This is kind of a tough game to do an Unsolicited Advice column on due to so much of the game likely hinging on the fundamental aspects of Alabama football (run the ball, stop the run, don't turn the ball over) that I usually skip over to get deeper into the game. The one thing Florida has done consistently well on offense this year is run the football.
The general consensus is if Bama can stop Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps from getting going, Jeff Brantley and his crew of underachieving receivers can't win. And I agree. Likewise, while AJ McCarron has been extremely efficient in the Crimson Tide's first two big games, Saban will want to win this one on the ground and not put too much on him in his first big SEC road test. If Florida can stifle Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy and put the ball in McCarron's hands, the Gators' odds of winning get significantly better. So...Run the ball. Stop the run. That's what this game will boil down to, and it could turn into the grinder that I thought the trip to Penn State would.
That said, I do have 3 other key bits of advice for the Tide in this one.
1. Keep an eye on Florida's RBs coming out of the backfield on pass plays. Of Florida's 811 passing yards this season, over 40% of those were accrued by Rainey, Demps, and Trey Burton. In fact, Rainey has claimed 2 of the Gators' 4 passing touchdowns. As mentioned above, Florida's receiving corps is loaded with highly-rated busts. They don't have a single receiver as good as 4 of the guys that Arkansas put on the field last Saturday (often at the same time), and none of those guys were able to make enough plays to even make it a game. There's little doubt it in my mind that Bama's matured secondary can handle Florida's downfield threats.
The issue will be dealing with backs coming out of the backfield on swings, screens, wheels, and assorted short check down routes. Rainey and Demps, in particular, are homerun threats when they get the ball in space. Even if the Tide defense has the running game locked down, they can still break things open in other ways. The defense MUST keep at least one set of eyes on them when they're on the field. (And I bet we see them on the field together quite a bit.)
And that task actually just got tougher. Alabama's best coverage linebacker, CJ Mosley, left the Arkansas game with a dislocated elbow and has officially been ruled out for this weekend. In his absence, it will likely fall to some combination of Nico Johnson (great against the run, struggles in coverage), Jerrell Harris (strong side linebacker with minimal experience inside), Adrian Hubbard (redshirt freshman), and Alex Watkins (veteran slowed by an offseason knee injury) to pick up the slack. They have a tough task ahead of them, and I hope they're up for it.
2. AJ must not be led into temptation. It's not a big secret that the inexperienced secondary is the weakness of Florida's defense. Against the one offense with pulse that they've played, they surrendered nearly 300 passing yards and 3 TDs. They're a tempting target for any QB. However, Will Muschamp, being the Saban disciple that he is, understands the power of deception and confusion. Properly executed, it can turn a weakness into a strength. I expect Florida's D to show young McCarron a plethora of tempting pre-snap looks in hopes of baiting him into taking errant shots down the field into very different coverages than he expected to get. If they successfully prey on his naivety, McCarron will, at best, waste a lot of plays and put the offense off schedule, or, at worst, turn the ball over.
Thus far, AJ has done an excellent job of being more of a "game manager" than the "gunslinger" he was expected to be by most fans, being patient (but not slow) and taking his check downs instead of forcing his trademark McCarron Bombs into coverage. I keep waiting for the day that AJ can't help himself anymore and lets his inner gunslinger free. Hopefully it's not this weekend.
3. Watch out for that kitchen sink. As we discussed prior to the Arkansas game, there has been a tacit understanding of late that Bama's opponents often dig deep into their playbooks to attempt to confuse the defense. The Tide handled it well against the Razorbacks, surrendering only a single TD to just such a gadget play in the 1st quarter. Well, this week Florida OC Charlie Weis isn't even trying to hide his intentions. "You have to go ahead and throw the kitchen sink at them," he told the media. So be on notice, Tide. He of the Decided Schematic Advantage has some tricks in store for you.
Florida has a ton of talent. Player for player, they're up there with Alabama and LSU in terms of the caliber of athlete they have all the way down the roster. And they have a really great coaching staff that has them playing very well. With the home crowd on their side and playing at an unusally late hour for Alabama, it would not surprise me if I'm back here on Monday picking up the pieces after a big upset. But on paper (I know, I know)...I just don't see how they do it. I don't see how they have any success running between the tackles on Alabama. And with the way the secondary has been tackling, I don't see how they have much success running wide either. Short of Weis going Ole Miss and running endless gadget plays, how are these Gators going to move the ball consistently? Even with Mosely out, it's highly unlikely they're able to run RB wheels and screens up and down the field to victory.
Defensively, the Gators have a good matchup because their strength in the front 7 is going to play against Bama's gameplan. But even assuming a best case scenario where they're secondary doesn't give up any big plays and Bama only scores, say, 17, can the offense manage to put 20 on Bama? Not without McCarron throwing picks and setting them up in scoring position a few times. And until he proves himself unreliable in a big game, I'm going to assume he won't.
Alabama 24, Florida 13