Friday, December 5, 2008

Game of the Week: #4 Florida vs. #1 Alabama

December 6, 2008 * 4:00 * CBS
Georgia Dome (71,500) * Atlanta, Georgia

IT’S NO SURPRISE that the Gators have made it to the Georgia Dome, but the Crimson Tide? No anyone doubted Nick Saban’s abilities, but after a 7-6 opening campaign the Tide’s ETA was expected to be 2010, or even 2011. This was supposed to be the year of the Tiger (LSU or Auburn) in the SEC West. Coming into this contest as a double digit underdog in some quarters, apparently even a perfect regular season has not made everyone Tide believers. This is not lost on Nick Saban and his players, “It's been like that kind of the entire season. It's always been that we haven't done enough,” said Alabama safety Rashad Johnson. The question now is: can they do enough this Saturday?

When the Gators Have the Ball

THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE between last year’s Gators and this year’s Gators on offense is the emergence of freshmen tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps. The duo barely outweighs Alabama’s noseman Terrance Cody, but the impact they have made is large. The track stars are known for their speed, which they use to hit the hole in milliseconds. Of course, it all begins with their junior dual threat signal caller. While his individual numbers are down, Tim Tebow believes he’s having a better season this year than he did last year, which can be confirmed not by a second straight Heisman Trophy, but by a trip to the BCS Championship Game. While Tebow continues to develop as a passer, his strength remains in his versatility. He is a powerful runner, reminiscent of an old school fullback. Florida could be without arguably their most dynamic weapon in Percy Harvin, who has lined up at receiver, running back and quarterback. Harvin’s speed and elusiveness allow him to make defenders miss, but will his injured ankle allow him to play a major role? When Tebow looks to go long, senior Louis Murphy provides him with a bigger target who does most of his damage down the field and outside the hash marks. Sophomore tight end Aaron Hernandez is coming on, offering enough size to outmuscle linebackers with the quickness and agility to give most safeties a hard time. The unheralded group from Florida is their powerful offensive line. Led by the Pouncey Twins (mike and Maurkice) on the inside, and left tackle Jason Watkins, this collection of big men is among the best in college football.

THE KEY TO any 34-defense is a stout noseman, one who not only commands a double team at the point of attack, but makes plays despite it. No one does a better job of manning the nose tackle position than junior college transfer Mount Cody, the nucleus of Saban’s ferocious front seven. Making plays behind Cody is sophomore MIKE Rolando McClain, the unquestioned leader of Bama’s defense. He can take on lead blocks and still make the tackle. In addition, McClain is versatile enough to serve as a pass-rushing linebacker. Weakside linebacker Don’ta Hightower is just a freshman, but he looks to lay the wood on the ball carrier, with the speed to catch his man. Junior outside linebacker Brandon Fanney has specialized at getting into the backfield against the run. Defensive ends Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deadrick are solid run-stuffing specialists, but do not provide much in terms of pass rush. The only thing this defense lacks is a pure sack artist. The showstopper of the defensive backfield is senior free safety Rashad Johnson. The 6’ 0” defensive back has top-notch instincts in anticipating plays, which help him break on the ball early versus the run and the pass. He is always around the ball and has excellent ball skills. Johnson’s 73 tackles are second only to McClain’s team-leading 82 stops. Sophomore cornerback Kareem Jackson is their top coverman while the diminutive Javier Arenas can be an effective blitzer when called upon.

When the Tide Have the Ball

LIKE THEIR DEFENSE, Alabama’s offense is predicated on overpowering the opposition at the point of attack. Their experienced line is a force to be reckoned with, capable of controlling a football game from start to finish. Nick Saban’s crew of big uglies, composed of three juniors and two seniors, is considered to be the most dominant group of run blockers in the nation. Leading the way is arguably the most talented offensive lineman in the nation, Andre Smith. Extremely powerful, Smith is also tenacious and fundamentally sound. The Birmingham native has the raw strength to open gaping holes in the running game and possesses the quickness to shut down the fiercest of pass rushers, keeping John Parker Wilson upright. When he’s not busy calling out plays, stellar center Antoine Caldwell can be seen steamrolling second-level defenders. This massive front five allows power backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram to gallop through massive gaps. Coffee, who is one of the most underappreciated players of 2008, possesses the patience to wait for his blocks to develop and dash through them with an amazing burst, which has produced both long scores and tough yards between the tackles. Just a true freshman, Ingram is the other half of this lethal two-headed ground attack. He is a hardnosed back who can pound it inside and break some big plays as well. Both Coffee and Ingram are averaging well over five yards per carry with 20 touchdowns between them. Working off play action and looking to take advantage of eight and sometimes nine men in the box, quarterback John Parker Wilson is capable of hurting the opposition in his own way. JPW makes good use of the weapons around him when given enough time to throw and his first option is the 6’ 4” Julio Jones, another true freshman who plays well beyond his years. The physical receiver is athletic enough to gain separation from defenders, but is also known for making tough catches in traffic. He will need to make one or two game-changing plays if the Tide are to call themselves SEC Champs. Jones has more than four times the receptions of the second most productive wide out, speedy red-shirt freshman Marquis Maze. Tight end Nick Walker is Wilson’s safety valve, deft at working the sidelines.

FLORIDA’S DEFENSE LACKS a senior starter, but they are an experienced group that has improved by leaps and bounds from last season. In speedy and imposing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, Florida boasts a crushing tackler who can make plays behind the line of scrimmage and in pass coverage. Beyond his physical skills, the 6’3’, 245-pound ringleader always seems to be in the right position to make a play. Jermaine Cunningham has come on this season as run stopper, capable of wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield against both the run and the pass with his lethal first step. Fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap is their premier pass rusher, using his freakish closing speed off the edge for a man of his size (6’ 7”, 290-pounds). Strong safety Ahmad Black is a master at reading quarterbacks and he has six interceptions on the season to prove it. Free safety Major Wright is hard-hitting and tenacious. Freshman corner Janoris Jenkins has tremendous anticipatory skills, while sophomore Joe Hayden is better for last year’s growing pains.

Final Analysis

WHILE THE GATORS HAVE racked up more style points than other SEC teams, it was the Crimson Tide that ran the table. In his second season, Coach Saban has a team that believes 100 percent in what he’s selling, which is a physical and technically sound brand of football on both sides of the ball. No one is better at taking advantage of mistakes than Florida, but Alabama does not make many. Alabama’s season started with a surprise upset in the Georgia Dome (over then No. 9 ranked Clemson) and that is how it will end.

Prediction: Alabama 23, Florida 20

Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media