First of all, I think we as college football fans (myself included) over-react to big wins and big losses. College football is a game of emotion played by young men with a lot on the line each game. Alabama was ready to play in all facets of the game and whipped the Gators. Everyone has talked about the lines of scrimmage and the physical nature that the Tide brought to the game. I agree with all that. It just seemed like they had something to prove and maybe UF felt it had already arrived. The one thing I do think needs to be pointed out was the coaching by Bama. I thought they had an excellent plan and executed it flawlessly. UF did nothing really to change that plan or get the Tide off schedule and that's why the Gators lost. All is not lost on the season and if UF can win in Baton Rouge, the Gators can still accomplish nearly all of their goals. After losing to Alabama, the next two weeks will offer a true test of what this team is made of.
Brady: Can we fix the offensive line?
I hate to say it like this but "it is what it is." Teams who struggle on either line of scrimmage during the first half of the season usually stay that way all season. I do think they took a step backwards this week and I admit that I was surprised. They have some talent but what they need to do is find the plays that these guys block well and focus on them. When you have trouble blocking three and four guys that's just talent and want to. UF just seems to be slow off the snap count and maybe they need to get under center with a normal snap count or mix up the shotgun snap count. Alabama knew when they were snapping it every time. I defended this unit earlier in the season and I do think they deserve a chance to get the system down, but we are five games in and they must improve.
Here are two things that will help this unit the final six games: (1) an improved running game with a back who runs hard and determined; and (2) John Hevesy needs to find five guys and stay with them. I realize there were guys who got banged up but Drew Miller is starting to learn the position and he was benched in favor of Jim Tartt and Tavares Washington. I personally think Miller and Rissler are both better than Washington. I also think Lance Butler is a guard playing tackle and while he may be the best you have, if you don't like your guard play it would help the run game to move him back inside. I don't think UF will make wholesale changes because they have already determined who they think can help them win so they just need to get better.
Ack: Is this defense a mirage?
No, it is a much improved defense that simply got whipped on Saturday. When you play any type of man coverage and blitz there is always the chance that someone's band is going to be playing. Until Saturday, it was always the Gator band. The front four has to get pressure or man coverage is easy to beat. Brodie Croyle was much better than Ainge and Clausen and the Alabama offensive line did a nice job. Florida will not face a better quarterback this season. Jemarcus Russell, D.J. Shockley and Drew Weatherford will all pitch it right to you under pressure.
But let's look deeper into the game and the way it started. The first play touchdown was a two receiver route with max protection. UF did not all out blitz so they had linebackers covering air. Kyle Jackson bit on the middle route leaving Vernell with no help and Croyle made them pay. The second touchdown came after a turnover continuing a bad trend by the defense of not getting three and outs after a sudden change caused by a turnover. This style of defense demands confidence and I thought UF lost it a bit in the first half. They made a slight adjustment to some two safety stuff in the third quarter but Bama scored on its opening drive to put the game away. Missed tackles, poor angles and linebackers not getting off blocks is a product of a team that mentally and physically was not ready to play. I said last week UF needed to be ready for someone to "scheme" them up and Bama did this. UF did not have an answer.
Brady: Where was the pass rush?
I hate to single out any one player in a loss like this but the pressure from the edge was not there. Now Bama max protected a lot and that meant even Joe Cohen was double teamed at times but you have to fight through those in big games. Florida needs to play more players more snaps in games like this to stay fresh. Bama had a nice mix of run-pass play calls and UF could never really tee off. Croyle only threw the ball 18 times but usually he had as much time as he wanted. I would like to see Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss play the end spots and move Joe Cohen inside to spell at tackle.
Ack: The running game struggled again. Is it fixable?
I think the only back on campus capable of going the distance every time he touches the ball is Markus Manson. I know why he hasn't played so far but the freshman needs to find his way out of the doghouse and onto the field. DeShawn Wynn is solid and usually is automatic down by the goal line but this group has underwhelmed me to this point in the season. This is one more reason why I would like to see Manson have a great week of practice and get his shot even if it is as the number two guy. Isn't it ironic that the two spots Meyer singled out in two a days as concerns for him are playing out that way with the offensive line and running backs? A great running back can help the offensive line and its confidence. I know they have not blocked well but you have to make guys miss to get to the second level. UF didn't block everyone on every play that Emmitt Smith or Fred Taylor ever ran but both these guys had the ability to make something out of nothing. This group has not done that to this point in the season and it's time to see if the freshman can give them a spark.
Brady: Is the three-man line the formula against Florida?
I hope so because that will make it very easy for UF to game plan each week. There is no reason that UF should not be able to run against a three-man line. The problem Saturday was the formations in which the Gators tried to run. Bama would have three down lineman but 7-8 guys around the box and the players they lined up on UF's slot receivers were very tough to block. UF tried to run the lead play and use Latsko as the blocker. They made some modest gains, but once you get behind, you have to rip off some big runs if you want to change the defense.
Ack: Should Florida get out of the spread option attack?
Not entirely but they did re-evaluate it after Tennessee and I am sure they will discuss the strengths and weaknesses this week as well. Teams know Chris Leak cannot beat them with his feet so they will continue to let him run for 4-6 yards. This is maybe Urban Meyer's toughest decision as a coach. He got this job and made his name in coaching with this offense yet he does not have the right guy to run his full offensive attack. He cannot bench Chris Leak, who could be All-SEC and is everything Meyer preaches about what a college athlete should be. So what is he to do? Well he needs to look at the five games, look at all the things the offense has done well and keep those in the offense. He needs to consider putting Leak under center. I know the last staff was reluctant at that as well but Leak is very good under center and Wynn is better when he is dotting the I or in a one-back set. Ciatrick Fason was better at running out of the shotgun than Wynn which is why he won the job. So if Wynn is your back and Leak is your quarterback, you have to at least consider it. The other option is to stay the course and coach them harder and move some personnel around. Maybe put a tight end in a standard formation and keep him in to block to help out your protection.
Meyer really believes in his stuff and I think if you totally change it in midseason after one bad game you might be sending the wrong message to your team and program. As much as it hurt the defense on Saturday to not have Ray McDonald, who is their best defensive lineman, it also hurt the offense to play without Bubba Caldwell. UF ran no shovel passes or options with the receivers and the quick screens were non-existent.
Ack: What's your opinion of how the Gators will finish now after the loss to Alabama?
I picked UF to finish 9-2 and my mindset was losses to Tennesee and LSU. I still think UF will finish 9-2 or could run the table and finish 10-1. LSU has a good defensive front seven but cannot seem to cover anyone under new coordinator Bo Pelini. That will still be a very tough game and a total gut check for UF. Georgia is a rivalry game in Jacksonville and FSU is at The Swamp. I think Meyer will win the rest of his home games so that means split the two non-Gainesville game with LSU and Georgia and you have 9-2. (Vandy, Mississippi State and South Carolina are wins). In the past two years, this group of guys has lost confidence after tough losses but I don't think they will under this staff. Here is one interesting fact that adds fuel to the fire with this difficult October schedule. The next three opponents for the Gators all beat them last season. So UF will not win by just showing up. They are going to have to get back to doing what Meyer calls "the plan to win" and everything will be ok.
Brady: Any players who you think should play more?
Well anytime you lose or struggle in an area people automatically are calling for position changes. I won't say this guy should play over that guy but let's see these guys get some snaps in meanigful games: Markus Manson at running back, Nyan Boateng at wide receiver (by the way where's Mike McIntosh?), Drew Miller and Steve Rissler at guard or even Carlton Medder at tackle, Lance Butler inside next to Randy Hand, Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss at defensive end, John Demps at outside linebacker, Tony Joiner at safety and Reggie Nelson at corner, safety, nickel back or anywhere.
Brady: Will there be a letdown this week against Mississippi State?
I think the beginning there could be some flatness. Young people tend to feel sorry for themselves and need something good to happen to have fun again. I think the crowd could help the team bust out of the doldrums and get going. UF will be fine this week against the Bulldogs, but next week in Baton Rouge will tell us a lot about the character and toughness of this particular team. Quietly inside the locker room there was talk of N.C. (national championship) and that has been flushed in the Tuscaloosa toilet so they must refocus and get something that every player does not have, which is an SEC ring.
Ack: Do you think Bama exposed UF as not being tough or soft?
Bama was tougher and that was obvious but it's hard for a spread offense team to be physical. I know Utah got after you and at times UF dominated people with the passing game in the 90's but passing teams or four wide teams are just not going to be looked at as physical teams. I do think that they can get mentally tougher and continue to be aggressive on defense. UF did only give up seven points in the second half so that is one bright spot. Dallas Baker was a bright spot as well for the offense with his performance.
Ack: Any other bright spots for Saturday?
Chris Hetland hit another field goal in a pressure enviroment. That is very encouraging along with the play of Baker. I thought Reggie Nelson played extremely well when he was in the game.
This game reminded me of 1990 when we went to Knoxville and lost to Tennessee, 45-3. We came back to Gainesville for homecoming and though we were flat, we got a win. We went on to beat Auburn and Georgia on consecutive weeks to go 9-2 and finish with the best record in the SEC. Sometimes games avalanche on you in college football but it is what you learn from defeat that makes you better the next time you go into that situation. Spurrier would not let us sulk and feel sorry for ourselves in 1990 and I don't think Meyer will coach with any less intensity now that UF has lost a game. It is a coach's job to take players where they can't take themselves and this team of Gators has had some tough losses the last two year. After those losses they would bottom out, ending hopes of returning to Atlanta. It is Meyer's job to make sure that history does not repeat itself and that this Gator team reaches all its goals.
Brady Ackerman is heard on ESPN Radio Gainesville-Ocala (AM 1230 and 900). You can go to his website at http://www.bradyackerman.com