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Florida-Alabama: A Fairly Wonky Preview

Florida's defense is good, but it's not dominant.

I've seen in a few places where people are citing Florida's defense as a reason why the Gators can keep things close and potentially win on Saturday. Certainly, it's done it's duty in holding every opponent to 17 points or less and snaring a national best 12 interceptions. However, it's not of the same quality as we saw from 2009's dominant defense. To wit:

  • Versus Tennessee: 210 yards allowed in 2009; 288 yards allowed in 2010
  • Versus Kentucky: 179 yards allowed in 2009; 350 yards allowed in 2010

The Kentucky offense this year is better than it was last year, but Tennessee's offense isn't. Florida's 2009 defense allowed 300+ yards twice: once in loads of garbage time against Charleston Southern and again in the SEC Championship Game collapse. The defense has allowed 300+ yards twice this year already, to USF and Kentucky. It's a good defense; don't get me wrong. Expecting it to be capable of winning the game for Florida without a lot of help from the offense is not realistic.

Greg McElroy cannot repeat his performance against Arkansas and keep his winning streak alive.

As you probably figured out, I was underwhelmed with McElroy's performance against Arkansas. He was somewhere north of adequate, but he wasn't a difference maker. At least not in a positive way. His two interceptions against Arkansas doubled the Razorbacks' total for the year, and he could have easily had a third.

Throwing picks against Florida is a different animal than throwing picks against most other teams. The Gators are second nationally in interception return yards and are tied for first nationally with three pick-sixes. Interceptions are always bad, but few can make you pay like Florida's secondary, which is averaging more than 20 yards per return. If McElroy gets generous with the ball again, it doesn't bode well for the Tide. Speaking of quarterbacks...

This game might come down to whoever can complete long throws.

McElroy overthrew every deep ball he attempted except one last weekend, when Julio Jones dropped it after being interfered with. The longest pass in the air that John Brantley has connected on is a 25-yard tip drill touchdown against Miami University. He's overthrown every other deep pass he's attempted.

Neither team has been prone to giving up big plays on the ground. The longest run Florida has allowed is 33 yards. The longest Alabama has allowed is 32 yards. Granted, neither has faced the caliber of running backs that they'll see on Saturday (especially Florida), but the weekend forecast isn't calling for a lot of long runs. If either quarterback can hit on a couple of deep passes, it will give his team a decided competitive advantage.

Alabama must find Jeffery Demps on pass plays.

Alabama lost Arkansas's running backs on several passing plays, most notably Ronnie Wingo's touchdown on the second play of the game. In all, the Tide allowed over 10.5 yards per catch to Arkansas's running backs, a bad stat considering a lot of the catches were on check downs.

Florida's main check down target so far has been Demps, who is tied for second on the team with 11 receptions. He's the safety valve on nearly every pass play he's on the field for, and he's already had a 40 yard reception (that was cut in half to 21 thanks to a penalty). It was bad news when Arkansas's backs got the ball in space on passes, but it's potentially disastrous when Demps gets it in space. Alabama's defense can't leave him open like it did Arkansas's running backs nearly all game long.

Florida's linebackers must play beyond their years.

In the first couple of games, redshirt freshman starter Jelani Jenkins had a little problem with tackling. He wasn't wrapping up, choosing instead to throw himself into ball carriers. He's gotten better about it over the last two. True sophomore starter Jon Bostic had a problem of his own. He tended to overpursue ball carriers, ending up out of position when they hit their holes. He too has gotten a bit better about that.

A bit better isn't good enough this weekend though. Overpursuing Trent Richardson is a recipe for a 20+ yard gain. Not wrapping up Mark Ingram is like handing him an invitation to the end zone. Anything short of a perfect, fundamental tackle doesn't work against those two thanks to their size, strength, and otherworldly balance. While fifth-year senior A.J. Jones will probably not display such bad habits, he makes up only one third of the linebacking crew. Jenkins and Bostic cannot resemble what we saw from them against Miami and USF, or else Ingram and Richardson will run wild all day.

Can Florida really win this game?

Short answer: Of course. It's the SEC. Anybody can beat anyone else on any given day.

The long answer is yes, with some caveats. Florida pulled away in the second half of its first three games by running it down the throat of worn out teams with little depth. That's not an option against Alabama. UF's offense succeeded against Kentucky by running a large variety of plays, but it bogged down in the second quarter once it went away from that and returned to the predictable patterns from its previous three contests.

The weakness in Bama's D is clearly the secondary, meaning that a lot of this one rides on Brantley's arm. He can't keep overthrowing his long balls, and he must keep the poise he's showed so far. This weekend would also be a great time to have a passing efficiency score above the 130s, a threshold he's yet to break as a starter.

Alabama is a nine-point favorite, and it's not hard to see why. Florida's offense has had one good game, and it was against a suspect Kentucky defense. Alabama meanwhile looked vulnerable against Arkansas but otherwise has been fantastic. If Florida doesn't tackle better against the Tide than it did last year, Bama will cover the spread without breaking a sweat.

However, Florida's defense essentially no showed in the Georgia Dome last year. It's not going to mail this one in too. Teryl Austin has been tinkering around with a 5-2 defensive front, one which silenced Tennessee's Tauren Poole a week after he gashed Oregon for 162 yards. If Brantley plays another good game and this new defensive scheme can slow down Bama's great running backs, then the game is ripe for Florida's taking.