#15 Florida Gators (8-3, 6-2 SEC) vs. #1 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0)
SEC Championship Game
Saturday December 3, 2016; 4 p.m. (EST)
Atlanta, Georgia; Georgia Dome
Just a different animal…
It is always a tough go in the SEC. Yet these days, there seems to be a separation of close to epic proportions between the top team in the conference and the rest of the league. Florida will face ‘that team’ Saturday in a game that the odds makers have set Florida as a 24 point or more underdog.
Alabama is that program that really everyone is striving to be. Talent flows in and out of the program on a regular basis. The Crimson Tide could lose double digit players to the NFL one year, and the next year they are supplying the NFL with 10+ more athletes to fill rosters.
Alabama has always been a power in terms of name recognition and history of the program, but with Nick Saban at the helm they are maintaining a level of excellence we haven’t seen in college football in a while.
“It's a credit, obviously, to Coach. It's a credit to their university,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said at the luncheon to kick off SEC Championship Game activities on Friday. “It's a credit to what they have committed to and given the ability to go be great. They've never said no, and yet what it's done for that university and that brand since Coach has been there has been unbelievable.
“Give the credit to him because what he has built, and being able to do it in this conference day in and day out, year in and year out, with the amount of guys that, you know, they get to leave and go to the NFL, and he just keeps replacing them. That's not only a credit to Coach, but it's a credit to the commitment of the whole university, their fan base, and the people associated with the organization have put in to make it what it is.
Part of building an established program is the ability to attract and pay for established assistant coaches. A few years ago Saban set out to find the right coordinator for his team and Lane Kiffin became available. The former Tennessee and Southern Cal head coach is part of the most successful odd couple in football. The two have made it work as well as any head coach and coordinator pair in recent memory.
“Well, he's a good ball coach, and he's got a lot of good coaches around him as well,” McElwain said of Kiffin. “Obviously, what they've done with those quarterbacks, in particular, with this freshman quarterback and how they've adapted to his game and how that quarterback has adapted to what they're asking him to do.”
That freshman quarterback is having a Heisman like season. With over 2400 yards passing and 20 touchdowns throwing and over 800 yards rushing with a dozen touchdowns, Jalen Hurts has been dynamic for the Crimson Tide.
Kiffin’s ability to change up the offense and utilize his running skill has created nightmares for defensive coordinators, including Florida’s DC Geoff Collins.
“They've done a great job of highlighting the people around him,” McElwain said of Hurts’ and his teammates. “Obviously, the explosive plays really show. And more so, adapting to how this quarterback's game not only beats you with his arm but really with his feet. When you look at their rushing totals, you may say it's a down year for their running backs. Well, you lump his 900 yards in there, whatever the heck it is, it seems like a pretty up year for their running backs. So he's done a great job.
Hurts is only part of an offense that features All-American receiver types and an offensive line that will likely be the best Florida faces all season. A talented and now Jarrad Davis led Florida defense has their work cut out for them
Then you have the other side of the ball.
Everyone wants to point out Jonathan Allen up front for Alabama, but they have super talent at every position across the board and then backups that come in at close to the same level all the way around. McElwain believes they are better than ever because they are faster as a group than they have been.
“They're different, and what I mean by that, the speed that they have right now is better than I've ever seen,” he said. “They still have those big guys in there when they need them, but really the overall team speed is something that I think has really stood out to me as we spent the week watching them, and a couple crossover games that you get when you're working in the season.
“(Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) has picked up right where (former DC Kirby Smart) was. He brought some things that were unique to what he did at Georgia and obviously fit them into that system. So I give him a lot of credit too for what he's doing to adapt him to the players that they're putting out there on defense.\
McElwain knows the gators are going to have to scheme a win on Saturday against such a potent ‘D’.
“I think one of the things you do -- I even go back to when we played them when we were at Colorado State… some of the things that I know at least kept them up there for an extra 10 or 15 minutes that might mess with their matchups or whatever that is, whatever those things are,” he said. “So doing a little bit of that, trying to keep them off balance from that standpoint, and not letting them zero in and target what you're going to do is really going to be the key.”
What the Gators have to accomplish…
Against this team and on this day, Florida is going to have to do almost everything it is capable of doing right in order to win. Those things that analysts usually point out as areas they need to win, they are likely going to have to win them all. In other words, in order to win the Gators are going to have to…
Control the clock… Both teams are neck in neck in average time of possession this season at about 31 minutes per game. The Gators are going to have to take this stat to a new level to make it matter in this contest. They have to try and keep that Alabama offense off the field.
Win the turnover battle by two or more… As many turnovers as you hear about the Alabama defense getting, the Gators have the same number of takeaways (21) and two less turnovers (17) for a (+2) advantage on the season. The Gator have to have at least two more turnovers and in the right spot on the field for them to pull this game off.
Hit some big plays offensively… It took one big play in the LSU game to pull that minor miracle off. This one would need to be more along the major miracle lines. Florida has struggled to make explosive plays as of late. They need to find a way to hit a few Saturday.
Stay away from the big plays while on defense… As much as they need to take the ball away, the defense also needs to make sure not to give up the big play. With all eyes on quarterback Hurts and his running ability, the secondary has to stay on their man. Making Alabama drive the field will make them vulnerable to the turnovers that are needed.
Score when the opportunity presents itself… Take every point you can get. Florida isn’t going to win in a shootout. The Gators have turned the ball over on downs five times in the red zone this year. Don’t do that. Take the field goal shot and live to see another day.
Wilson and / or Tabor score… There isn’t likely a team in the country that as corners that are as good as Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson… that includes Alabama. The Florida front needs to corral Hurts and force him to throw and these two guys need to take advantage. These guys need to show just how important they are to this team.
FINAL THOUGHTS… As you can see above, the Gators have to do everything right in order to have a chance. They just aren’t efficient or consistent enough on offense to not play their best game. Getting Jarrad Davis back is a huge deal for the defense, but they need big games from many on the roster. In the end I think the Gators can and will keep it close coming down the stretch, but the inability to keep things going on offense will again wear down the other side of the ball.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Gators 13 Crimson Tide 27