5 reasons these Gators are better prepared to beat Alabama in SEC Championship Game
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It’s no secret that No. 15 Florida faces a monumental challenge Saturday against No. 1 Alabama in an SEC Championship rematch.
Last year’s game went about as predicted, as the 17-point favorite Crimson Tide left the Georgia Dome with the conference title upon defeating UF 29-15. This year’s game is expected to be more lopsided, as the betting line has moved from 21.5 to 24 points in Alabama’s favor.
Considering how Florida was manhandled by FSU 31-13 Saturday night and the Gators’ growing number of injuries, it’s not surprising to see everyone expecting the Crimson Tide to roll. Jim McElwain’s squad, however, is better prepared than last year to knock off Alabama.
Here are five reasons:
1. Familiarity with the game and the experience: With injuries, there will be some freshmen playing, but most of Florida’s starters are returning from the 2015 squad that lost in last year’s title game. That familiarity will help the Gators prepare for Saturday and know how to handle the bright lights of the Georgia Dome. Alabama is obviously familiar with playing in the Georgia Dome as well, but this time around, the playing level is more level on that front.
2. The Gators have a kicker this time: It’s amazing the difference that having a kicker makes. A year ago, the Gators’ only option was Austin Hardin, and the lack of field goals put constant pressure on the offense and defense.
Hardin had a field goal blocked at the line of scrimmage in last year’s game, and it led to one of McElwain’s harshest quips of the season.
“We’ll get working on this kicking thing, and somebody will get it over the line far enough that maybe somebody doesn’t block it with their armpit,” the coach told reporters last year.
This year, that won’t be a problem with Eddy Pineiro, who is 18-of-22 on the season, including 3-of-3 from 50-plus yards. With Pineiro, the Gators know they’re never too far away from putting three points on the board.
Florida might not be able to mount many 70-yard touchdown drives, but 40-yard drives have a much better chance of resulting in points.
“His field goals, I just love how effortless he is in his ability to get the ball up,” McElwain said Monday of Pineiro.
3. They know what it’s like to pull a big upset: The betting line has Alabama as a 24-point favorite. Florida was a double-digit underdog not too long ago, and it worked out well for McElwain’s squad.
The UF-LSU betting line closed with the host Tigers being favored by 13.5 points. That only fed into the Gators’ chip on their shoulder that no one was giving them a chance. With that in mind, they went into Death Valley and pulled off their biggest upset in 40 years.
Florida’s biggest upset last season was against Ole Miss, when the Rebels came into The Swamp favored by 6.5 points. It hardly felt relevant to last year’s SEC Championship Game since Will Grier, who played the game of his short Florida career against Ole Miss, was no longer a part of the team in December.
This time around, the same quarterback who led the Gators against LSU, Austin Appleby, will start against Alabama.
4. The Gators are unbelievably confident: No objective observer is giving the Gators a chance, but that hasn’t rattled their confidence.
“I think we’ve done it throughout the season in glimpses and spurts,” Appleby said of the Florida offense. “The key for us is going to be consistency. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We can’t have negative plays. We’ve got to stay on schedule and keep working.
“We flashed it against LSU. We flashed it against South Carolina. We flashed it against Georgia. We have played really well against Kentucky and Missouri. It’s just going to be — we know we can do it. Now it’s just about doing it time and time again, and that’s that mental endurance thing. That’s playing for each other, trusting in the plan, not making stuff up, and just executing the plan.”
Last year’s team knew that the Harris-led offense was incapable of scoring more than a few points. It struggled mightily down the stretch and that offense was shut out by Florida State.
As Appleby stated, this team has at least flashed potential recently. They truly believe they’re on the cusp of putting together a complete performance. The offense should be in a better mental state heading into Saturday’s showdown.
5. Without having to worry about Derrick Henry, the Gators can concentrate on what they do: On Monday’s teleconference, Florida CB Quincy Wilson was asked to assess the difference in Alabama’s offense between this year and last year. While not completely diplomatic, his answer was honest.
“The quarterback (Jalen Hurts, below), he’s a mobile guy now,” Wilson said. “He can make plays on his feet as well as throwing the ball. The running back (Damien Harris) isn’t as good as last year, but he’s still going to be a challenge for us.”
Wilson isn’t wrong. The Crimson Tide ground game is definitely different without Henry (though there was certainly a better way to get this point across). As a Heisman talent, Henry required special attention in game week preparations. This year, Florida’s defense won’t be giving extra attention to a single player.
Florida still faces a tall task in containing the Crimson Tide offense, but the Gators will be better prepared by not having to give special attention to a running back like Henry this week.