Conference play kicks into high gear in the SEC for Week 3 of the 2021 college football season, as Alabama travels to Gainesville to meet Florida in a high-stakes showdown. The SEC opener for the Gators and Crimson Tide is a rematch of last year’s conference title game, which Alabama won 52-46 in an entertaining back-and-forth shootout. Revenge for last year’s defeat and a statement victory are no doubt atop the mind for coach Dan Mullen’s squad, but the Crimson Tide have lost only three games in regular-season play since ’16 and rank No. 1 in the nation for a reason.
Alabama coach Nick Saban wasn’t overly thrilled with the performance of his team in last week’s win over Mercer. Of course, the Crimson Tide didn’t have much to worry about last Saturday against an overmatched FCS opponent, and it’s fair to wonder if this team had a hangover from the Week 1 victory against Miami. Quarterback Bryce Young threw for 227 yards and three scores, while the defense limited the Bears to four yards a snap in a 48-14 win. Alabama has handled its first two opponents by a combined score of 92-27, but the trip to the Swamp to play Florida is its toughest test so far in ’21.
Florida claimed the SEC East title last year for the first time under Mullen but wasn’t the pick to win the division in the preseason thanks to a shaky defense and a handful of key departures on offense, including quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts. In addition to the personnel concerns, the Gators have to go through Georgia, who ranks No. 2 in the nation behind Alabama going into Week 3. But Mullen’s team is starting to round into form after wins over FAU and USF to start the year, Saturday’s showdown in the Swamp is a good barometer to see just how far this program has progressed through three games.
Alabama holds a 27-14 series edge over Florida. The last three meetings between these two teams occurred in the SEC Championship Game. The Crimson Tide have not played in the Swamp since 2011, and the Gators have not defeated Alabama since ’08. The Crimson Tide are 8-2 over their last 10 meetings versus Florida.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 11 Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -14.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is just two starts into his collegiate career, but the California native has performed more like a fourth-year senior. Young torched Miami for 344 yards and four touchdowns over 27 completions in the opener and connected on 19 throws for 227 yards and three scores in the easy win over Mercer last Saturday. But the sophomore will encounter a different test on Saturday: His first road start.
The Swamp isn’t an easy place to play, and Young will have to navigate a hostile crowd and environment with a supporting cast that’s still a bit under construction. On the outside, Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams (22.4 yards per catch) has emerged as the big-play threat to the steady production of John Metchie III (11 catches), and the playmakers at receiver will only get better as the year goes on with the continuing development of rising stars JoJo Earle and Agiye Hall. Florida can counter Alabama’s passing game with one of the best cornerbacks in the nation (Kaiir Elam), but as a whole, the secondary has big question marks. The Gators allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on 64 percent of their throws and allowed 21 plays of 30-plus yards in ’20. In last year’s SEC title game, Alabama torched this defense for 418 passing yards. Unless Florida is better on the back end or able to generate more pressure, Young and his receivers have the potential to put up huge numbers and big plays once again.
The Crimson Tide entered the season with a talented but rebuilt offensive line, along with new playmakers in key positions at running back and receiver. The ground attack is led by Brian Robinson Jr. (130 yards) and a couple of talented backups in Trey Sanders and Jase McClellan, but as a team, the offense is averaging only 4.24 yards per rush. Florida’s defense struggled versus the run (170.5 yards per game allowed in 2020) but is holding teams to 2.6 yards a carry in ’21. Have the Gators improved up front or is that performance due more to the opponents (FAU and USF) to start the year? Adding to the challenge of Saturday’s game is the absence of linebacker Ventrell Miller. He’s out indefinitely after an injury suffered against USF.
Even though all teams have a couple of data points this year, Week 3 is still all about learning where potential strengths and weaknesses are or have improved so far this season. Florida’s defense was a massive question mark coming into 2021 and still remains in that box despite holding its first two opponents to 34 combined points. Can the Gators get just enough stops to hold Young in check? Or will Alabama’s offense simply torch Florida’s defense like it did in the SEC title game?
When Florida Has the Ball
Mullen is one of the top offensive minds in college football, so despite losing quarterback Kyle Trask and a handful of key playmakers, it’s no surprise Florida enters Saturday’s game averaging 38.5 points a game and 8.1 yards per snap. But the level of competition is going to significantly increase with a matchup versus Alabama on Saturday, and Mullen has a major question mark to sort out prior to kickoff: How should the Gators handle or divide playing time between their two quarterbacks?
Emory Jones played well as a backup over the last three years and entered the season as a breakout candidate at quarterback. However, current backup Anthony Richardson has been more impressive in limited time and will see snaps on Saturday. Jones has completed 63.3 percent of his passes but is averaging only 5.4 yards per attempt and has tossed four picks over 49 attempts. With four years of experience in Gainesville, Jones has a much better grasp of the playbook and system than Richardson has at this point of his career. The redshirt freshman is averaging 21.2 yards per play in 2021, connecting on six passes for 192 yards and rushing for 275 yards over 11 carries. Richardson is dealing with a hamstring injury suffered against USF but is on track to play on Saturday.
Production through the air is a question mark for Florida, but both Jones and Richardson have been instrumental to the ground game, which currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in production (381.5 yards per game). The two quarterbacks top the offense in rushing output so far, with backs Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, Demarkcus Bowman and Nay’Quan Wright all likely to see time on Saturday. However, running against Alabama’s defense will be tough sledding. The Crimson Tide have allowed just one opponent over the last two years to exceed 150 yards on the ground, and this group limited Miami and Mercer to a combined total of 155 yards. Linebacker and standout edge rusher Will Anderson was banged up in the win over Mercer, with Saban indicating the preseason All-American is day-to-day. If Anderson is out, it’s a huge loss for an Alabama front that ranks among the best in college football.
Jacob Copeland (six catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns) paces the Florida receiving corps, but a collection of players is ready to emerge for Jones/Richardson on the outside. Xzavier Henderson has four grabs over two games, while Rick Wells (six), Justin Shorter (six), Trent Whittemore (one), and Ja’Markis Weston (three) will contribute. Notably, no tight end has caught a pass for the Gators this season. That could change on Saturday.
Florida’s best chance of an upset will require a tandem effort on offense and defense. If the Gators can get a couple of stops on defense, while the running game is able to find traction, Mullen’s team can control the pace of the game and keep Alabama on the sidelines.
The 2021 college football season has seen its share of upsets through the first three weeks of the season. For Florida to add Alabama to that list, the defense has to showcase the performance from the first two games wasn’t due to just the opponents and is more of a reflection on improvement. The Gators need both Richardson and Jones to contribute on the ground and consistently hit enough plays on the outside to keep the Crimson Tide away from the box. When Alabama has the ball, Young and his emerging group of receivers could slice through Florida’s secondary, allowing Robinson and the offensive line to eventually take control of the game in the second half. The Gators put up a good fight, but the Crimson Tide pull away in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.
Prediction: Alabama 41, Florida 24
Podcast: Complete Week 3 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread