UF IN THE BCS MIX: The Gators have already picked up some steam for the BCS with Wyoming's win over Ole Miss. Normally you want your conference to be very strong for your computer rankings but UF does not play the Rebels and a win by Wyoming strengthens the Gators stance in the BCS computers. Early scribes have UF fifth in the BCS behind FSU but that is okay because UF still has ranked opponents Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and FSU left on the schedule. Vanderbilt could be a quality opponent and if UF gets to the SEC title game there is a good shot they could overtake someone from the ACC. I believe this could be the most interesting final two weeks of the season in college football history. We could go to Thanksgiving with five conference leaders undefeated and two from the same conference. Imagine Miami vs. undefeated Virginia Tech, FSU and UF undefeated and then don't forget Texas vs. Texas A&M and USC vs UCLA. I know I am getting ahead of myself but why not? It has been a long time since UF was part of this discussion.
GATOR OFFENSE COMES ALIVE: I spent most of last week's column defending the offense and I feel a bit vindicated after the pummeling they put on Kentucky. What Chris Leak and his mates did in the first half is hard to do against air. I mean Franz, Vettel and Hollywood could have played UF closer than Kentucky. The key is Chris Leak and his ability to throw the football to and wherever he wants. He has been deadly on third down this season going 14-16 including leading UF to ten consecutive conversions last week. Meyer told us all summer he does not have an offense and that he fits it to his personnel. Well, Dan Mullen and Meyer fit it like a glove last week by throwing the ball early and often allowing Chris Leak to demonstrate his improved talents. Leak is on his way to moving into conversations with Gator greats Shane Mathews and Danny Wuerffel. Leak has proven he can win on the road in his career and he now owns a marquee home win over Tennessee. If anyone on this team needs confidence going into the showdown against Bama they need to look no further than the quarterback who is well on his way to making history at UF.
MATCHING UP: The Gator offense will find the nation's number seven defense in Alabama this week and it could be tough sledding on the ground once again. The Tide can run and they have top flight players at each level of their defense. The two safeties, Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah, are as good as UF's and the linebacking corps looks like the early 90's at Bama. I don't think teams will play man-to-man a lot against UF because the option can hurt man teams. Also UF has not really established a feature back on film so teams will probably want to use the "extra" guy to cover UF's outstanding receivers. Meyer mentioned the three man fronts Alabama is using and this has given UF some problems so far when the Gators have seen it this season. Dan Mullen can game plan for this by adding some new plays to the formula this week including some runs right at the Bama defense. Protection wise, these type of defenses mean the offensive line must communicate and work together on finding the down lineman rushers and any blitzers. From and option standpoint, Chris Leak should feel more comfortable this week in his numbering system and it is up to the coaches to "scheme" up some good plays. I would look for the Gators to overload one side of the formation to force Alabama to move with them and give them the chance to run. Look for some trips formation, bunch formations and maybe some motion to those formations and UF to run out of it this week. Chris Leak must remain poised, take what the defense gives him and beware of the zone blitz from Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines.
STOPPING BAMA: Defensively, I like the match-up of the Gators d-line versus the Alabama offensive line. The Tide line is relatively inexperienced and could be their downfall if they don't have a big season. I like Steven Harris and Marcus Thomas to be real disruptive in the running game and this could be a big day for the tackles. Brodie Croyle can run but the ends should be able to get him down in passing situations. What could hurt UF is poor tackling or getting out of lanes in the blitz. Kenneth Darby has more breakaway speed than Gerald Riggs and he could gash them if they are undisciplined. I expect Alabama to put in some option and some reverses against Florida this week. It is obvious in this pressure defense that the Gators are going to be aggressive, so to counter-attack Alabama may run a reverse to Tyrone Prothro or add some speed option in with Croyle and Darby. The Florida secondary will see a big time speed burner in Prothro and some big 6-3 receivers (D.J. Hall and Keith Brown). I think Bama will try to spread the Gators out with no tight end and three receivers. This will keep the run game on schedule and allow Croyle some options in the passing game. Bama wants to run first and that will be the key for the Gators. They must stop Darby and maintain the hold on the line of scrimmage.
STATS AND MORE STATS: Both teams are 4-0 and through the eight games have combined for just five turnovers. That may be the stat of the game: who does not turn the ball over wins the game. The Gators are fifth in the country and first in the SEC in total defense while the Tide is seventh in the country. The Gators are a balanced attack on offense with nine touchdowns rushing and nine receiving. At this pace the Gators have a chance to break the 11-game school record for rushing touchdowns in a season of 25 set in 1975 and 1976. The 1996 team had 25 in twelve games and the bowl game this season would count towards that. UF is 5-5 in Tuscaloosa while the Crimson Tide holds a 19-12 edge in the series. Mike Shula is 0-5 vs. ranked SEC opponents and 0-9 in games decided by less than seven points. Alabama is just 11-7 at home under Shula but Brodie Croyle being healthy could be the difference.
UF's defense leads the SEC in six total categories including turnover margin and third down conversions. The Gators have allowed just one team in its last eight games to get over 300 yards of total offense (FSU). In that span UF is 7-1 with its only loss coming in the Peach Bowl. The Gator offense is averaging 34.5 points per game which would put them ninth all time in the Gator record books. The offense now has eight scoring drives over 70 yards this season. Josh Portis has led the team in rushing in two games this season while Chris Leak is just a half of percent out of the all-time completion percentage lead for Gator quarterbacks. The Gator running back committee has not fumbled a football in 92 attempts. Defensively the Gators have given up just two passing touchdowns this season. Half of the drives this season versus the Gators have gone for ten yards or less. Alabama returns nine starters on a defense that is giving up only 25 percent on third down conversions. Both teams come in giving up about 13 points per game. Alabama has run the ball 60 percent of the time and thrown it 40 percent of the time.
HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?: Early in the week I thought this could be a three score game but I have changed my tune a bit because you try not to overreact to the performance against Kentucky. I think if UF throws the ball 30 times a game they can get 30 points a game. I don't see anyone driving on this defense for more than two scores or 10 points a game. So it's 30-10 right? Well special teams, turnovers, emotion and road environment can play into the outcome of a football game. I like UF because of Chris Leak and his maturity. Earlier in the season I said I wanted to see Chris Leak win a big home game and he did that versus Tennessee. We have already seen him win in Baton Rouge, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. He should have won in Knoxville and Miami. He is a cool customer and is more of a leader now than he was in any of those other trips. Meyer looked last week that he is now fitting the offense to his personnel and Leak is a passer. He will still run the option and he will get better but Meyer knows he can go down the field with Leak like no other quarterback he has coached. UF must find some yards on the ground because Alabama is too good on defense to be totally one dimensional. On defense avoid the trick plays going for touchdowns and if the offense or special teams turn it over then get a three and out and they will be fine. Look for Brandon Siler to take on Darby a lot and the tackle to have big games against the run. These two teams are very similar in the statistics. First downs, third down defense, third down offense, time of possession, turnover margin scoring offense and scoring defense are all very even. The difference is the Gators have played a big game, won and will be better this week than two weeks ago. Alabama is going through their first rodeo and will find tough sledding against the Gators. UF wins 27-13.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Since Charlie Strong came on campus in 2003 the Gator defenses have intercepted 44 passes which is third in the country over that time span. It is the best in the SEC and trails USC and Nebraska. Think of how many they would have if they could hang on to the football!
GATOR LEGEND: Alex Brown is a fourth year defensive end for the Chicago Bears. While Alex slipped in the draft to the fourth round, he has made himself into one of the best in the NFC. Alex was seen back on campus this summer for the first time since his graduation. He has talked with Meyer and wants to see UF return to dominance. Brown is the all-time leading sack man in Gator history with 33 during his four year career. He and his wife Karimar have a young son, Antonio.