Should I be right with my predictions so far, Florida will be 3-0 at this point, undefeated and unchallenged against three teams that figure to be among the bottom third of the FBS this year.
Now the fun begins.
C’mon, it’s Alabama. You know. The team that has the highest winning percentage against Florida among teams the Gators have played more than 10 times. More importantly, it’s Florida’s first big test of the season.
Alabama Crimson Tide
2013: 11-2 (7-1 SEC), lost Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma 45-31
Last Meeting (2011): Alabama 38, Florida 10
All Time Series: Alabama 22, Florida 14 (Alabama beat Florida in 2005 but later vacated that win; that game is not included in the all time series record)
Coach: Nick Saban, 8th year (74-15)
Who Are You?
Alabama is what you might call an on again, off again rivalry for the Gators. These two teams have met seven times in the SEC Championship Game, and in those championship games have produced two of the greatest games in college football- Alabama’s 28-21 win in 1992 and Florida’s 31-20 win in 2008. The winner of each of those games (along with 1996 Florida and 2009 Alabama) went on to win the national championship. So there’s definitely some history behind this game.
But that history is now a decent memory, as three straight Alabama throttlings from 2009-2011 have left Florida reeling in the series. Combine that with the fact that they’re undoubtedly the most dominant team in college football over the past few years, and you can sort of get a picture of how Florida fans feel about Alabama right now.
Oh, and aside from the whole “We hate Alabama because they’re good” thing, Alabama’s new offensive coordinator is Lane Kiffin. We all remember the dumb things he said back in 2009 when he was the head coach at Tennessee: about singing Rocky Top all night long after beating Florida (which, I’ll point out, never happened because Florida beat Tennessee) and worse, how then Florida coach Urban Meyer committed a violation that he never committed because Kiffin didn’t know the rules and thus falsely accused him of cheating. So, to all the Florida fans out there that still like Urban Meyer and/or still hate Kiffin… here’s your chance.
Returning Starters: 8
Despite losing three year starting QB AJ McCarron and Nick Saban’s penchant for leading a defense first team, Alabama’s offense might actually be the team’s strength. It depends on how Nick Saban decides to play this year out, but if I were him, I’d put my defense second because this offense could be very, very good.
The first order of business for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be picking a QB. It’s between FSU transfer Jacob Coker and long time backup Blake Sims. Once Kiffin makes his choice, though, it’s smooth sailing from there offensively. TJ Yeldon, Kenyon Drake and Derrick Henry form a strong, deep stable of running backs for whoever wins the QB job to trust with the ball. The passing game should flourish once the new QB settles in. Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones all return at wide receiver, and each of them bring along plenty of experience.
The one problem the Crimson Tide may have on offense is on the offensive line. Alabama will have to break in two new starters, and that’s not the position you want to have question marks at when you’re also trying to establish a new QB. In any case, though, Lane Kiffin is a smart offensive coordinator. He’ll likely have any issues at this position worked out by this game.
Offensive Grade: B+
Alabama will lean on this unit to carry them in 2014. And why not when you’ve got maybe the best overall team of skill position players in the SEC?
Returning Starters: 5
Here’s where Alabama could be in trouble. They have to replace six starters. That doesn’t bode well for Alabama; in five out of the last six seasons in which Alabama has had to replace six or more starters, they lost three or more games, and in the other season (2008), they lost the two most important ones because their defense let them down.
Longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has his work cut out for him in the front seven in particular. The Tide do return 2013 All-SEC pick Trey DePriest at middle linebacker, and nose guard Brandon Ivory, but those are the only two players coming back on the front seven. A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen figure to step in at the defensive end positions, while juniors Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland will become Alabama’s starting outside linebackers. All four were extremely highly touted coming out of high school, but none have played very many meaningful snaps.
On the bright side for Alabama, their secondary should be strong. They do lose Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Vinnie Sunseri back there, but at least at this position they have some proven talent (as opposed to the unproven talent they have in the front seven). All-SEC pick Landon Collins returns to anchor this unit at safety, and cornerback Cyrus Jones returns as well. The other cornerback position does need to be filled, but overall, the secondary is probably the strongest part of Alabama’s defense.
Defensive Grade: C+
Talented but inexperienced, this defense could go one of two ways: follow the trend set by previous Crimson Tide defenses that have had to replace a slew of starters, or grow up faster than I believe they will and completely shut teams down. I’ll go with the former.
Florida Key: Offense
The Gators’ offensive line is the key ingredient to pulling the upset. If they can protect Jeff Driskel and open up some holes for Kelvin Taylor to run through, the rest will take care of itself. Driskel usually plays his best on the biggest stages (see wins at FSU and Tennessee in 2012), and he didn’t play too badly in a backup role against the Crimson Tide in 2011. If he gets the time he needs to play his game, Florida’s new offense could suddenly look a lot better than it did in the first three weeks. Also, this is the game when I expect to see the new offense for what it truly is. As Charlie Weis said three years ago, it’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Alabama.
Florida Key: Defense
Florida has to stop Alabama’s running game if they want to stay in this game for more than a half. It’s a tall order, sure, but this is a better defense than last year’s 4-8 record indicated. Only against Georgia Southern did the Gators really get torched in the running game last year, and that was a gimmick offense that very few schools in the country run. Alabama has two backs who can really hurt Florida: Yeldon and Drake. If Florida shuts those two down- and that’s a BIG if- I like their chances of pulling the upset.
Key Matchup: Special Teams
With guys like Andre Debose waiting back deep, there’s always the chance that Florida could run a kick back. Also, Alabama’s special teams have been downright awful in recent years. In fact, poor field goal kicking directly led to two of their last four losses (LSU in 2011, Auburn in 2013). If Florida’s defense can terminate Alabama drives before they reach the Florida 30, things are going to get interesting.
What Does This Game Mean?
If Florida wins, it means everything. If Florida loses, it means nothing. It’s that simple.
Florida’s supposed to lose this game, say the boys in Vegas. Alabama’s an early three touchdown favorite- a ridiculous spread in a matchup that features two of the game’s greatest powerhouses, even if one of those powerhouses is down right now. So if Alabama clobbers Florida like most people expect? Well, then, nothing happens. It’s what realistic Gator fans are predicting to happen.
But if the Gators win, it could symbolize the resurrection of one of the game’s proudest programs. The sickening memories of the past several years- from the bad snaps in 2010 to the fumbled punts against Auburn in 2011, and from the six turnovers against Georgia in 2012 to the two Gators dancing with each other on the middle of the field in 2013- are immediately and permanently erased. Sure, they still happened, and anybody can google any of those things and still find traces of them, but a win over Alabama would launch the Gators back into the discussion as one of college football’s elite.
That would be some feat for a team that’s currently the laughingstock of college football. But that’s the power that this game holds.
Right now, like it or not, failure is what defines this program. The fact is, when somebody says “Florida Gators football team” this very second, the first thing that comes to mind is something negative. 4-8, Georgia Southern, whatever, the image of Florida football right now is not good. But pull the upset in Tuscaloosa, and that image gets flipped 180 degrees. For good. Or at least until Florida starts losing games they shouldn’t.
The formula for beating a Nick Saban coached Alabama team is a tricky, but consistent one. You need each of the following four things: a mobile QB, proven deep receiving threats, an offensive line capable of giving the QB a minimum of three seconds to throw, and a ferocious defense. Each team to beat Alabama since 2008 had all four of those things, except for 2008 Utah, and that game was a fluke because Alabama clearly had no interest in being in the Sugar Bowl that year.
Here’s the good news: Florida has the mobile QB in Driskel, and the ferocious defense led by Dante Fowler, Michael Taylor and Vernon Hargreaves. The bad news: Florida’s receiving corps has been a major area of weakness since Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy left for the NFL after 2008, and the offensive line- until they show me otherwise- is not capable of protecting Driskel for very long against respectable SEC defenses.
What does that mean?
Florida’s going to lose, but it’s OK. I think they’re going to be a better football team than they were last year, even if they wind up with a myriad of losses. But there’s no shame in going down, even in gigantic fashion, to what’s bound to be a top five team in Tuscaloosa as long as Florida doesn’t play sloppy.
There will be bright spots, and moments that give Gator fans hope for future games. And I think Florida will cover the insane 21 point spread. But as for walking out of Bryant Denny Stadium with a win, I just don’t see it. Alabama pulls away late and hands Florida their first loss of the season.
Projection: Alabama 31, Florida 14