Alabama looks to cap an undefeated regular season and win its third consecutive conference title, as the Crimson Tide takes on Florida this Saturday in the 25th SEC Championship Game. These two teams are no stranger to this matchup. After all, Alabama and Florida met in the league title game for three consecutive years (1992-95) and have combined for 23 appearances. These two teams met last season, with the Crimson Tide posting a dominant 29-15 victory over the Gators.
While the SEC Championship is a major prize, Alabama has its sights set on something bigger – a national championship. The Crimson Tide have ranked No. 1 in each of the College Football Playoff selection committee top 25 rankings this season and are the favorite to win it all this January. Alabama is chasing its fifth national championship under coach Nick Saban, and the Crimson Tide is hoping to match its 2011-12 team on the difficult task of hoisting back-to-back titles. But before Alabama can think about the playoff and national championship, this team still has to get past Florida. However, for the third consecutive year, the Crimson Tide are a heavy favorite in the SEC Championship. Saban’s team has been dominant throughout 2016, as only two games were decided by 10 points or less. As usual, Alabama has one of the nation’s best defenses, but the offense has developed into a dynamic attack behind quarterback Jalen Hurts.
For the second consecutive year and in surprising fashion, Florida has reached the SEC title game. The Gators were picked fourth in the East Division by the media in 2015, yet finished 10-4 with a struggling offense and lost by 14 to Alabama in the championship game. This year’s team faced similar questions about the offense, but coach Jim McElwain pushed the right buttons once again. Florida lost on the road at Tennessee and Arkansas in league play but moved into the driver’s seat for the league title after the Volunteers lost to South Carolina. The Gators are still searching for answers on offense. However, the defense is one of the best in the nation and carried this team to Atlanta.
Alabama leads the all-time series 25-14 over Florida. The Crimson Tide have won five in a row in this series, including the last two meetings in the SEC Championship. The last win by the Gators against Alabama took place in 2008. These two teams have played eight times and split the matchups (four wins apiece) in the SEC Championship.
Alabama vs. Florida (SEC Championship)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -24
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Florida Generate Anything on Offense?
Simply, if Florida wants to win this game, it has to find some offense. The Gators have showed slight improvement on the stat sheet this year, increasing the yards per play from 5.11 in 2015 to 5.27 and its points per game from 23.2 last year to 24.1 in 2016. While there has been some improvement, this unit still has a lot of question marks to address. Quarterback Austin Appleby has passed for 964 yards and six touchdowns, but Florida’s passing attack has been sluggish in SEC games. The Gators have generated only six passing plays of 40 or more yards and there’s still a lot of room to improve at receiver.
Line coach Mike Summers is one of the best in the SEC, but due to injuries, the veteran assistant has had his hands full with this group. Florida has surrendered 21 sacks in SEC games and is only generating 3.99 yards per rush. There is promise for this group for the future. Sophomore Martez Ivey and freshman Jawaan Taylor are two building blocks for 2017, and the overall depth has improved. However, with the inconsistencies this group has showed throughout the season, generating a push against Alabama’s line will be tough. Running back Jordan Scarlett has been a bright spot for McElwain, rushing for 778 yards and six touchdowns on just 154 attempts.
Points and yards are going to be at a premium for Florida’s offense on Saturday. Can this group generate enough big plays or piece together a couple of drives?
2. Alabama’s Dominant Defense
Another year, another dominant defense for Nick Saban at Alabama. The Crimson Tide rank first nationally in scoring defense (11.4 ppg), rush defense and yards per play allowed. This unit has also collected 41 sacks and ranks sixth nationally in third-down defense. The success of this group starts in the trenches with end Jonathan Allen and continues into a standout linebacking corps, which features Reuben Foster in the middle, while Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams wreak havoc as the edge rushers from the outside. The secondary isn’t as deep as some of Alabama’s previous versions, but this unit has only allowed nine passing scores all season.
As we mentioned in the previous section, Florida’s offense has struggled to consistently piece together drives or scoring chances. The Gators have to find a way to generate a couple of big plays early to keep this game close into the fourth quarter. Alabama’s defense has simply been a brick wall all season, so it’s unlikely this group will give up a couple of long drives for scoring chances. However, are there any trick plays or new looks this offense to could throw at Saban’s defense? Florida won’t have much trouble running or getting a push at the line of scrimmage. And with that in mind, the Gators may have to let Appleby throw more on early downs to prevent Alabama from crowding the line of scrimmage.
Alabama’s defense did not surrender a touchdown in the month of November and only one opponent managed more than 20 points against this unit in the entire 2016 campaign. Will the Gators find a way to reach the end zone against the Crimson Tide? Or will Alabama simply continue to dominate and hold Florida’s offense to 20 or less points for the fifth consecutive week?
3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts Against Florida’s Defense
The odds of Florida pulling off an upset are steep. The Gators are more than a three-touchdown underdog and need all of the breaks to go in their favor to have a shot at victory. While the offense is going to struggle against Alabama’s defense, the Gators have a chance to hang around thanks to their defense. Coordinator Geoff Collins has this unit performing at a high level once again. Florida ranks second in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (14.6) and limits opponents to just 4.6 yards per play. Injuries also took a toll on this group, as safety Marcus Maye, linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive linemen Jordan Sherit and Bryan Cox and defensive back Nick Washington have missed time or won't play on Saturday due to injuries. Defensive back Duke Dawson is also questionable after suffering an injury against Florida State, but Davis could return in a limited role after dealing with ankle injuries. That’s a ton of talent to lose, yet Florida’s defense continues to play at a high level.
Alabama’s offense entered the season with a handful of question marks, but coordinator Lane Kiffin has developed this attack into one of the best in the SEC. The Crimson Tide lead the conference in scoring (39.4) and rank second in yards per play (6.63). While the offense doesn’t have a go-to running back like Derrick Henry, the trio of Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough is more than capable. However, the catalyst for Alabama’s offense is true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Texas native ranks second on the team with 840 rushing yards and has passed for 2,454 yards and 21 touchdowns. The true freshman has a deep group of options at receiver, and Kiffin does a good job of setting Hurts up for easy throws to attack the perimeter.
How can Florida’s defense counter Alabama’s offense? The Gators have the talent up front and in the secondary to slow down the Crimson Tide’s attack. Florida’s cornerback duo of Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson is one of the best in the nation, and this unit has help from a front seven that has generated 28 sacks in 2016. Stopping or containing Alabama’s offense isn’t going to be easy. However, the Gators have to find a way to put the Crimson Tide in long-yardage situations and force Hurts to beat them from the pocket.
Different personnel and year, same outcome. It’s hard to find a path to victory for Florida. As we outlined in the article, the Gators have to generate consistent production from their offense and keep Alabama’s offense in long-yardage situations. Additionally, Florida has to win the turnover battle by a healthy margin and perhaps score on special teams or defense. See how difficult the formula is for an upset win? The Gators should keep this one close early on thanks to their defense, but Alabama is simply too talented and clearly the better team once again. The Crimson Tide pulls away in the second half and clinches the No. 1 overall seed in the College Football Playoff with a comfortable 20-plus point victory.