Well, it's finally here: the most anticipated game of the year. I don't know...To me, it seems a little more like Hulk Hogan vs. Andre The Giant from Wrestlemania 4 than Hogan vs. Andre from Wrestlemania 3.
You know, it's the same matchup, but the stakes just aren't as high. Personally, I don't know if I'm any more amped up for this game than I was for Arkansas last week. Hopefully, the team doesn't feel the same way, but that's where I'm at. Regardless, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for Penn Wagers' evil twin.
Was that one too many pro wrestling references? Probably.
Penn Wagers doesn't even have a twin, of course. He's ALL EVIL by himself.
Anyway, it's the Friday before a big game, so it must be time for me to give Alabama some unsolicited advice. As before, we will assume the basic tenets of the faith: running the ball, stopping the run, and not committing turnovers are all necessary for Alabama to win any game.
1. Jim McElwain must call another A+ game. No two ways about it: Alabama's OC called the game of his life in last year's SEC championship game and systematically destroyed the Gator defense. They rarely had a clue what was coming next. If Alabama is going to win this game, they'll need an encore performance from McElwain. As young as this Florida defense is, they're still supremely talented. They're one of the few teams in the country that can physically match up against Alabama's offensive line, especially in their newly introduced 5-2 defensive front, designed specifically to stop the Tide's power zone running schemes. If Bama's offense becomes one dimensional, or at least predictable, these young guys have the capability to shut it down. Oh, here's one bonus tidbit of unsolicited advice for Coach McElwain: Don't be afraid to call the RB screen passes! We didn't see enough of that against Arkansas, but it was deadly when it got called. The only team that runs those better than Alabama is the New Orleans Saints. Greg McElroy is a top-notch screen faker (ask Joe Haden). You might recall that a screen to Mark Ingram was pretty much the killshot in this game last year.
2. Greg McElroy needs to get off to a better start. It's not a big secret that Florida is going to come out focused on stopping Ingram and Trent Richardson. Everybody does. Most of them fail, but everybody does. However, Florida's recently unveiled 5-2 front produces some unique problems with it's ability to take away the cut-back lanes in Bama's zone rushing plays. I'm not convinced the 5-2 is the key to stopping Bama, and if Ingram/Richardson can get to the second level against that front, they could hit some huge gains. BUT it will be a great boost for Bama's efforts to run against that front if McElroy can pass consistently against it. Florida has a lot of faith in their base 4 defensive backs, and they certainly have the numbers to validate that confidence (8 interceptions amongst them so far this season). They're ballhawks, for sure. As well as he played down the stretch against Arkansas, GMAC can't afford to start as poorly against Florida as he did in that game. He can't hold on to the ball all day and be late with his throws. These Gator DBs will jump all over the routes. Staying in rhythm and on time (as he was in the SEC title game) will be absolutely key. He also needs to get back in sync with his WR screens. I sense there will be big gains to be had on those plays when Florida is packed inside to stop the run.
3. The Defense MUST tackle. Poor tackling has been a recurrent problem through the first month of the season. It seemed somewhat improved against Arkansas, but it's still a long way from the standard the Bama defense has set the past 2 years. Finishing tackles is the #1 thing this defense must do against Florida, because the Gators have elite speed at the skill positions. All it takes is one missed tackle for a guy like Jeff Demps to take it to the house. (He will play, by the way. Bank on that.) Giving up bonus yards and points after a play should be over will kill you against a team as talented as Florida.
4. The Linebackers need to do a better job patrolling the middle and flat passing game. I honestly think the short/intermediate middle pass defense has been a bigger problem for Bama than the deep and outside pass defense. In that area of the field, coverage responsibility typically falls to linebackers, and this year they've really struggled against a handful of plays repeatedly: crossing routes, drag routes, those "leak" plays where a guy crosses behind the offensive line and clears into the flats, as well as basic dropoff stuff to backs out of the backfield. It's happened every game. And, guess what? Florida uses that stuff with regularity. Bama has to clamp down on it or the Gators will slowly bleed them out. Surprisingly, one of the bigger liabilities in this area has been Dont'a Hightower. He's still as explosive as ever heading downhill, but his lateral mobility isn't yet what it was prior to his injury and he's looked sadly slow chasing down receivers from one side of the field to the other (a requirement of his new job as Mike/Mack linebacker). In an effort to address the situation, the Tide experimented with moving Hightower back to his old "Money" position in nickle/dime sets against Arkansas and moved the nimble Nico Johnson into the "Mack" position in his place. It seemed to start working in the second half of that game, but it's worth noting that Johnson is the guy who initially lost his starting job over the offseason largely due to his pass coverage...We'll see how it goes this week. Failure here coupled with failure on #3 will probably result in a Gator win.
5. The Pass Rush needs to finally show up for a full 4 quarters. What the Tide REALLY needs is Marcell Dareus to be full-speed for a full four quarters, but there's nothing you can do about that right now. Hopefully the defensive coaching staff will feel confident enough based on last week's 2nd half to continue to dial up aggressive play calls against Florida. John Brantley hasn't shown himself to be half the passer Ryan Mallett is, but it will still be important to get after him early and rattle him in his first start in a truly hostile environment. The Gator running game has been terrible, save the random Demps homerun or Trey Burton gadget, so getting in Brantley's head could render that offense nearly impotent. It's mainly up to Kirby Smart to cut these guys loose, then the players need to finish their tackles (see #3) when they get there. I was encouraged by how Courtney Upshaw seemed to pick up as he got back into the flow of playing a full game last week.
6. Alabama has to match Florida's focus and intensity. Against most opponents, it's the exact opposite. But Florida has spent all year building up to this game, just as Bama spent all last year building up to the SEC championship game. This is a big game for Alabama, and I have no doubt the Tide will be up for it. But the outcome of this game will define Florida's whole season. If they lose this game, even though they won't be officially eliminated from anything, they're going to feel like their whole offseason was a failure. This is going to be a rare case where the opponent sets the intensity level and it's up to the Tide to match it. If they can't, Florida could run away with the game in a mirror image of the SEC championship game.
Of course, in my preseason No Win Scenario, I had this to say about this very subject, and I stand by it now:
They’re coming after Bama like Bama came after them last season. And while I’m
sure they’ll be ultra-motivated, there’s a key distinction that needs to be
made: When Bama put a mark on Florida, they had nearly everyone that mattered
(especially defensive leaders) coming back from that SEC Championship game. That
was a team full of guys who were ON THE FIELD and had firsthand knowledge of
getting their hearts ripped out by Tebow. More importantly, they knew exactly
how much higher they had to elevate their game to beat the Gators in 09. That’s
not the case at Florida. Yeah, they’ve got some guys coming back who were on the
field getting their hats handed to them last December, but for the most part you
see a bunch of guys who were on the sidelines or still in HIGH SCHOOL talking
about how they’re going to “take back the crown” or whatever. It’s not even
close to being the same thing. So they’ll be motivated, yes, but will that
motivation amount to anything meaningful? I doubt it.
So that brings me to...
In that very same piece, I called for a 31-14 Bama win. I still see a Bama win, but I think I'm going to trim down the margin of victory a bit. The tackling just really concerns me right now. Even beyond giving up points to the Gators, I feel like the Bama offense is going to get shorted on possessions and field position due to the defense not getting off the field when it's supposed to. And I'm sure Meyer will have a few new wrinkles they've been saving for this game that will throw some of our young guys for a loop. Call it...
Alabama 27, Florida 20.