Florida vs. Alabama: 3 matchups that will define the SEC Championship Game
Florida’s stunning loss to LSU was a cleat in the face to dreams of a titanic title matchup between two programs with only 1 loss between them playing for surefire spots in the College Football Playoff. Now, the Gators must beat Alabama and get a little bit of help to get in, though the committee’s odd decision to drop Florida only 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings this week certainly gives the Gators hope.
As for the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide, they are likely in the Playoff regardless of whether they win or lose Saturday night. It’s nearly impossible to construct a scenario where a 1-loss Alabama is left out of the field. Still, the Tide will be motivated as they are playing for their 7th SEC championship under Nick Saban. A win Saturday night would also be Alabama’s 4th consecutive SEC Championship win over the Gators, a feat unmatched in the history of this terrific SEC Championship Game rivalry, as the programs are set to play for the 10th time on this stage.
The folks in Vegas are good at what they do, and they’ve pegged this as a mismatch. The game opened with a line in the 20s for only the third time in the history of the SEC Championship (1995, 2016) and by kickoff, Alabama will be the 3rd-largest favorite in the history of the game. Of course, almost any Alabama loss is technically an “upset,” so if Florida does win, it wouldn’t exactly be breaking any new ground. Remember, Alabama was a 14-point favorite against Georgia in 2018, and it took Kirby Smart calling the most bizarre fake punt in history and Jalen Hurts coming off the bench to rescue the Tide on that Saturday afternoon. Alabama still won, but the point is that if you push Saban’s Alabama in this game at all, there’s a good chance you cover.
Here are 3 matchups that will define whether this is a close SEC Championship Game or an Alabama victory lap.
Will the Gators defend Najee Harris without sacrificing too much over the top?
Najee Harris is the answer to most any pitfall that could trip up the Alabama offense.
The senior running back is so good that you have to respect his ability to take over a game. He’s done it for multiple seasons, including this year against Georgia (31 carries, 152 yards) and Ole Miss (23 for 206 and 5 touchdowns), which for the most part were the Tide’s two most competitive games this season.
Harris leads the nation with 22 touchdowns, in part because defenses are so concerned about Mac Jones and Alabama’s ability to hit precision passes that they can’t sacrifice alignment to sell out on the run. Therein lies the rub, however. Even outside of the red zone, if you stack the box to stop Harris, you risk being obliterated over the top. If you don’t cheat your safeties and play honest against the run, you can be annihilated by Harris, who possesses better vision and elusiveness in the second level than any running back in college football.
— alFFred (@al_FF_red) December 13, 2020
Harris is also a masterful route runner and a terrific option for Mac Jones out of the backfield, which adds yet another layer to the ways he keeps defenses honest for the Crimson Tide’s prolific passing game.
The Gators aren’t going to shut down Alabama Saturday night. Instead, they will hope to force enough punts to outscore the Crimson Tide. How Florida defends Najee Harris will go a long way in answering this question.
Interestingly, in Alabama’s last 2 losses (both last season, against LSU and Auburn), Harris had big games, rumbling for 292 yards on 46 carries and adding 70 yards on 7 receptions in the passing game. In those games, however, teams have done enough against the Tide’s outstanding pass offense to win, whether it be LSU forcing a critical interception of Tua or the 2 Auburn pick-6s of Mac Jones. Florida has to pick its poison. History suggests loading the box to stuff Najee isn’t the answer, but it will be interesting to see what Todd Grantham dials up Saturday night.
How does Alabama slow the Kyles and Kadarius
While the Alabama defense has been marvelous down the stretch, it hasn’t faced anything like the Florida offense since October. The Gators rank 1st in the country in passing offense, 4th in passing offense success rate, 6th in S&P+ efficiency offense, 7th in success rate offense, 8th in passing yards per attempt and 6th in yards per play.
The Tide have faced 2 passing offenses this season that rank in the top 20 nationally in efficiency. The first, Ole Miss, lit up the Tide for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air and posted 48 points. The other, Miss State, featured Will Rogers in his first career start, and the Tide pitched a shutout. Talk about contrasts! The other top 50 passing efficiency offenses that have played the Tide are LSU, Missouri and Texas A&M. The Crimson Tide won all 3 games comfortably but played Missouri before Connor Bazelak was the starter, surrendered 265 yards passing to LSU’s TJ Finley, who then lost the starting job, and allowed Kellen Mond to throw for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns in defeat. The bottom line? The Alabama defense’s improvement is real, but it also has something to do with who they have played.
Much like Florida, the Tide don’t have to “stop” the Gators Saturday night. They simply have to force enough stops to overwhelm the Gators with their own prolific offense — one that is more balanced and lethal than Florida’s.
“Florida is as explosive an offense as anyone in the country,” Nick Saban acknowledged this week. “And Kyle Pitts is as good a football player as we’ve faced here in a very long time.”
Pitts is an NFL tight end playing college football, and the numbers (of his 36 receptions, 18 have been explosive plays in just 6 1/2 games) bear that out. Complementing him is Kadarius Toney, who ranks 3rd in the SEC in receptions and is a well-deserved finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, honoring the most versatile player in college football. On the season, Toney has 831 yards receiving, 146 yards rushing, 12 yards passing and a punt return for a touchdown. He averages well over a first down every time he touches the football offensively (12.4 per touch) and has played his best football down the stretch, posting 100 plus yards receiving and at least 1 touchdown in 3 of Florida’s final 4 games.
The Tide are more equipped than anyone in America, save perhaps a healthy Georgia, to figure it out. They know the Gators struggle to run the football (65th in rushing success rate) and Nick Saban can drop 7 into coverage consistently as a result. Patrick Surtain II is the best corner in the country, per Pro Football Focus, and Alabama’s safeties, which include Daniel Wright, the younger brother of Florida great Major Wright, are more than capable of bringing the boom on Mullen’s favored crossing routes.
It’s a fascinating matchup, and for the Tide to avoid an upset, they have to win enough battles here to force a few Florida punts.
Which pass rush makes a difference?
One big way to slow an elite passing offense is to get to the quarterback. The unit that better pressures the opposing Heisman candidate quarterback may have the best evening Saturday night.
Interestingly, neither Florida nor Alabama have been their usual dominant self in pressuring quarterbacks in 2020.
Florida ranked in the top 15 in sack percentage and top 10 in quarterback pressures and havoc rate in both of the defense’s first 2 seasons under Grantham’s stewardship. Last year, Florida led the country in sack percentage. This season, Florida ranks only 25th in sack percentage and the Gators sit just inside the top 30 (29th) in pressures and havoc rate.
Meanwhile, while Alabama’s Christian Barmore shares the SEC lead with 6.0 sacks, the Tide rank only 51st in the country in sack percentage, 54th in pressures and 50th in havoc rate. Pete Golding’s defense will want to manufacture some pressure, preferably with their front, so as to not have to eliminate defenders from coverage.
These quarterbacks are Heisman candidates for a reason, but if you can pressure them, you at least stand a chance.
The SEC passers with the best Success Rate under pressure entering Week 13 – min 25 att
1. Corral 46.7%
2. Jones 45.9%
3. Trask 44.4%
4. Bennett 42.3%
5. Doty 38.5%
6. Johnson 35.7%
7. Mond 33.9%
8. Guarantano 32.4%
9. Franks 32.1%
10. Costello 30.6%
SEC AVR = 32.6% pic.twitter.com/UvDIZpVTlZ
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) December 16, 2020
The numbers above support that claim, because the success rate for Jones and Trask generally in the passing game approaches or slightly exceeds (in Jones’s case) 60%. That’s astounding, and it shows that there is about a 10-15% drop in success if you simply generate a bit of pressure.
The team that does that most effectively Saturday night will be well-positioned to win.