best player on the line, and he’s already showing it. Just two games into the year, Carter already has 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble. Brenton Cox Jr. mans the other OLB/DE combo spot. Carter will give Alabama’s OL a true test. Jeremiah Moon and Khris Bogle will both play a bunch off the bench, and Moon is actually the team’s leading tackler. He might get a shot to start this game at inside linebacker due to an injury.
Alabama’s down linemen have opened the year in strong fashion. Phidarian Mathis, Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young have formed the most-used lineup, and Mathis has two sacks already from an inside position. Young is Alabama’s most electric DL, but the improvement in Eboigbe has been notable. D.J. Dale and Tim Smith offer depth at tackle along with Stephon Wynn Jr., while Jamil Burroughs, Jah-Marien Latham and LaBryan Ray – who figures to get his first action of the year in this game – provide depth outside. Carter has been the best player, but Alabama has much more depth and consistency. Advantage: Alabama
Florida is in a pinch this week, thanks to word midweek that Ventrell Miller would likely miss this game with an arm injury. He’s Florida’s captain and was its most experienced inside linebacker. With Miller out, it creates a hole that will be filled by some combination of Jeremiah Moon, Mohamoud Diabate and Ty’Ron Hopper. Moon has been highly productive, largely from the outside, and it might end up making more sense to leave him where he’s comfortable. Diabate would be the most likely starter. Amari Burney will start at the other inside spot.
Alabama, on the other hand, got good news midweek when Will Anderson Jr. was cleared to play. Anderson had suffered a knee injury against Mercer on a cut block, but it appears the injury was just a bruise. He’ll start opposite Drew Sanders, while Henry To’o To’o and Christian Miller start at the inside spots. Jaylen Moody will back up the inside positions, while Chris Braswell, Dallas Turner and King Mwikuta bolster the OLB spots. With Anderson in and Miller out, it’s a pretty clear-cut edge to Alabama, especially with the Tide’s edge in production numbers to this point. Advantage: Alabama
Florida is already without Jaydon Hill, expected to be a major force at cornerback this season. Hill was lost for the year in fall camp with a knee injury. Without him, Florida has struggled in pass defense; a freshman, Avery Helm, replaced Hill opposite Kaiir Elam, Florida’s best corner overall. Rashad Torrence and Trey Dean III will start at the primary safety positions, while Tre’Vez Johnson anchors the fifth DB spot. Experienced depth behind the starters is at a premium, with freshmen taking up three two positions and transfers two of the other three.
Alabama will get starting cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis back this week after sitting out the Mercer game; all that did was give Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Marcus Banks a chance to get needed experience in a game situation. Both McKinstry and Banks recorded interceptions against Mercer. At safety, DeMarcco Hellams made his return last week opposite Jordan Battle, so Daniel Wright will slide to a reserve role. Malachi Moore and Brian Branch will play Star and dime safety. It’s saying something when Alabama has a fifth-year senior and two-year starter coming off the bench at safety (Wright), while its young cornerbacks both recorded interceptions in their first starts. Advantage: Alabama
Florida has used two placekickers so far, but has yet to attempt a field goal. Chris Howard and Mississippi State transfer Jace Christmann are a cumulative 11-of-11 on PATs so far. Punting has been poor; Florida ranks 122nd in the nation in net punting, but it hasn’t been because of Jeremy Crawshaw’s leg. He’s hitting punts at a 47.0-yard gross average, so the breakdowns are coming in the coverage units.
Alabama will use Will Reichard as its primary kicker and James Burnip at punter. Burnip is off to a decent start in his freshman year, while Reichard continues to be a weapon. Alabama might have found something with JoJo Earle as a punt returner against Mercer, and if Florida is struggling on coverage, you might want to pay extra attention to Florida’s fourth downs. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories and Florida in two. The offensive line category, which is a Florida edge, is just a slight one, and doesn’t provide the Gators with an edge over Alabama’s DL. Alabama takes both OL-DL cross-matchups, although the matchup of Florida’s Carter against Alabama’s offensive tackles will be one to watch.
In short, this game doesn’t appear to be as potentially close as last year’s SEC Championship Game turned out to be. Whether it’s all a mirage at this point, though, is hard to say given how early in the year it is.
Because of Alabama’s improvements on defense, the presence of a mobile quarterback under center for Florida doesn’t pose quite the potential for panic that it would have in recent past years. However, this isn’t the Alabama offense of the last two or three years, either. Bryce Young certainly looks like a future star, but the supporting cast is still trying to learn how to sing their parts.
Last year’s Alabama-Florida game turned into a showcase for Mac Jones and Kyle Trask. Neither is here this week, and Alabama will need to be ready for Dan Mullen to revert to his Dak Prescott years at Mississippi State – while also making sure it doesn’t revert to its pre-Kiffin output against quality teams.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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