W2W4 – Alabama vs Florida

Well, after a few good appetizers like some Burrowing Owl and Golden Eagle niblets, it’s now time for us to begin working on the main course.  So, how do y’all like your gator?  Blackened?  Sautéed with a little crimson vino?  Well, however you like it cooked you’d better bring a good sized bib because this one, to me, looks like it could get a little messy….

Most folks, Vegas included, seem to be a little deceived by the Kentucky game and they have installed Alabama as a 17 point favorite.  But, after watching the Kentucky v Florida game, I have to tell you that I think this game will stay within that point spread.

Before I sat down to watch the 36-30 triple overtime Gator victory, Twitter seemed divided as to whether the score was a result of Kentucky being good or just a product of Florida being bad.  So, I was very, very interested in seeing with my own eyes what the story was.  The answer?  Folks, honestly I thought Kentucky was just that good.

On offense, Kentucky struggled mightily in the first half, generating a measly three points against the fast and aggressive Florida defense.  Florida squashed the slippery KY running game and the Cats could seemingly do very little thru the air in the early going.  However, throughout the first half I noticed that the Wildcat slot receivers were getting free releases and running by the Florida safeties and I wondered why Kentucky didn’t attack the Gators here – naturally that’s exactly what Kentucky attacked in the second half.  Slot receiver Garrett Johnson hauled in a 60 yard TD and a 33 yard TD from the slot and suddenly it was a ball game.  The numerous crowd shots of the Gator fans with their puckered up sphincters were pretty spectacular…

Defensively, Kentucky seemed to bring more people at Jeff Driskel than the Scotsmen voters that hit the polls this week and more times than not they adversely affected the Gators’ quarterback.  However, new OC Kurt Roper has obviously put in a ton of time with Driskel and I’m here to tell you that the 2014 version does not resemble the dreadful 2013 or 2012 versions.  This year’s Driskel is completing short, quick throws on time and in rhythm.  He’s still a horrific downfield passer but Roper has found some short throws that Driskel can complete with regularity.  So, how will the game go?  Well, here’s what to watch for…

Alabama on Offense

If you can’t tell from the intro, I’m REALLY intrigued by this game.  This isn’t going to be one of your Saturday du jour games where it’s over at halftime.  No, this game should be tightly contested as two strong, physical teams do battle for four quarters.  Florida’s defense is fast and strong at the point of attack and they dried up the KY running game easily.  Florida’s defense is also aggressive, rolling up their corners and bringing blitzes more often than Lindsey Lohan gets blitzed.  In only two games the Gators have racked up five sacks and 20 (TWENTY!) quarterback hurries.  They love to move DE Dante Fowler (#6) around the line of scrimmage because this big 6’3, 260 lb beastie can run.  He will bring a heckuva edge rush at young Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd so we’ll need to keep an eye out for him throughout the game.  He looks strong, too – really good player.

Florida’s linebackers are very, very fast and athletic and play in the 230 lb range so they are pretty physical, too.  They played disciplined football all night long and their only weakness appeared to be an occasional play where they over-pursued (look for some misdirections and boots in attempt to exploit their aggression).

It’s ironic that Kentucky made the bulk of their yardage through the air against the Gators’ secondary as they boast having the very best corner in the entire country in Vernon Hargreaves III (#1).  Honestly, he’s flat out awesome.  He’s been thrown at nine times this year and has given up only two catches for 16 yards.  Oh, and he’s broken up five of the passes and probably should have come down with at least two picks in the Kentucky game alone.  Kids, he’s awesome.  Now their other corner, Brian Poole (#24) is not very good and, in the second half, Kentucky beat him and the UF safeties like a rented mule.  Florida rolls their corners up tight and they keep their safeties back off of the slot receivers so Kentucky took advantage of this in the second half.  With a stout front seven and an aggressive secondary, Alabama will likely have to challenge Florida in the passing game…or will they?

Appetite for Destruction:  (Per a request, this week’s breakdown is going to feature 80s songs which seemingly is nearly the last time Florida was relevant, right?)  This week, in the early going I think you’ll actually see Alabama play a lot of two tight ends and/or use Jalston Fowler in an effort to bring Alabama’s physicality and nasty disposition to bear on the Gators.  In the off-season, Saban stated he wanted to get back to that famous physically dominant style of play that people feared, and since Florida’s defensive ends are around 260 lbs that’s a possible weak spot to explore.  And, given Florida’s team speed, lateral plays simply aren’t likely to succeed.  So, you run the ball right at them and make them recognize your authority.  As Scarface might say, “say hello two my two tight ends.”  (Incidentally, having the extra tight end helps against Fowler’s speed rush and blitzers, as well.)

Don’t You Forget About Me:  My pick to click (again) is OJ Howard.  If Alabama uses two tight ends, then OJ Howard should be a weapon on play action fakes when Alabama takes advantage of the UF linebackers’ speed and penchant to over-commit.  Also, at times I suspect Kiffin will move OJ out to the slot which was the area that Kentucky exploited against the Gators last week.

Cult of Personality:  The offensive line is going to be under pressure at the edges and from the interior from nose tackle Darious Cummings (#55), who was very active last week.  Ryan Kelly, Arie Koundjio and Leon Brown will have their hands full with him and with deciphering blitzers but, in the end, they will have to be the leaders in establishing Saban’s personality of physicality.

Could You Be Loved:  Amari Cooper leads the world in receptions but if he lines up opposite of Vernan Hargreaves (#1) then this will be a week that he is tested like no other.  Coop has 33 receptions (8 more than every other Tide WR combined) and Hargreaves has given up only two catches on the season so this will be a key matchup.  However, a bigger curiosity to me will be how Alabama approaches this matchup.  Will they continue to force the ball to Coop, even if the throws aren’t there?  Or will other receivers or tight ends (I’m looking at you, OJ Howard) be brought to Bear against the lesser Gator DBs?  Could they be loved?  Could they contribute?  They should because, I assure you, they’ll be open.

Money For Nothing:  Kentucky was downright stealing yardage against Florida’s other corner, Brian Poole (#24).  Much of the time Poole plays a “bail technique” which means he shows bump and run with him up tight against the wide receiver.  However, just before the snap he begins to “bail” by back peddling off the receiver.  Kentucky took advantage of this by hitting five yard curls over and over and over again as Poole’s transition from his backpedal to running forward appears sloooooow.  Look for hitches and slants to be the order of the day against Poole.  If he’s bailing, he’s failing…

Some Like it Hot:  Given Florida’s penchant for blitzing, look for Amari Cooper to be moved around in motion as Alabama identifies the coverage and the blitzers.  This also will allow him to get a free release and be available for any hot routes against the blitz and it should get him away from Hargreaves, as well.

Shout:  Blake Sims completely whiffed in identifying three slot blitzes against WVU, two of which he somehow avoided as he was in their clutches.  Florida has seen this and will use it to the Nth degree so someone needs to give Blake a holla if they see a corner or slot DB inching in for a blitz.  Honestly, this scares the piss out of me because if Florida’s blitzers come in freely, they likely will not miss, and what a calamity that could be.  Sack?  Fumble?  Crumble?  Coker in the game in relief?  Yeesh.

Heaven and Hell:  Crossing routes have been Blake Sims’ own personal little heaven thus far this season but against the Wildcats the Gators seemed to defend crossing routes fairly easily.  However, that should open up the flat routes to guys like Kenyan Drake, leaving him one on one with some poor sucker.  Look for Drake to give this one lone defender hell if it happens.

Start Me Up:  Blake Sims is your starter and I expect him to go wire to wire.  In watching the film, it appeared to me that when Kentucky went four wide with their receivers (balanced, with two on each side), the middle was pretty susceptible to QB draws or any kind of escape from the pocket.  Look for Sims to convert a couple of first downs with improvised or designed runs up the gut.

Tide Bits

In every single Alabama football game, establishing the running game has been of huge importance and perhaps at no time this season will it be more important than in this game.  Kentucky was able to exploit the pass coverage matchups that left their slot receives wide freaking open in the Florida secondary but they had a QB who could deftly deliver the ball.  At this time, I’m not sure we know that Sims can do that.  Therefore, running the ball and keeping the pressure off of Sims will be key.  That’s why I think you’ll see a lot of two tight end sets as we attempt to slowly fashion ourselves some gator shoes, a gator belt and a gator wallet.  It may take a while but I think Alabama’s plan will be to punch them in the mouth repeatedly.  Again, Kentucky went about this in a much, much different way but I can’t really see the staff unleashing Sims’ arm with confidence just yet, can you?  But, when we do pass, it’s going to be fun to see if it’s forced into Cooper or if Alabama spreads the ball around.  And will Coop be shadowed by Hargreaves throughout the game?  Love this chess match but it’s irrelevant if Alabama can run the ball.

Alabama on Defense

Over the past several years, Florida’s offense has been as impotent as the Eunuchs in “History of the World Part I,” but this year it looks like these Gators may have a little Gregory Hines in them.  Florida comes in ranked sixth in the country on offense, riding a bulldozing running game while mixing in a short, quick passing game.  Jeff Driskel finally looks the part of an actual quarterback and Demarcus Robinson (#11) seems to have given them an actual threat at wide receiver.  Against Kentucky, Robinson did his best Amari Cooper impersonation by posting 15 catches for 216 yards.  I think those stats would have been season high’s for the Gators last year so it’s interesting to me that they can now compile those stats in one single game!  But, when the going got tough the Gators turned to their power running game by using big Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor who followed their H backs and some fantastic double team blocks by their O-line.  Man, they brought the downhill running game with authority.  Ok boys – let’s get physical!

Crazy Train:  Similar to Jay Prosch last year with Auburn, just follow the H back crazy train and you’ll find the ball about 95% of the time.  Against Kentucky, Florida dialed up the same play time and time again where the H back came in motion and then cross blocked back across the formation, leading the RB into the interior of the line.  If #88 is in motion, it’s 95% run.  If #87 is in motion, it’s very likely a pass to 87 as they try to leak him out against the grain for a pass.

Under Pressure:  The Wildcats absolutely blitzed the fool out of Florida all game long.  Driskel completed several short throws but any time he took more than a couple of seconds to deliver the ball he got absolutely jacked.  Kentucky went zero coverage (no safety help, straight man to man, bringing the house) several times with great effect.  I think they called this the Honey Badger defense because even though dialing up a multitude of zero coverages was very risky, “that crazy nasty Honey Badger don’t care.”

Sweet Child o’ Mine:  The Gators right tackle gave up several pressures even without resorting to a blitz.  Look for Nick Saban to work over the freshman and make him someone’s little beyotch (Ryan Anderson and Xzavier Dickson should have good games).

Should I Stay or Should I Go:  Florida hasn’t unveiled much of the read option this season but rest assured they have it in their playbook.  Driskel is a very good runner and can threaten the edges a la Nick Marshall.  The defensive ends are really going to have to play a disciplined game as you know Kurt Roper is going to dial up a QB run in short yardage situations for a critical first down.  The DEs will have to read it correctly and know if they need to stay home to defend Driskel or crash down in run support.

Road to Nowhere:  Driskel took a few deep shots down the field on first down and absolutely none of them were anywhere near catchable.  None.  They were throws to nowhere.  It’s no wonder KY dialed up zero pressures as Driskel didn’t show the ability to throw the vertical ball.

Land of Confusion:  Oh that poor Gator offensive line.  I saw probably six different blown assignments that led to Driskel getting clobbered.  The Cats would blitz the slot corner off the left side where the left tackle should slide out (or get the running back to help).  Instead, the tackle actually blocked down, leaving the slot blitzer AND the defensive end a free rush on the QB.  Ooopsy.  Probably not how they want that to work.  With Bama blitzing a lot last week, look for them to create some confusion for the Gator line Saturday.

Time After Time:  Florida is going to attack Alabama physically at the line of scrimmage time and time again.  Therefore, Alabama will rely on their bigger front defensive line to withstand the attacks.  Guys like Ivory, Tomlinson, Reed, Pettway and Robinson are all going to have to hold the point.  Meanwhile, Alabama will need Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland to actually stand up and make plays.  They’ve spent the first three games either out of position or occupying blocks so Saturday is going to be the ultimate test of physicality for these two.  Honestly, I would not be surprised at all to see Reuben Foster play numerous snaps in running situations as he’s the superior run defender, IMO.

Take On Me:  Tony Brown is finally going to play and evidently he’s going to play a lot.  For your average true freshman corner, this would be a scary, scary thing.  However, given Brown’s tremendous make up and athleticism, I think he’ll step forward and make a couple of big plays.  Love.  This.  Kid.  And I hope they attack him because I think he’ll win more times than he loses.

Tide Bits

So, if you can’t tell from the above, I think the battle between Alabama’s defense and Florida’s offense should tilt Bama’s way.  Between the offensive line breakdowns both as a unit (blown assignments) and individually (particularly the right tackle), Alabama should be able to thwart most of the Gator drives.  To me, Alabama’s D struggles against fleet footed wide outs and well-orchestrated passing games but thankfully the Gators are anything but that.  Florida is still a ground and pound attack that uses the short to intermediate passing game to keep defenses honest.  But, they cannot stretch the field and they cannot hang their hat on anything other than a power running game.  The Kentucky game turned to Florida’s favor only because the Cats simply didn’t have the DL depth to withstand all of the Gator body blows.  But, Alabama goes 10 deep on the DL so I think they’ll stand up much, much better.

Special Teams

I’m not putting in much time on the kicking game this week but, to me, it appears to be close to a draw.  I didn’t really see anything that stands out about Florida’s other than the punter had a 48.7 average against Kentucky – those are some bombs.  Oftentimes Saban is able to conjure up a big return in these classic defensive duals so perhaps this week the UF punter will outkick his coverage, leading to a big return.  Kentucky popped a 17 yard return against them so…….

Conclusion

I could be completely wrong here but I am expecting a heavyweight fight that will last for at least three quarters on Saturday.  Florida’s front seven is very good and it is very disciplined so I would expect the Bama running game to have some tough sledding.  However, the Gators secondary can be exposed.  I personally do not think Will Muschamp will alter his entire defensive belief system and match Hargreaves on Cooper throughout the game.  So, because of that, I think we’ll be able to cobble together enough throws and interior runs to punch in some points throughout the game.

Meanwhile, I believe Alabama excels at stopping the run so that should take away the majority of the playbook from Florida.  IF Alabama contains Driskel’s running abilities on the edges then Florida will have a very, very difficult time moving the ball.  I expect it to be like one of your daddy’s SEC games – low scoring and hard hitting.  In other words, just the type of game Nick Saban lives for.

Final Score:  Alabama 27    Florida 16

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