Just over a month after country music star Kenny Chesney played a free concert at the world famous Flora-Bama Lounge, Flora-Bama fever is high again. This time it’s another match up of the top two teams in the SEC since 1990, Florida versus Alabama that has created a circus like frenzy.
At first look it appears to be an evenly matched game, but popular perception is that it should be a cake walk for the Tide who have been the class of the SEC since beating Florida for the SEC title in 2009. The Gators, on the other hand, are seeking a measure of revenge after suffering through a 4-8 season a year ago due in large part to 17 season ending injuries overall.
Both teams have had one tough match up in the season’s first three weeks with Alabama overcoming a sluggish start to beat West Virginia 33-23 in week one and the Gators overcoming dropped passes and mental mistakes to outlast an up-and-coming Kentucky Wildcats team last week in Gainesville 36-30 in 3 ots.
On paper, the two teams appear to mirror each other. Offensively, the Gators, behind 4th year quarterback Jeff Driskel, are ranked 6th nationally overall at 593.5 yards per game (ypg) while the Tide are ranked 12th at 563.8 ypg. Defensively, the Tide are 10th nationally at 267 ypg and the Gators close behind in 15th place at 287.5 ypg.
The Gators, after only two games, look good running a new spread offensive attack installed by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Driskel (56-88, 543 yards, 4 tds, 1 int), despite some apparent issues in the first half against Kentucky, looks more comfortable in this offense. He should be with a bevy of skill position players at his disposal which the Gators have lacked the last few seasons.
Nobody is more important right now than sophomore wide receiver Demarcus Robinson who had a coming out party of sorts last week tying a school record with 15 receptions and finishing with a career high 216 yards.
Senior tight end Clay Burton has played well also with 9 catches in two games which is important considering the Gators had only 3 receptions from the tight end spot all last season.
With Virginia transfer Jake McGee out for the season with a knee injury it’s important for Burton, previously more of an end-line blocker than pass receiver, to step up and make some plays, especially on third down, in the red zone, and in short yardage situations. He’s a big target for Driskel to find and for defenders to cover. The Gators will need to get him involved early and often against a strong defense such as Alabama.
Alabama will counter with a strong combination of senior quarterback Blake Sims (48-64, 646, 4 tds, 1 int) who is 12th nationally in pass efficiency and wide receiver Amari Cooper, currently the number one wideout in the nation with 33 receptions for 454 yards. Robinson, incidentally, is 3rd in the nation with 21 in two games.
The all-pro match up that fans and media are univerally talking about is cornerback Vernon Hargreaves against Cooper. Its not hyperbole to say that these are two of the top players in the nation regardless of position and that both are likely future first round NFL picks. The winner of their individual match ups could go a long way to determining which team wins this game.
Cooper has the size advantage at 6-2 210 vs Hargreaves 5-11 195 but Hargreaves is likely the most polished corner in the college game with great technique and solid ball skills. Hargreaves will certainly have his hands full against Cooper.
“Well, again, he’s a guy that can stretch the field vertically,” according to Florida head coach Will Muschamp. “They do a nice job in the run game of getting the ball to him in a lot of what I call quick situation, of seeing a bad box, getting it out to him on the perimeter, creating some one-on-ones. They move him around a little bit and we’ve got to make sure we identify him and know where he is. He’s been targeted a bunch in their first three games, so there’s no question he’s a playmaker.”
However, there’s another match up that could be just as important, Demarcus Robinson against Cyrus Jones. Robinson is a big target at 6-2 200 with great hands, good speed, and great athleticism. Gator fans finally caught a glimpse last week against Kentucky of what the staff and players have raved about since Robinson first set foot on campus.
“He’s a tough matchup just because he’s got really good vertical speed,” Muschamp said on Monday. He can run through contact. He’s stronger. He’s a 6-2, 200-pound kid. A young man that catches the ball well. There’s no question it’s a huge something you’ve got to account for as a defensive coordinator.”
Last week against Kentucky he had a career night because he had a career number of targets. That was due in large part to how Kentucky played the Gators. The staff felt good about the match up the had against Robinson and took advantage of it.
“How many one-on-ones are you going to create for him, and they (Kentucky) created a bunch,” Muschamp said. “That’s why we had some matchups and some situations we liked. They did a nice job with their pressure package, and I felt like as the game wore on we did a better job identifying it and getting the ball in the right spots.”
The match up versus Jones may very well be the Gators best match up in this one too. If so expect to see a heaping helping of Robinson getting the ball in space in this one. Jones and the Tide defense will certainly have their hands full against Demarcus.
Defensively, both teams have been inconsistent against the pass. Alabama gave up 365 passing yards to West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett while the Gators were rather porous last week against Kentucky, particularly in the second half while allowing first year starter Patrick Towles to complete 24-45 for 369 yards and 3 touchdowns.
For Alabama, the secondary issues are not new as they have tended to struggle against spread passing attacks in the past like West Virginia and Auburn. Florida should present similar challenges for the Tide secondary. For the Gators, the issue is simply youth.
The Gators had to replace three of their four top corners from last season (Watkins, Roberson, and Purifoy) as well as senior safety and swingman Cody Riggs who transferred to Notre Dame to pursue graduate school opportunities. The result is that, while talented, they are extremely young and have typical issues in play and formation recognition as well as on-ball technique particularly defending the slot.
“I felt like there were just some fundamental, technique things in the slot,” Muschamp said. “We didn’t play in the slot very well. What happens, a lot of times, and I’ve been doing it a long time, when you have a guy that gives up a play, you start playing a little cautious instead of playing aggressive. You get tentative in your techniques and that’s what happened to us a little bit, especially late in the game coming off the goal line. We just have got to make a play on the ball in those situations and go play the ball, be aggressive and keep that same mentality regardless of the situation and understand that you’ve always got to stay aggressive on the back end.”
One key player to pay attention to in the Alabama secondary will be junior safety and nickelback Landon Collins the brother of Florida true freshman defensive end Gerald Willis. Collins is a hard hitter who will be kept busy trying to match up with the slot receivers and tight ends for Florida while still trying to provide adequate run support.
Linebacker and defensive captain Trey DePriest is still trying to work back into shape from missing time in summer camp due to a knee injury and a suspension for the opener against West Virginia. His importance to this defense was evident against the Mountaineers as they gave up over 400 yards of offense and appeared to have significant communication issues.
Overall, both defenses face a difficult challenge against Blake Sims for Alabama and Jeff Driskel for Florida.
While the passing game might get the headlines coming in with Cooper and Robinson, it’s the running game that may yet determine a winner in this one. Both teams come in with balanced offenses and a good stable of running backs. Alabama is currently 17th in the nation averaging 270 ypg while the Gators are close behind at number 24 nationally at 248 ypg.
The Tide are led by two prototypical Alabama big backs in T.J. Yeldon who has rushed for 225 yards and a td and Derrick Henry with 209 yards and 2 tds. The Gators counter with the 1-2 punch of Matt Jones (221 ypd, 2 tds) and Kelvin Taylor (132 ypg, 2 tds).
After missing all of summer workouts and the first two games of the season last year, Matt Jones barely got cranked up before going out for the season with a knee injury. Last week’s game was his most sustained action since Florida State in 2012. He looked very good against Kentucky rushing 29 times for 156 yards and a touchdown.
“I think anytime you have something that’s really, really important to you, and football is extremely important to Matt Jones, you have something taken away from you, and Matt went through a tough time last year,” Muschamp said of Jones’ return from injury. “He really did. I remember him coming into my office and we had a lot of talks and things about life and what happens and dealing with adversity in life and all of those things. But Matt, there is no question. I don’t know if I would say motivated because he was motivated before, but when you have something taken away from you that’s really important and then to get it back. I’m just really proud of him and happy for him.”
Defensively, Alabama counters with the nation’s number one rushing defense giving up an average of only 47 ypg although they really haven’t faced a running offense yet the likes of Florida. Florida has been equally tough against the run at number 12 nationally giving up 80 ypg. Similarly, they have yet to face a rushing attack like the one Alabama employs.
Like the epic battles between Florida and Tennessee in the ’90’s where the winning team won the rushing battle virtually every time, this game sizes up to be very similar. Both teams have balanced offenses and will seek to throw the ball all over the field and take shots downfield but the team who successfully establishes the run will likely end up the victor in this one.
On that note, one area of concern for the Gators is along the offensive line where the Gators are lacking in depth and looking at the second consecutive game without starting left tackle D.J. Humphries who is out with an injury. In his place, Chaz Green moved over from right tackle and he was replaced by redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson.
As a result, the Gators suffered some breakdowns in pass protection especially in the blitz pick up. They will need to clean up the mistakes heading into this matchup against the Tide which has done a better job in pressuring the quarterback since the West Virginia game if they hope to have a chance.
Special teams is another area that both teams excel. Florida punt returner Andre Debose is ranked 7th nationally at 24.3 yards per return (4 for 97) while the Tide have Christion Jones who is equally talented although he has yet to get cranked up this season (4 for 20 yds). Jones is, however, ranked 22nd nationally in kickoff returns at 26.2 yards per return. Debose needs only one more kick return for a touchdown to set an SEC career record (currently tied with Georgia’s Brandon Boykin with 4).
Field position is always huge in tight conference match ups and this one should be no different. Florida’s Kyle Christy has returned to the form that made him a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2012 after suffering through a tough season last year eventually losing the job to true freshman Johnny Townsend. After two games, Christy is 5th nationally with a 48.6 yards per punt average helping the Gators to a number 8 ranking in net punting at 44.1 yards per punt.
The Tide is slightly better at 45.3 net yards per punt good for 5th nationally although they have only punted three times on the season.
Alabama’s kicker Adam Griffith is a perfect 7-7 on the season good for 5th nationally at 2.3 field goals per game while the Gators Francisco Frankie Velez is 6-7 and tied for first nationally at 3 per game. The Tide have famously had some difficulties in the kicking game particularly in big games at crunch time and the Gators have struggled finding an adequate replacement for the school’s all time leading kicker Caleb Sturgis who graduated after the 2012 season.
With both teams being very evenly matched and strong defensively, this is certainly an area that bears watching. Scoring will be at a premium and if either team struggles converting field goals it could be a long day for them.
Overall, the two teams statistically are fairly evenly matched. Talent-wise they both appear to be pretty even as well. The difference might be a slight edge in experience by Alabama in the defensive secondary and at receiver and depth on the offensive line. The Gators have a very slight edge in experience at quarterback and talent along the defensive line. This one figures to be a barn burner and closer than many expect.
Despite few giving the Gators a chance, they’re as much as 17 point underdogs, Alabama head coach Nick Saban isn’t sold on the idea that the Tide will roll on Saturday.
“This (Florida) is a really, really good overall team,” Saban said. “It will be a challenge for us.”
He added, “They have a lot of really, really good football players and they’re showing great balance on offense and really playing well on defense, like they typically do.”
The Gators certainly do have the talent to pull the upset but in the end the Gators youth might be a little too much to overcome on the road in Tuscaloosa.
Game time from Bryant-Denny stadium is scheduled for 3:30 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on CBS. Check back with Swamp Music for further insight and analysis of Gator football and follow us on Twitter @Swamp_Music2 for live tweets during the action on Saturday.