If Florida and Alabama played each of the next ten Saturdays, Alabama would probably win nine of them.
The beauty of football is that on any given day, anything can happen. Including Florida getting that one in tomorrow’s SEC Championship Game.
Nobody’s discounting what a powerhouse Alabama has become. And sure, the Gators are seriously depleted on both sides of the ball, but that didn’t stop them from walking into Baton Rouge and pulling off a daring twilight robbery in LSU’s sacred home of Death Valley. It’s hard to look at that matchup objectively and say the Gators were the better team. Florida shouldn’t have been able to stop Derrius Guice, said the stats and the amount of injuries they had. And Florida had no real chance of winning, said the 14.5 spread.
The game stats back up what logic said should have happened. LSU out gained Florida 423-270, engineered five drives that got inside the ten yard line- four of which got inside the five- on the day, and limited Austin Appleby to just seven completions on 17 attempts for 144 yards.
But the stats don’t tell the entire story. 98 of Appleby’s 144 yards and the team’s 270 yards came on a 98 yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland. Just one of those five LSU drives that crossed the Florida 10 resulted in a touchdown, and only one more resulted in any points at all. And despite being a less healthy and less deep two touchdown underdog, and despite being out gained on the day, the Gators won the game because they rose up and made the big plays when they had to.
The Gators couldn’t duplicate the result against FSU. Players on both sides of the ball made an array of mistakes, ranging from coverage busts, to missed blocks, and everything in between. Most notably, Appleby took a big step back, missing an easy touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway had he shot a bullet at him instead of lobbing up a rainbow and losing a pair of fumbles due to holding the ball too long.
But that game is over. There’s a much bigger one coming up tomorrow.
If I had to guess, two days from now I’ll be writing about all the things that went wrong. I’ll be talking about how Florida needs better quarterback play, how they’re going to develop Jake Allen and Feleipe Franks and go from there, and how injuries have completely emaciated this current team. I’ll probably be saying that good teams can’t beat Alabama when they’re fully healthy, so how can a so-so team beat them when they’re ravaged by injuries?
And I draw that conclusion based on what I know coming into this game. Alabama is a 24 point favorite tomorrow, which qualifies as the second biggest underdog the Gators have been since before Spurrier arrived in 1990. The only time Florida has been a bigger underdog in the past quarter century was three years ago against FSU (28) and the Seminoles barely covered against the single worst Gator team since 1979. This is a top fifteen ranked Gator team here, not one of Muschamp’s patented glorified trash heaps, and they’re being similarly written off because they’ve been trending the wrong way- and because Alabama appears to be unbeatable.
But even though nobody would argue that LSU is better than Alabama by any objective measure, the odds don’t appear to be that much more stacked against the Gators than they were two weeks ago. Come on, the spread may be ten points bigger, but how many of you really thought the Gators would win in Death Valley? Change the game location to a better opponent but in a far less hostile environment and the odds are about the same- not very good, but higher than zero. And Florida just beat those odds 13 days ago.
Alabama, of course, has a terrifying dual threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts, a tough runner in Damien Harris, and a pair of top flight receivers in ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley. And, well, Alabama’s defense vs. Florida’s offense is about as big of a mismatch as you’ll ever see in a championship game.
So the Gators again have their work cut out for them. Florida knows that their national championship hopes are gone, but winning the SEC is still quite an accomplishment in its own right. It would be the ninth conference title for Florida, and it would also be the biggest upset in SEC Championship Game history in terms of point spreads. (And, well, by any other objective measure.) And do remember, the Gators also had a tangible prize awaiting them if they beat LSU (the ticket to get to this game in the first place) so add that to the list of ways tomorrow’s game mirrors the game in Death Valley. Here’s hoping the Gators will see their opportunity to go down in history, and seize it by making the big plays the way they did against LSU.
No, it wouldn’t shock me in the least if Alabama won by 30. But I’ve also learned not to count out Jim McElwain’s team when objectivity suggests you should.