Listen, I’m not breaking anyone’s heart to suggest that the 2015 SEC title game might not be a terribly exciting matchup. From the East we have #18 Florida, limping in being outscored 15.5-13.8 in its last four games and looking generally offensively impotent. From the West we have #2 Alabama, the slow steamroller, the inexorable march of crimson death.
But Alabama still has to win. While lacking the College Football Playoff Quarterfinal feel of the Big Ten Championship, the SEC title game still carries national implications. While even with a second loss, Bama might be unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country, I struggle to see the Committee pulling a BCS and placing a team coming off a conference championship game loss into the top four, especially not if the team that beat them is nowhere near contention.
Florida might have to score
There’s no dancing around it: in order to have a chance to win, Florida might have to score some points. Florida has struggled to do this. A Florida State defense not as good as the one the Gators are about to face held the Florida offense to zero points. (The Gators did manage two points off a safety because they, too, can play a little defense.)
Since the suspension/dismissal of quarterback Will Grier, the Gators have had a belt tightened firmly around their jaws, averaging just 14.8 offensive points per game. Treon Harris has, in the same number of starts, thrown more picks, fewer touchdowns, completed fewer passes, and taken more sacks. It’s not cutting it.
Strangely, adding a more-mobile Harris has actually hurt the rest of the run game, which has seen its production fall from 3.7 yards per carry when Grier was starting (not great anyways) to 3.3 under Harris.
How are the Gators going to get points, then? With a lot of help from their defense and special teams. The Gator defense is excellent in its own right, possibly the nation’s best outside of Tuscaloosa. The offense needs a boost. They need field position. They need turnovers. They need psyche-breaking negative plays and big hits.
Basically, they need to be perfect. They need a performance similar to Nebraska’s in the 2009 Big Twelve Championship Game, where the Cornhuskers’ near-flawless defensive effort kept a punchless offense in a position to win against a high-caliber Texas offense led by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
But can Alabama be stalled?
You know exactly what Alabama is going to do: run at you with Derrick Henry twenty, thirty, forty times. You might contain him for a few series, but good luck doing so for sixty minutes. That’s the lesson Auburn learned last week, who defended Henry as valiantly as any opponent has in 2015. The Tide’s answer? MORE HENRY, who finished with 271 yards on a career high 46 carries.
Possibly more importantly, however: Auburn only allowed Henry into the end zone once (a game-icing score with 26 seconds to go), forcing the Tide into field goals and one Jake Coker desperation heave that fell into ArDarius Stewart‘s arms, because Alabama.
Florida has to realize that Henry is going to rumble, they just have to figure out the right ways to make him stagger and second-guess his lanes. Arkansas did it, holding Henry to a season-low 3.5 yards per carry. If you’re the Gators, get your NFL-ready defensive line in there, gum up the lanes, and let your linebackers stifle the play. Your secondary can handle Coker.
And do better against Henry than you did against Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook.
Can the Gators make a game-breaking play?
In a game that will almost certainly be close, if Florida wants to pull this upset off they’ll need an X-factor: a defensive score, or a punt or kickoff return, or a busted miracle play (like the one Ole Miss used to extend a lead over Bama earlier this year). Are the Gators capable of breaking such a play?
If you’re Alabama, don’t overthink it. The Gators can’t contain your brutal rushing attack forever. Grind them down and don’t put Coker in a position where he will have to win you the game, because that’s exactly what Florida wants.