3 matchups that will define the Alabama-Florida game
Florida welcomes No. 1 Alabama to The Swamp Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) in a rematch of last season’s epic SEC Championship Game, won 52-46 by the Crimson Tide.
The Gators enter the game as a 15.5-point underdog, the largest home underdog Florida has been this century and only the 4th time in 42 years that Florida has been a double-digit home underdog. As the game has drawn closer, it’s difficult to find many folks who even think this game will be competitive. Paul Finebaum praised the environment in The Swamp as “one of the toughest arenas in college football for a visiting team,” but said he still doesn’t expect Alabama to be pushed. Other national writers and analysts have expressed similar sentiments.
Nick Saban and Alabama are accustomed to hostile environments and even more accustomed to being heavy favorites. Handling the weight of expectations and not looking past any opponent, no matter how heavily favored, is part of why Saban’s Alabama reigns imperiously over the sport. Alabama has won 31 consecutive games against SEC East foes, a run that spans 11 years, 3 U.S. presidencies and 26 SEC East head coaches.
Here are the 3 matchups SDS believes will define the Alabama-Florida game.
Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson vs. the Alabama front seven
Dan Mullen had a marvelous game plan a season ago against Nick Saban and Pete Golding’s defense. Florida didn’t run the ball much, but they did take what the Tide gave them in the short passing game, utilizing 3-step drops and quick throws to let their playmakers work in space. Alabama’s safeties and corners started to cheat, and the Gators responded by working over the top, with Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney able to win 1-on-1s against the likes of Patrick Surtain II, Josh Jobe and Jordan Battle.
Of course, last season Florida had the No. 1 passing offense in the country and ranked No. 3 in passing success rate. Throwing the ball all over the lot against Alabama was playing to Florida’s strength. Florida’s plan will be completely different by choice and necessity this season.
Pitts is gone to the NFL and Florida’s tight ends have not caught a pass through 2 games this season.
Toney is gone and while Florida did show a few looks suggesting it may utilize Xzavier Henderson a bit in the run game and slot last week against USF, it’s difficult to know if those were just wrinkles Mullen was showing Alabama for film purposes or something Florida intends to do Saturday afternoon.
The Gators did work on the vertical passing game against USF, with Jones and Richardson connecting on beautiful deep throws. But Florida’s passing game in 2021 will always be built to complement its run game. It won’t be the foundation of what Florida hopes to do on offense.
That makes sense, too, given that the Gators enter Saturday’s tilt with Alabama ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing offense and No. 3 in rushing success rate. The Gators average 381.5 yards rushing per game and 8.5 yards per carry. Florida won’t put up these types of huge numbers against Alabama’s marvelous front — but they should be able to use the run game to make life a bit easier on Mullen’s quarterbacks, which leads us to the big alligator in the room — how will Mullen divide labor between starter Jones and Richardson?
According to Mullen, Richardson has “had a good week of practice” and is healthy after an injury scare late in the USF game. Richardson has looked the part of a transcendental type talent at quarterback through 2 games, making “Wow” plays like this one last week:
— Kenny Morales (@KennyMoralesTV) September 11, 2021
He also has ranked in the top 5 in “player speed” in both Week 1 and Week 2 carrying the ball:
#CFB's Top 5 Max Speeds from Ball Carriers: Week 2
1️⃣ UM RB @blake_corum, 22.1 MPH
2️⃣ UGA TE @brockbowers17, 21.9 MPH
3️⃣ ND RB @chris_tyree4, 21.8 MPH
4️⃣ UF QB @GVOaant, 21.0 MPH
5️⃣ MSU WR @JaydenReed5, 20.9 MPH#myRAmaxspeed pic.twitter.com/MIJWoZEJDF
— Recruiting Analytics (@RAanalytics) September 14, 2021
The kid just does things on a football field that are difficult to fathom.
Mullen is sticking with Jones as the starter in spite of all of it, pointing to Jones’ deeper understanding of the full playbook and Jones’ ability, in his own right, to make special plays.
“We have two really good quarterbacks,” Mullen told the media this week. “I think you’ve seen that. They know the plan this week and they are both comfortable with it.”
Is Mullen making a mistake sticking with a 2-quarterback system? Is he being too loyal by continuing to stick with Jones, who has 4 interceptions in his first 2 starts and has not moved the offense as well as Richardson?
It’s possible. It’s also academic because both quarterbacks will play Saturday.
If Will Anderson is healthy and plays — and reports out of Tuscaloosa are fortunately positive after Anderson was injured on a cheap shot block last week against Mercer — the Gators will have 1 inexperienced quarterbacks dealing with one of the best front 7s in the sport. Led by Phidarian Mathis, the Tide have registered 7 sacks on the young season, a number good for 19th nationally, but their talent up front is about much more than making big plays. Especially with Anderson available, the Crimson Tide can get after you with 3 or 4 rushers. This frees up defenders to spy Jones or Richardson, limiting the danger that they hurt the Tide when receivers aren’t open or in the run game.
Florida’s young quarterbacks have to account for the spies, remember to look off safeties on intermediate throws, and make the proper choices in the zone-read game. Is limiting what Richardson is asked to do — and putting a heavier lift in terms of opening the playbook to Jones — the best path forward for Saturday? Obviously, Mullen believes it is. We’ll know soon enough.
Todd Grantham’s desire to blitz Bryce Young vs. Florida’s ability to be effective rushing 4
Grantham against his own personnel?
Hear me out.
Grantham has made a great living as a coordinator known for his exotic blitz schemes. These schemes have historically been extremely effective on young, inexperienced quarterbacks — see his ability to rattle young(er) Joe Burrow in The Swamp in 2018, Bo Nix in his first road start in 2019, and Stetson Bennett last year in the Cocktail Party. The idea of blitzing young quarterbacks is, at bottom, to speed up their decision-making process, even if you don’t create a sack. It will be extremely tempting, given the crowd noise and the youth of Bryce Young, to blitz constantly. It’s in Grantham’s DNA.
Despite this, I posit that Saturday, Grantham needs to not be … well, Grantham.
Florida needs to ride its front 4 to create pressure on Young. It needs to keep 7 men in coverage, keep things in front of it, and make Young drive the length of the field. The Gators — specifically Grantham — need to trust their defensive line to win battles against Alabama’s offensive line.
Florida has guys who can do this. Zachary Carter beat Evan Neal, the best offensive linemen in the country, for a sack and multiple pressures in the 2020 SEC Championship Game and has given offensive lines fits to open the 2021 season. Khris Bogle was a longtime Alabama target who has looked the part of a terrific backup edge rusher this season. Brenton Cox, a preseason All-SEC selection, has battled through an injury early in the season but has the speed and instincts to win a 1-on-1. Mercer collected a pair of sacks against the Alabama front last week — so they aren’t invincible. Florida should trust the group they’ve recruited — which ranks in the top 5 in the country at the position per the 247sports.com talent composite.
If Florida blitzes too often, it risks giving Young open throws against a secondary that is plagued with questions beyond safety Trey Dean and All-American corner Kaiir Elam. Limiting big-play opportunities will be vital for Florida.
Blitzing creates risks; USF should have scored a touchdown in a bad matchup created by a Florida blitz last week. Young is unlikely to miss these opportunities, and Florida can’t win if Alabama collects easy scores.
Florida’s Jacob Copeland and Xzavier Henderson vs. Alabama’s Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis
Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis, Alabama’s starting cornerbacks, have practiced all week and are expected back Saturday against Florida after missing the Mercer game. They’ll pose stiff challenges in man coverage against Florida’s new 1-2 receiver duo of Copeland and Henderson.
The duo broke out against USF, collecting 9 catches for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns. They’ll now face one of the best corners in America in Jobe and Armour-Davis, who is very physical and tough in Saban’s press schemes. Jordan Battle, who just gave the greatest Alabama player press conference of all time, is also very capable and will factor into this matchup.
For Copeland, who waffled between Florida and Alabama throughout a long recruiting process that didn’t end until Signing Day, Saturday is a game he’s waited a long time to play. Copeland chose Florida because it felt like home and felt like he’d play sooner, but it’s likely his career is in the same place at either destination, as it turns out. He was caught behind a host of NFL talent at Florida his first 3 years and would have been at Alabama as well. Now, he’s the guy, wearing Florida’s fabled No. 1 jersey and expected to carry the load for a nascent passing game. We’ll find out if he’s ready for that moment come Saturday.
Not to be outdone, Emory Jones answers with a glorious 35-yarder to Xzavier Henderson pic.twitter.com/TEpWv8lnz6
— libgator (@lib_gator) September 11, 2021
The same goes for Henderson, a longtime Alabama and Georgia target who elected to follow in his All-American brother CJ’s footsteps and go to Florida. He played consistently as a freshman, but is only just starting to scratch the surface of his long-term ceiling. Saturday is a national stage. Will he be ready?
Florida’s top receiving duo must make a handful of plays Saturday if Florida has any chance.