SEC Football: Why UF-Alabama Matters So Much

You know it's a big game when your opponent so clearly looks ahead to playing you. That's where the Florida Gators find themselves after the Alabama Crimson Tide played very disinterested football on Saturday against Arkansas. The Tide deflected the Florida questions all week, but deep down, Mike Shula's crew just wished and hoped for the early-afternoon Jefferson Pilot game to end, with the Tide having but one more point than the Hogs.

Time for Verne and Todd and the CBS spotlight on Oct. 1 in Tuscaloosa.

Bring it on.

The emotional context has already been set --- Alabama wants a piece of the Gators --- but why does this game matter so much for Florida beyond the realm of human passions?

Let's put it in a very clear and understandable context: regardless of whether Georgia wins or loses in Knoxville on Oct. 8, the Cocktail Party is shaping up as the SEC East title game. But for that likelihood to become a certainty, the Gators need to bag at least one of two October showdowns against SEC West foes. LSU waits in Baton Rouge (if another hurricane isn't spawned by then) on Oct. 15, but this game with the Tide is the other huge hoedown. Simply put, winning this game in Tuscaloosa would ensure that the Cocktail Party would decide the beast of the East, thereby taking the pressure off for the LSU game and enabling Urban Meyer to play with house money in Tiger Stadium. And if Meyer has a chance to let loose, Florida can only benefit from such a scenario.

Memo to Florida's coach: you don't want to go into Tiger Stadium in what amounts to a must-win situation. That's what makes this Bama game so important.

Now, to the even more urgent business of the moment: what do the Gators need to keep in mind as they try to beat back the surging Tide?

For starters, let's get literal for a second: the Gators need to start better. This isn't a matter of Xs and Os so much as it's a battle of attitude and focus. Florida would significantly heighten its chances by winning the first three minutes of Saturday's game, or at the very least, not losing them. In an otherwise brilliant performance against Kentucky --- where a top-five team mostly acted like one --- the glaring weakness was a case of sleepiness out of the box. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if the Gators have a sluggish first possession on offense, followed by a blocked punt and a subsequent Bama touchdown, they'll create the worst possible tone and tenor for Saturday's game.

Just to reinforce this particular point, anyone notice that once USC made a few big plays at Oregon, the Ducks' boisterous home crowd immediately shut up? If Dwayne Jarrett hadn't dropped a Matt Leinart pass in the end zone --- which turned into an interception --- the Trojans would have won by 52 points instead of 32, and never would have been challenged in the first half. It's all about quieting the crowd on the road instead of feeding the monster, and Florida has to be solid in the first three minutes to prevent the Tide from gathering momentum.

Let's keep this in mind about Bama: they look real good, and have flashed a lot of talent so far this season on both sides of the ball. But for all of Bama's quality ---- and the Tide has to be considered LSU's main competitor for the SEC West title --- their signature win this season came against a South Carolina team that looks pretty pathetic. The point of mentioning this reality is that with a big first punch in the opening minutes, Florida can gain a huge upper hand emotionally. One can't state enough the importance of an early start.

The second key for Florida is to hit Brodie Croyle early (not late, drawing 15-yard penalties) and often. How do you get inside the head of a gritty but physically frail quarterback? You make him pay for each bold, striding throw under pressure. Croyle might win some battles early, but a steady stream of clean yet forceful hits might pay dividends in the middle of the third quarter. This can be likened to a 22-pitch strikeout by a hitter in the third inning that fails to deliver results in the present moment, but which bears fruit later on when the hurler's fastball loses a little mustard in the sixth inning. So it will be on Saturday for the Gator defense, which needs to make Croyle think too much about pain, and not enough about the right receiver to throw to.

Third, Florida needs to use misdirection runs to its advantage. Against Kentucky, the spread option predictably worked well, but against the Tide, the Gators' offense will have to... well... go against the Tide with change-of-direction plays that capitalize on Bama's overpursuit. Given that the boys from Tuscaloosa will have emotion pouring out of Al's elephant ears on Saturday, the natural counter to such a Tide of testosterone is to use misdirection plays. If nothing else, the presence or mere threat of a reverse slows down a defense by making it aware of the need to maintain gap integrity. Stemming the flow of the Tide --- the home team's defense, to be specific --- will then enable Chris Leak to execute traditional dropback passes with a greater comfort level. This ability for Leak to be at ease in the pocket --- let's be honest: he's not going to be able to run a lot of option against Bama, not the way he did against Kentucky --- will be central to the success of Florida's offense on Saturday.

And if the Gators do have success, they'll make the whole month of October --- not to mention their season --- a whole lot more manageable.

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