In what’s billed as arguably the most lopsided of this weekend’s conference championship games, Florida is squaring off with Alabama for the Southeastern Conference title.
You won’t find a team entering a championship game this weekend with less momentum than the Gators: Jim McElwain’s outfit was bogged down in their own swamp by rival Florida State last week, producing a measly 264 total yards of offense and scored a whopping two points via a safety.
Across the field in Atlanta will be the Crimson Tide, a team riding a nine-game winning streak and the best defense in college football. Alabama has won its last three games by a combined score of 116-25; Florida has amassed a combined 110 points over its last six games, and has lost two of them.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Florida a 22.2 percent chance of winning, and even that seems generous.
“It’s a huge challenge. We’re playing the best team in college football,” McElwain said this week. “We’re a program on the rise, and we’re a program that’s going to continue to get better.”
However, there’s a chance Florida could pull off the upset, and it starts upfront on the defensive side of the ball.
The battle between Florida’s rush defense and Alabama’s ground attack is intriguing. Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins boasts the seventh best rush defense in the country, allowing less than 112 yards per contest. The Gators are one of 10 teams this season that haven’t allowed double-digit rushing touchdowns, and just two programs — Tennessee and LSU — have piled up more than 200 yards on the ground against Florida.
Versus South Carolina, the Gators held the Gamecocks to 21 yards on 23 carries, and held Georgia to 69 yards on 22 carries — downright dominant performances. In total, Florida allows 3.3 yards per carry, which is an asset the team can’t afford to be without come Saturday.
Meanwhile, Alabama averages 206.2 rushing yards per game, spearheaded by workhorse tailback Derrick Henry, a name often mentioned in the Heisman Trophy conversation. He’s coming off a career-high week in carries (46) and yards (271), and essentially re-wrote the program’s single-season record book in the team’s 29-13 win over Auburn.
“What Derrick has done for this team,” head coach Nick Saban said following Saturday’s win, “because this team needs him to do what he does, I would say, he’s made as significant an impact on his team as any players we’ve ever had.”
What Henry brings to the table is clear, but he’s hardly effective as a receiver or as a pass blocker, as Pro Football Focus noted. Florida would put itself in optimal position by making Alabama a one-dimensional offensive unit. Coker, after all, has thrown eight interceptions this season, and most of the offense has been re-calibrated around a give-it-to-Henry mantra.
In the Crimson Tide’s lone loss this season, Saban’s outfit still amassed 215 yards on the ground. Against Ohio State last season, they got 170. If anything, these show that Alabama still produces in losses. When the Tide is turned back, it’s mainly opponents playing above themselves offensively, producing a timely Alabama turnover, while still managing to pile up more than three touchdowns of their own.
There are a number of glaring advantages for Alabama in this matchup, but Florida would go a long ways by loading up the defensive line, flattening Alabama’s offensive line and getting to Henry in the backfield.