By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After last season’s disappointing 8-5 finish, Florida was arguably the SEC’s biggest mystery team coming into 2011. The Gators had the talent to compete for the SEC East crown, but how well they would blend with the new coaching staff was uncertain.
The early results on new Florida coach Will Muschamp have been positive. The Gators are 4-0 and scored a key SEC East victory over Tennessee in Week 3. While Muschamp’s hire has been a success, so has Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator. Florida struggled on offense all of last season, but seems to be a much-improved unit.
Alabama entered the season with high expectations and one of the favorites to claim the national title. So far, the Crimson Tide has done nothing to raise any question marks about their ability to finish the year as the No. 1 team. The offense is beginning to come together, while the defense is one of the best in college football.
The Crimson Tide has won the last two games in this series, including a 31-6 blowout win last season in Tuscaloosa. Florida’s last victory came in 1999, defeating Alabama in the SEC title game 34-7. Since the SEC went to a title game in 1992, these two teams have met seven times in the conference championship.
Another interesting storyline to this game is the familiarity between Muschamp and Alabama coach Nick Saban. Muschamp worked under Saban from 2001 to 2005. Both coaches have a lot of respect for each other, but there’s no doubt friendship will take a back seat to winning on Saturday night.
When Florida Has the Ball
The key to the Gators’ success on offense has been running back Chris Rainey. The senior has rushed for at least 105 yards in each of his last three games. He also has 11 receptions for 214 yards and two scores this year.
Rainey hasn’t been the only Florida back experiencing success this year, as Jeff Demps has been a solid No. 2 option. Demps is averaging 9.4 yards per carry this year and has four touchdown runs.
Containing Demps and Rainey will be critical to Alabama’s chances of winning this game. The Crimson Tide has been one of the nation’s best against the run, allowing only 45.8 yards per game. Additionally, opponents have managed only one score and are averaging 1.8 yards per carry this season.
Quarterback John Brantley struggled in the spread offense last season, but looks very comfortable in the new pro-style attack. The senior has thrown for 752 yards and four scores this year, while tossing two picks – both in the opener against FAU.
Helping Brantley’s cause has been the play of the offensive line. After looking awful at times last year, the line has allowed only two sacks this year. The Alabama pass rush is off to a slow start, registering only five through four games. Although the pass rush has been slow to take off, the Crimson Tide possesses a shutdown secondary.
Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley suffered an elbow injury against Arkansas last week and is not expected to play. Although Mosley is a big loss, the Crimson Tide has good depth at linebacker.
It’s unlikely Florida will be able to hit many big plays in the passing game against Alabama, so it’s important for Rainey and Demps to keep the offense out of third and long. Brantley has done a good job of spreading the ball around, but the offense could benefit from a receiver emerging as the No. 1 threat.
When Alabama Has the Ball
With this being quarterback AJ McCarron’s first road start in SEC play, the Gators should be prepared for a heavy dose of Trent Richardson. The junior back is off to a hot start this season, rushing for 441 yards and eight scores. Richardson also has nine receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Eddie Lacy has been a valuable backup to Richardson this year, but suffered a toe injury against Arkansas. Lacy is expected to play, but could be limited. The sophomore has 365 yards and four scores this year and if healthy, will likely spell Richardson for 10-14 attempts.
McCarron began the year locked into a tight battle with Phillip Sims for the starting job, but has won the job over the first four games. McCarron has completed 63 of 95 passes for 779 yards and four scores. He as also been very efficient (66.3 completion percentage) and has not thrown an interception in his last three contests.
The Alabama receiving corps isn’t filled with household names, but there’s no shortage of quality options for McCarron. Marquis Maze leads the team with 20 receptions, while Darius Hanks is back after serving a two-game suspension to start the year. Redshirt freshman DeAndrew White and sophomore Kenny Bell will also be expected to make contributions on Saturday.
Alabama's offensive line was a source of concern going into the season, but has played well so far. The Crimson Tide is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and has done a good job of keeping the quarterbacks upright.
Alabama’s defense has been getting all of the national recognition, but Florida’s has played pretty well through four games. The Gators are allowing only 231.8 yards per game and have registered nine sacks.
McCarron has four solid starts under his belt, but this will be his biggest challenge. Florida’s front seven is stout and could give Alabama’s line problems. If McCarron gets time to throw, he should be able to hit a few plays in the passing game, especially against a youthful Gator secondary.
Look for the Gators to try to take away Richardson, while forcing McCarron to win this game.
Florida holds the edge on field goals, as kicker Caleb Sturgis is healthy after a back injury. Sturgis has nailed all 11 field goal attempts this year. Alabama’s Jeremy Shelley has been solid, connecting on seven of nine attempts.
Punt returns should be exciting, as both teams boast a threat to take it to the house each time. Florida’s Chris Rainey is averaging 14 yards on punt returns with one score. Marquis Maze is averaging 16.8 yards per punt return on 19 attempts this year. Maze also has one return for a touchdown.
LSU has been gaining most of the national attention as the No. 1 team in college football. However, if the Tigers are the top team, Alabama has to be 1b. The Crimson Tide hasn’t faced the top-10 teams that LSU has yet, but this will be their chance to make a statement to the voters.
Although Florida has looked good through the first four weeks, this is easily its toughest matchup. Even though it’s a different team and a new coaching staff, the Gators were easily handled by Alabama last season. Is the gap between the two teams that great or has it closed?
Even in Gainesville, the Crimson Tide should be able to win. Alabama’s defense should be able to limit Rainey and Demps on the ground, while limiting Brantley’s success through the air.
The Gators defense won’t allow Richardson to run wild, but the Crimson Tide will get just enough offense to win this game.
And don't be surprised if this is just the first of two meetings this season between these two teams.
Alabama 27, Florida 20