Posted by Jerry Hinnen
In which we break down the SEC's biggest games. This week: Gators and Crimson Tide, 8 p.m. ET Saturday on CBS.
AT STAKE: Nothing less than the winner's continued presence in the national championship race. Yes, Alabama could potentially lose and still work their way back in via a victory over LSU, but the way teams like Oklahoma and Wisconsin are playing, we wouldn't risk it if we were them. And no, Florida isn't widely viewed as a national title contender at the moment--but a win over the Tide would change that in the biggest of hurries.
WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST: Give AJ McCarron time to throw. The Tide's pass protection hasn't exactly been an Achilles heel so far this 2011 season, but it hasn't been a strength, either; the Tide have given up eight sacks in their four games, ranking them 77th in the FBS in that department, and that's with the offense heavily favoring the run game and North Texas and Kent State on the schedule.
Now tackles Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker will have to deal with the most fearsome pass rush they've faced yet. The Gators have collected seven sacks the past two weeks alone, and it's not the result of just one superstar player; Will Muschamp's blitz packages have resulted in six different Gators collecting at least one sack, with linebacker Jonathan Bostic and defensive end Ronald Powell tying for the team lead with two. Tackles Jaye Howard, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd mean the Gator pass rush is just as strong inside as it is outside, too. In short: the Tide offensive line is going to have its hands full.
But the rewards for keeping McCarron clean should be lavish. The Gator secondary is athletic and has been highly productive to date (four interceptions in the last two games, 4.7 yards per-attempt allowed for the season), but they're also young, mistake-prone (as the avalanche of penalties vs Tennessee showed) and no doubt highly concerned with the Tide rushing attack. Keeping McCarron upright likely also means the handful of big plays that would keep the Gators defense honest ... and honesty is no way to deal with Trent Richardson.
WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST: break Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey free for big plays--and we mean really big plays, plays of the 60-, 70-yard touchdown variety the Gators have already enjoyed vs. Tennessee and Kentucky.
Against the Tide, that's easier said than done, of course. But that's also the Gators' best hope. The Tide have allowed only four plays all season longer than 20 yards (second-fewest in the nation), and yielded just one to Arkansas. Result? Being forced to drive the length of the field, neither the Razorbacks nor Penn State before them were able to muster more than one serious drive before the game was well out of reach.
And it's not as if the Gators are any better built for pounding out long, methodical possessions; for all their brilliance neither Demps nor Rainey is the sort of back to move a pile of Crimson Tide defenders on 3rd-and-2, and while much improved, John Brantley still only completed 59 percent of his passes in the Gators' two SEC contests to date. Charlie Weis must figure out a way to get Demps and Rainey into space -- we suggest a heavy dose of the screen passes and check-downs that so damaged the Vols -- and hope they can work their magic. Otherwise, first-year punter David Lerner is going to get an awful lot of work.
WHAT ALABAMA CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: The Florida Field crowd. The Swamp hasn't always been The Swamp as of late -- it was just last year the Gators conspired to lose an unthinkable three consecutive home games -- but with the 4-0 start, the burst of energy from Muschamp, the primetime start, and no less an opponent than Nick Saban's Alabama, the atmosphere in Gainesville promises to be as hostile as any college football will see this year.
On the whole, a veteran team like the Tide should be able to handle it. But can McCarron? And if the Tide fall behind, will he be alone in feeling the pressure?
WHAT FLORIDA CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: The inevitable deflation of that crowd. At some point, Alabama will connect for a big play, whether it's Marquis Maze on special teams, Richardson breaking loose on a screen pass or Eddie Lacy coming off the bench to thunder for 40 yards or so. While Florida has any number of upperclassmen leaders, this remains a young team on the whole, with a first-year coaching staff, that's enjoyed nothing but prosperity so far in 2011. When Alabama socks them in the mouth and the crowd loses its buzz momentarily, there's no guaranteeing how the Gators will respond.
AND IN THE END: Buoyed by the home crowd, Florida's defense holds up much better in the face of the Tide running game than Arkansas's did. But there's not enough weapons in the Gator passing game to keep Demps and Rainey from being swarmed under, and the Tide seizes control early in the second half. Alabama 27, Florida 16.
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