As Florida’s third game of the season approaches, there are undoubtedly some Gator fans who have serious questions about whether or not the Gators can remain undefeated.
Now, admittedly, part of that is because the Gators looked less than fantastic against a Kentucky team that’s certainly better than it’s been in past years, but nowhere near a contender for Atlanta. But a much bigger part of this skepticism has to do with Florida’s next opponent… the Crimson Tide of A-a-a-a-a-labama.
OK, so they’re good. Really good. Averaging 12 wins a year since 2008 in the rugged SEC will give you an aura of invincibility that not even Superman can touch. With each win, the name Alabama commands more and more respect and fear from opponents. Even when they look less than impressive on the field (like they did against West Virginia), they’re given tons of respect in the polls, which of course continues to boost the prestige of their program.
Having said that, there is a kryptonite for college football’s Superman. With the exception of Utah in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, each team to beat Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide since 2008 has done so by following a distinct blueprint, which I’m about to lay out for you.
Before I do, though, one quick note about Utah: what they did to defeat Alabama would never work again in a million years.
For starters, Alabama wanted no part of that Sugar Bowl after getting their hearts broken by Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship. But on a more x’s and o’s note, Saban and his defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have since figured out how to stop the wacky machine gun offense drawn up by Kyle Whittingham that Brian Johnson rode to glory that night in Cajun Country. Not since that evening in early January in 2009 has Alabama been defeated by a downfield passing attack. Sure, there have been individual plays, such as John Brantley’s bomb to Andre Debose in 2011. But as games wear on, Alabama settles in and your surprises have been used, big plays like that disappear. Note how after that opening play, Florida only ran four more plays that gained 10+ yards the rest of the night.
We’re looking for what my high school calculus teacher calls a p-a-t-t-e-r-n. A trend. A method. A formula. Not a fluke, or a one shot deal like Utah in that Sugar Bowl. The other eight teams to beat Alabama since 2008 were: Florida (2008), South Carolina, LSU, Auburn (2010), LSU (2011), Texas A&M (2012), Auburn and Oklahoma (2013). They all used a similar five piece game plan to defeat the Tide.
So here it is:
-Consistent great, playmaking defense
If you can’t play defense, especially with the way Alabama has run the ball under Saban- and will again this year with TJ Yeldon, Kenyon Drake and Derrick Henry- you’re going to get walloped.
To stop the three headed Bama running game, you need an army of players on defense capable and willing to apply the boom on any given play. You can force a three and out on one, two or even five straight possessions. But Alabama’s just going to keep on coming at you with any of their three dangerous backs, and your defense better be ready to keep taking those body blows, and better yet, be ready to deliver counter-body blows. Because if your defense plays three great quarters, but you’re locked in a 10-10 tie at the end of the third, and then you get tired… well, the Tide’s going to roll. It doesn’t matter when it happens; if your defense caves and wears down before Alabama’s offensive line and their running backs, you’re going to lose.
This defense also requires a shutdown corner in case Bama decides to throw the ball with the eight guys stuffing the box that you have. It only takes one play, one busted coverage for the 10-7 lead you’ve been nursing for a quarter and a half to become a 14-10 deficit. In the same way your front seven cannot break, your secondary must be alert and not give up the big play at any time.
But limiting how many times the Crimson Tide score or even hit big plays is only half the battle. The other half is making positive plays yourself. Sacks, forcing fumbles and intercepting passes are key in beating Alabama. Chances are, they can run all day at you; tiring them out, even for a staunch defense like Florida’s, is a tough chore. You as a defense have got to be able to give yourself a break now and then by making big plays, and thus ending drives before Alabama wants them to end.
The only team of the aforementioned eight that didn’t really have this great, playmaking defense was Oklahoma. Yet in the end, it was their defense that slammed the door on Alabama with the strip-sack of McCarron and ensuing scoop-n-score by Geneo Grissom. That was the final of five turnovers forced by the Sooners’ defense that night, and those five takeaways more than excused the 31 points they surrendered.
And yet that was arguably the worst defensive performance that beat the Crimson Tide. Let’s look at how many points Alabama scored in their other seven losses since 2008: 20, 21, 21, 27, 6, 24 and 28. OK, so Auburn giving up 27/28 in 2010 and 2013 isn’t exactly great, consistent defense. But in their 28-27 win in 2010, Auburn’s defense allowed just 3 points in the final 38 minutes after being shaky early. And in the 34-28 win in last year’s Iron Bowl, Auburn’s defense made a gigantic stop on fourth and one to stop a fourth quarter Alabama drive deep in their territory. In addition, Texas A&M’s defense wasn’t lights out in their 29-24 win in 2012, but they did force three huge turnovers, including a game saving interception in the end zone by DeShazier Everett.
So in some fashion or another, a great defense is an absolute necessity. The rest of this blueprint will focus on the offensive side of the ball. But if you don’t have a defense that causes Alabama trouble, you won’t win.
-A dual threat quarterback
This isn’t to say that your quarterback has to have Usain Bolt type speed. But at the very least, you have to have a QB that isn’t afraid to run and can pick up a minimum of six yards on the ground. You simply have to, or you will lose.
The short answer is that it gives the defense an 11th man to have to worry about. A strictly pocket passer- even a very good one- can be stopped by simple coverage schemes and blitz packages. But add that element of being a threat on the ground, and it completely alters a defense’s game plan- and can lead to major confusion, and thus mistakes.
A quarterback that can run and throw (not or) will force Alabama to play cautiously on defense. Every single player on that Tide defense, who has been given a responsibility for each play, now must add “babysitting the QB” to his list of potential duties. You could put a single cover corner on a receiver who completely locks him down for the entire game, but should he turn his back to the QB and allow him to pick up a chunk of yardage… well, that’s no better than getting beat by the receiver he’s supposed to be covering. After all, yards are yards, and they all count the same, no matter how you get them.
So once you’ve forced Alabama’s defense to pay attention to the QB at all times, they’ll start to tone down the aggression, and every move they make in terms of dealing with the QB will be in carefully calculated measures. Send a lot of guys on a middle blitz, but fail to contain on the edges, and the mobile QB will beat the defense on the outside and take off down the sideline. Send too many defenders to blitz wide, and it just takes one good block by a tailback to spring the QB for a huge gain on a QB draw right up the middle. Crowd the box with eight defenders but fail to get the QB quickly enough, and you give him his pick of one on one match ups (this is why he has to be able to run AND throw, not just run) to choose from.
These second guesses and cautious moves by the defense will ultimately create small holes somewhere on the field. Where the hole is exactly depends on what Kirby Smart does, but they will exist the moment the QB takes one step toward the line of scrimmage to even feint a run. Each player on defense will then pause with an understandable dilemma: forgo my given assignment, go after the QB and risk a big play via the hole that my change of plans caused, or stick with my assignment and risk a scramble that results in more yards than the original play was designed to get?
That split second is all the dual threat QB needs. The tiniest moment of hesitation puts each and every player just one step behind where they’re designed to be, or want to be. That’s all the great dual threat QB’s need. Consider the list of QB’s that have beaten Alabama since 2008: Tim Tebow, Stephen Garcia, Jordan Jefferson, Cam Newton, Jordan Jefferson again, Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall and Trevor Knight. Of those guys, Knight was arguably the least dangerous with his legs, but he still put up 438 rushing yards in the seven games he played in 2013. Anyway, all presented the threat to beat the Crimson Tide in multiple ways.
And all did.
-Don’t lose the turnover battle
As mentioned earlier, turnovers go a long way in pulling off the victory against Alabama.
In two of their eight losses (not including Utah) since 2008, Alabama won the turnover battle. That means in the other six, they were either tied or lost the turnover margin- good enough for me to consider this a trend. Some turnovers were more costly than others, but the fact of the matter is, you cannot turn the ball over against Alabama without your defense forcing a turnover right back. It gives their offense more chances to land body blows with their stable of backs, and gives their defense a rest so they can come right back at you having caught their breath.
It’s also worth noting that in four of those eight losses, turnovers were the final nail in the Tide’s coffin. I mentioned two of them earlier in separate contexts, but I’ll bring them up again here because they’re relevant for this context, too: DeShazier Everett’s pick at the goal line and Geneo Grissom’s fumble recovery for a touchdown. Throw in Joe Haden’s interception to seal the deal in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, and Drake Nevis’s strip sack of Greg McElroy that allowed LSU to bleed clock and kick the field goal that put the game away in 2010, and you’ve got that p-a-t-t-e-r-n.
Historically speaking, when games are coming down the wire and Alabama loses, half the time it’s directly due to a costly fourth quarter turnover.
-Great offensive line play
This one is very simple.
In order to give your dual threat QB enough time and space to cause the defenders to freeze, you as an offensive line unit have to be able to consistently keep defenders out of the backfield for three seconds. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three, and then you’ve done your job. That’s all that guys like Newton, Tebow, Manziel and Marshall needed, and that’s really all you can ask from your line against what’s always certain to be a ferocious Alabama defense.
I’m not asking for pancakes here, or for the QB’s jersey to remain as brightly colored as it was before the game started. All the line needs to do is give the QB a clear window to make decisions on 90% of the plays. Every now and then, sure, somebody will miss an assignment and somebody will come running through. That’s where the dual threat quarterback is able to escape and avoid disaster, either by throwing it away or by making something big happen with his arm or his legs.
The other piece of this is run blocking. You’ve got to consistently open up creases for your running backs to pound through. I don’t expect to open up gigantic gaps, but you have to give your running backs at least a hint of daylight. Moving the chains and keeping your defense fresh by putting together drives that span at least seven or eight plays is absolutely vital. This cannot happen without consistent running room for the tailbacks.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t beat Alabama without having an offensive line that dominates the line of scrimmage for the majority of the game.
-Dominant Special Teams
This one is sort of a wild card, but it’s a necessity.
Simply put, Alabama’s special teams have been woeful at times since Nick Saban took over in 2007.
Special teams errors have directly led to their demise in three of their eight losses to teams not named Utah, and contributed to at least three others, and maybe four depending on your personal opinion. We all remember the “Kick Six” episode in last year’s Iron Bowl and their major field goal kicking issues in a 9-6 loss to LSU in 2011. Various other problems, including Cody Mandell’s 33.5 yards per punt average against South Carolina and 33.8 average against Auburn in 2010, have proven that special teams isn’t exactly Alabama’s strong suit.
Basically, what this is saying is one big thing: do not screw up on special teams, and if you do what you’re supposed to do on special teams, you’re in good shape if you have the first two components listed. Or let’s be more positive for a moment, as opposed to not being negative. Think about this. Nobody blows Alabama out of the water; all victories against them are close, hard fought battles that come down to the final minutes. A blocked kick or a punt, a big kick or punt return, or a successful fake kick or punt could be the difference.
Does Florida have these five things, or at least the capability to have them checked off?
Uhhh, check. The Gators have been in the top ten nationally for total defense in each of Muschamp’s three years, and though it’s a little too early to tell, this may be his best one yet. Their front seven is nasty, and Vernon Hargreaves is that shut down corner.
-Dual threat quarterback
Check, though somewhat reluctantly. We know Jeff Driskel is fast, we know he has a big arm and we know he can win in big environments. But he’s shown some poor judgment at times, and sometimes overestimates these skills, which can lead to disaster. Driskel doesn’t need to be Superman; Clark Kent will do just fine, thank you very much.
-Don’t lose the turnover battle
Put a question mark by this one. It’s easily the most important non X’s and O’s part of the game. I’ve ranted about the Gators’ chronic turnover woes under Muschamp many times before. They’d better not make an appearance in Tuscaloosa, or this game could be over by halftime. I’m more worried about Florida’s offense not committing them than their defense forcing them.
-Great offensive line play
Does Florida have this line right now? Absolutely not, though they’re closer than the various missed blocking assignments against Kentucky would suggest. There’s a lot of work to do for Saturday up front, but I’m certainly not ruling out the possibility of this offensive line getting their shit together for Alabama when they know they have no choice if they want to win.
-Dominant special teams
Check, though I’ll admit I close my eyes and turn away from the TV whenever Florida attempts a field goal of more than 40 yards. But with Andre Debose lurking back there on kicks and punts, plus the decreased but still legitimate potential of a blocked kick/punt thanks to all the speed on the kick/punt block team, you have to think Florida’s chances of a big special teams play are better than most other teams’. Oh, and Kyle Christy has returned to his 2012 form.
So what does this mean?
Florida has a chance. I’m not promising an upset, but I will say they have a chance. They have many of the ingredients the formula for beating Alabama calls for, and I wouldn’t put it past this team to quickly get the others. They definitely have the two most important ones, a great defense and a QB that can hurt you in two ways. Now, if they can win the turnover battle, block better than they ever have before and win the special teams battle?
We might be talking about the rebirth of a program come Monday morning.