How can Florida convince us it could win a potential matchup with Alabama?
A lot has changed in coach Jim McElwain’s first season at Florida. But a lot has changed since Oct. 3.
Exactly one-and-a-half months ago, the Gators ambushed the Rebels in The Swamp in a 38-10 win that still stands as Florida’s most impressive performance of the season.
A week earlier, fans in Gainesville were just happy to come away with an improbable win over Tennessee. After the win over Ole Miss, they began dreaming of Atlanta. Quarterback Will Grier found four different receivers for touchdowns in the first half of that game.
The team’s starting quarterback, and the narrative surrounding the team as a whole, has changed now. Since those 4 TD passes, Florida has only thrown 4 total. Meanwhile, talk about the Gators reaching the College Football Playoff is largely non-existent.
Still, the fact remains that Florida (not including what should be an easy win against Florida Atlantic this week) is 120 minutes away from making it in as wins over Florida State and potentially Alabama would surely guarantee the Gators of a spot among the top four.
However, they still have a long way to go before convincing us — and most people — that they could beat the Crimson Tide, their most likely opponent in the SEC Championship Game, on Dec. 5. (Florida will face Alabama as long as it doesn’t lose at Auburn on Nov. 28 while Ole Miss wins its last two regular season games vs. LSU and at Mississippi State).
So what do the Gators need to show us that would make believers out of all the naysayers out there?
1. CUT DOWN THE TURNOVERS
Is it any coincidence that the two teams we’ll likely see in Atlanta are also the top two teams in the SEC in takeaways? I don’t think so. However, Florida has 6 turnovers over the last two games after only committing 6 over the first eight games. Florida has to get back to feasting on other teams’ mistakes because if this season has been any indication, the Gators can do that against the Tide.
Alabama has committed at least one turnover in all but one game this season. The Tide’s nine games with a turnover are tied for the most in the SEC along with Kentucky and South Carolina.
Benefitting from 5 turnovers like Ole Miss did in Alabama’s only loss this season is far-fetched, but winning the turnover battle against the Tide is absolutely possible.
2. NEGATE OFFENSIVE LINE DEFICIENCIES
This was the biggest concern for Florida entering the season, and now it’s surfaced over time like a swollen lip after being decked a few times. The coaching staff has to accept that the line can’t and won’t improve enough from here to Atlanta to win the battle in the trenches against the Tide.
That means slow-developing plays need to be avoided at all costs as the team can bank on pressure coming quickly. Meanwhile, quarterback Treon Harris has shown that he’ll struggle out of the pocket against a good defense like he did against Vanderbilt.
That means the staff needs to get Harris accustomed to quick-release throws to his bevy of pass-catchers that specialize in yards after catch: Demarcus Robinson, Brandon Powell, Antonio Callaway, Jake McGee, DeAndre Goolsby, etc. Testing the Alabama secondary is better than testing its front because those receivers can actually win some battles.
3. CONSISTENT RUNNING GAME
Here’s a look at Florida’s rushing yards over the last seven games:
109 — Week 4 vs. Tennessee
84 — Week 5 vs. Ole Miss
129 — Week 6 vs. Missouri
55 — Week 7 vs. LSU
258 — Week 9 vs. Georgia
93 — Week 10 vs. Vanderbilt
148 — Week 11 vs. South Carolina
That’s some rollercoaster ride. Florida won’t be able to run the ball with much success against Alabama, but it does need to at least make it enough of a threat to have play-action make a difference. The Gators can do that if they can manage to get 3-4 yards a rush. However, Florida has only averaged at least 3 yards per rush in two of the last six games. That’s dismal, and it’s not going to get it done.
4. KEEP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING, DEFENSE
The Gators are 2nd in the SEC against the run (105.1 yards per game) and the pass (174.9 yards per game). Florida is one of only two SEC schools that ranks among the top five in both categories along with Missouri’s stout unit.
The Gators have held half of their opponents (five teams) under 250 total yards this season. That’s two better than any other SEC team, and they’ve accomplished that against their last three opponents.
Don’t underestimate how great this Florida defense has been this season. While it’s true that the Gators are capable of losing any game because of their offense, they can also win any game because of their defense. Sure, Florida lives on the edge. However, how many teams would love to say they can even “live on the edge” against Alabama?