Alabama opens SEC play with a visit from a Florida team that needed overtime to knock off an improving Kentucky squad last Saturday. These two programs are two of the SEC’s best jobs, and the Gators and Crimson Tide combined for five national titles during the BCS era. And with the level of recruiting at Alabama and Florida, there’s plenty of four and five-star athletes and players on display in Tuscaloosa. Even though both teams recruit at a similar level, the on-field production in recent years is slanted in favor of Alabama. Florida needs a big win - and Saturday's game is a big opportunity - to erase some of the bad memories from last year's 4-8 record.
We can’t mention Florida and Alabama and overlook the coaching matchup. It’s a matchup of the teacher versus the pupil, as Nick Saban squares off against former assistant Will Muschamp. Saban is 1-0 against Muschamp, and this year’s matchup has extra importance for Florida after a disappointing 4-8 record last year. Muschamp sits squarely on the hot seat in 2014 and a win over Alabama would be huge for his future and overall momentum of the program.
Alabama leads the all-time series against Florida 22-14. The last meeting between these two teams was Oct. 1, 2011, with the Crimson Tide winning 38-10.
Florida vs. Alabama
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Run Defense
The Gators haven’t played a gauntlet of offenses in 2014, but the defense has yet to allow a rushing score or 100-yard game. Kentucky’s backfield was limited to just 81 yards on 33 carries, while Eastern Michigan was held to 80 yards on 34 attempts. Good numbers, but what do they mean? Saturday should provide the answers for Florida, as Alabama owns one of the nation’s deepest backfields and ranks No. 18 nationally by averaging 270.3 rushing yards per game. Crimson Tide rushers are averaging 6.2 yards per rush, with T.J. Yeldon (225) and Derrick Henry (209) a tough thunder-and-lightning combination. The Gators allowed 142.4 rushing yards per game in 2013 and return six starters from last year’s front seven, including standout rush end Dante Fowler and lineman Jonathan Bullard. Florida’s defensive front is the best Alabama has played so far this year. If the Gators can find a way to slow down Henry and Yeldon, the emphasis on the offense shifts to quarterback Blake Sims.
2. Amari Cooper vs. Vernon Hargreaves III
Individual matchups are always difficult to watch from the couch, but this game features the No. 1 receiver in the nation (Cooper) against arguably the No. 1 cornerback (Hargreaves III). Cooper leads the nation with 33 receptions and has 454 yards and two scores so far this year. As a true freshman last year, Hargreaves III recorded 38 tackles, three interceptions, 11 pass breakups, while earning third-team All-American honors from the Associated Press. Hargreaves III has broke up five passes this season and will challenge Cooper (assuming these two players are matched against each other). If Hargreaves III shadows Cooper, which receiver steps up for Alabama? Will tight end O.J. Howard record his first catch of the year? Or will the Crimson Tide ask more of Christion Jones and DeAndrew White (if he’s healthy and able to play)?
3. The Quarterbacks
Quarterback play is always under the spotlight, but the performance of Florida’s Jeff Driskel and Alabama’s Blake Sims is under extra scrutiny on Saturday. Driskel missed nearly all of 2013 due to a leg injury, and his performance in 2014 could be the difference in the Gators winning the SEC East or finishing fourth. In two appearances this year, Driskel is completing 63.6 percent of his throws and has four touchdowns to just one interception on 88 attempts. The junior’s mobility was expected to be utilized under new coordinator Kurt Roper, but Driskel has just seven carries so far. Could that change on Saturday? Sims edged Jacob Coker for the starting job in August and has performed well so far. The senior is completing 75 percent of his throws and has tossed four touchdowns on 48 completions. Sims has tossed only one pick and has 102 rushing yards through three games. Considering Alabama’s strength on defense and deep stable of running backs, Sims won’t need a huge effort for the Crimson Tide to win. However, Sims can’t afford to make mistakes and allow Florida to hang around. The mindset under center has to be different for the Gators: Driskel needs to have a big game in order to leave Tuscaloosa with the victory.
A low-scoring game should be expected on Saturday. Both teams average over 33 minutes in time of possession, so the drives and overall opportunities for the offenses will be at a premium. Florida’s up-tempo attack could give Alabama’s defense fits after the struggles of the Crimson Tide against Oklahoma and West Virginia. However, Nick Saban’s secondary will benefit from a healthy Eddie Jackson at cornerback, and the sophomore has a good one-on-one battle ahead against Florida receiver Demarcus Robinson. Expect Florida to challenge Alabama’s rushing attack and force Blake Sims to win this one through the air. The Crimson Tide’s passing game may not have a huge day in terms of statistics, but Sims and Cooper hit on enough plays to keep the Gators’ defense from loading up the box. Alabama controls the pace and flow of the game from the first snap, with Florida tacking on a late score to cover the spread.