There are two ways to look at this game, a 31-29 Alabama win on the road in The Swamp with a quarterback who was making his first SEC road start.
You can choose to look at it as an exercise in guts and tenacity, and consider the flaws that exhibited themselves over the course of this game to be hidden opportunities for improvement.
Still, this Gator team managed to do something a lot of lesser teams can’t do against Alabama: It got up off the canvas after receiving two-thirds of a TKO in the first quarter.
At 21-3, Florida looked like an also-ran. Suddenly, the question of whether Kentucky would finish above Florida in the year-end SEC East standings looked less like an inquiry and more like a guarantee. But from that point forward, Florida controlled the ebb and flow of the game, and matched Alabama punch-for-punch. It outscored Alabama 26-10 over the final three quarters. Dan Mullen has never beaten Alabama, but he has scared Alabama more times than the curves of U.S. Highway 129 have scared truckers.
Florida threw everything it had at Alabama, including a was-he-or-wasn’t-he hurt Brenton Cox. Jr. and a malfunctioning game clock that would have impressed even Simpson Pepper and the boys at Legion Field. Alabama did just enough on offense to keep the ball away from Florida until 4 seconds were left, and then LB Jaylen Moody – playing his only defensive snap, and lining up as a nosetackle to do it – sacked Jones on the final play of the game.
Nick Saban mentioned the dichotomy in his postgame remarks, proud of his team for showing resilience on the road in the SEC, but mentioning yet again how this team doesn’t seem to know how to keep its intensity level at the same watermark over four quarters. That particular issue has the potential to be fatal come Oct. 9, when Alabama travels to College Station and faces a Texas A&M team that has the Alabama game circled, highlighted and double-underlined.
The fact Florida was able to do this without a downfield passing game is even more worrisome, and perplexing. Florida was able to create enough confusion up front to keep Alabama’s defense on its heels for three quarters. Alabama then compounded the problem by exhibiting its worst tackling mechanics of the year.
With Miami now in a freefall, this win casts Alabama’s season to date in a new light. If Florida truly is just the third-best team in a mediocre SEC East, how good exactly is Alabama? Can this defense really win a game win the chips are down – because one could argue the offense actually created the necessary space today? Are all the new parts functioning the way they are supposed to?
It could very well be just another close-not-no-cigar moment for Dan Mullen, who has had a bunch of them against Alabama over the years. Or it could be a bellwether for something a bit more worrisome. And Alabama might not get another test that would reveal pertinent details before having to face Texas A&M, either.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Florida:
1. DL, expected to dominate the Florida OL, instead wasn’t a factor. If Mullen has experience doing one thing above the others, it’s figuring out how to use scheme to cover up issues in his offensive lines. He was a master of it at Mississippi State and due to the makeup of the 2020 and 2021 Florida OL, he has been forced to relive those days while trying to fix it long-term through better recruiting. This game was already a tale of two games, the first quarter and everything that came after, and the OL-DL cross-matchup was just a microcosm of the greater picture. As the game went along, the interior DL became less and less of a factor for Alabama, and Alabama was asking Will Anderson to do an awful lot just a week after his season nearly ended on a knee injury. For much of the second half, he looked spent, but Chris Braswell wasn’t making plays when he was in and Alabama never tried Mwikuta or Koht; Turner may have gotten a snap or two. Mathis, Dale and Smith made a handful of plays, but they weren’t consistent, going back to preseason comments we made about how big the loss of Christian Barmore could prove to be. It’s not time to pull the panic levers yet – especially since Florida’s offense forces speed on the edges and Alabama had to run two OLBs all day to get that – but Alabama will have to add additional bodies to the rotation to keep the starters fresh, or find someone who can bring solo pressure consistently. LaBryan Ray’s return is crucial.
2. LB play was erratic, especially inside. The outside linebackers played very well overall – Drew Sanders had his best game at Alabama by a wide margin – but they were asked to do too much for too long and didn’t get a lot of help. Henry To’o To’o was largely absent, or catching up to the play. Christian Harris was often absent in run support. Alabama seemed to play the inside LBs off into more of a read/react posture, which may be necessary given what was expected from Florida’s offensive scheme. In doing so, though, Alabama didn’t look as aggressive as it has in its better games. We can’t get caught reading too much into Jaylen Moody’s last-snap play, but Moody has shown a lot of aggressiveness since the last month or so of the 2020 season into the 2021 season, and the only negative of having To’o To’o on the field so much is it keeps Moody benched. Again, today’s softness might have been somewhat planned given the defensive gameplan, but it nearly got Alabama beat.
3. OL came through when it had to, but crucial penalties killed key plays. Emil Ekiyor was the biggest offender, getting hit three times for illegal procedure, including two in critical spots, one on a silent count and one on a clap count. Run blocking in general could have been better in the interior, although Brian Robinson Jr. had a nice day statistically. Alabama kept QB Bryce Young clean for most of the day, and neutralized Florida DE Zachary Carter in the pass rush. This may be what we should expect for the duration of the season, as Alabama’s offensive line, for the most part, lacks the star power of a year ago. And Ekiyor has to bounce back with a better game.
4. DB play was schizophrenic: CBs shut down UF’s outside receivers; safeties struggled. DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle played one of the worst second halves of a game we’ve seen from either, and because it was happening in tandem, the results were even worse. Hellams whiffed twice – badly – on Florida’s 99-yard scoring drive, once mentally and once with poor effort on a tackle. Alabama got a better game from Brian Branch, and Malachi Moore was mostly his usual self, but Battle and Hellams can’t struggle like this again if Alabama is truly chasing another title. Outside, Alabama fared much better; Jacob Copeland caught just 1 pass for 10 yards, while Xzavier Henderson caught 1 pass for 18 yards (albeit a significant one). Where Alabama really struggled was in containing two very average tight ends; Florida hadn’t thrown to a tight end yet this year, but against Alabama, tight ends caught 9 passes for 83 yards. The best thing that could have happened to Alabama’s secondary is what eventually did happen: the game clock finally ran out.
5. Alabama’s offensive scheme may need a bit more urgency. First things first, Bryce Young was highly successful given the circumstances: first road SEC start, quality defense, big and loud crowd. He didn’t turn the ball over, he threw 3 touchdown passes, and he was always under control. But he wasn’t flawless. Instead of trying to force a pass to either Robbie Ouzts or Cameron Latu – we can’t tell which, to be sure – he could have scrambled for a touchdown. His calmness in the pocket is welcomed, but sometimes the pacing needs to be turned up. Alabama’s coaches might have known more about their own defense than we did and were stretching the clock on purpose, but this has been an issue in all three games so far and begs the question of whether it’s part of Bill O’Brien’s plan. Alabama’s playcalling flow also got into a rut at times; Alabama defaulted to almost exclusively running on first down in the second half, and became predictable. Fortunately, those issues are easily fixable, because most come down from the coaches’ box, but it’s time to see some movement in that direction.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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