By Stan J. Griffin: December 1, 2016
It appears that many supporters of the Alabama football team, as well as many media pundits from all over the nation, have already begun to focus their collective attention on the College Football Playoffs, even though Nick Saban's 12-0 and top-ranked Crimson Tide team have much at stake Saturday when it battles Jim McElwain's No. 15 Florida Gators in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta. This includes:
* A third straight SEC title and fourth in the last five years, and its 26th conference crown overall.
* An opportunity to remain undefeated at 13-0, as Alabama is seeking to become the first college football team to finish a perfect 15-0. It is also looking to extend its current overall winning streak to 25 games.
* A clinched spot in the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and although some are suggesting that Alabama may remain at No. 1 or No. 2 in the playoff rankings even with a loss to the Gators, UA is looking to remain in control of its own destiny. And Saban obviously made his feelings about the subject known rather forcefully earlier this week when he proclaimed, "It's never OK to lose a game."
Certainly the oddsmakers are not buying into the possibility of a Tide loss to the Gators at the Georgia Dome (3 p.m CT, CBS), installing Alabama as an overwhelming 24-point favorite over 8-3 Florida.
But Saban said he is expecting a formidable challenge from a Gator squad coached by his former offensive coordinator at Alabama.
"I think Coach McElwain has really done a good job in his time there and they've gotten better and better each year and certainly won games this year they needed to win so that they'd have this opportunity," he said. "They have one of the best defensive teams in the country. Very good man to man team in the back end, very dominant front seven in terms of their down guys upfront, ability to rush and play on the line of scrimmage. Offensively they've tried to create great balance with their team this year and the ability to run the ball, and they've had a couple of backs that have both contributed to that, but I think (sophomore receiver) Antonio Callaway and (junior receiver) Brandon Powell, the two receivers that they have, are certainly guys that they want to get the ball to that have the ability to make explosive plays, and when they've been able to do that they've been very effective on offense. Always very good on special teams and they have really good specialists, whether it's returners, punter, kicker, they're all very effective and very good, so it's a very challenging game for us."
As Alabama looks to knock off Florida for the conference crown for the second year in a row, with the two teams having met in the title game on eight previous occasions (both programs having won four of those eight meetings), it will be facing a Gator team that ranks dead last in the league in total offense, averaging around 352 yards per game and just over 24 points per contest.
It is also a Gator team, however, that allows only around 14 points and 291 yards per game, including only 133 yards rushing a contest and 158 yards through the air, so there is no real secret that much of the reason for Florida's success is a stop unit led by defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
"Well, they're very good, and their entire defense is very good, particularly the corners," said Saban. "They play a lot of man to man, and those guys have done a really good job of shutting people down and limiting the options that you have. They have good players at safety and they do a good job of rushing, so this is a really, really good defensive team, and we're going to have to do a great job against them."
Leading that strong defense is redshirt junior defensive back Marcell Harris, who paces the team in tackles with 57, with senior linebacker Jarrad Davis adding 56 and redshirt junior linebacker Alex Anzalone with 53. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Caleb Brantley and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga led the Gators with 8.5 tackles for loss each and Zuniga has a team-leading five sacks.
The Florida secondary is a particularly strong area for the Gator defense, especially with junior cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor. Wilson has 28 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, three interceptions and six passes broken up. Tabor also has 28 tackles, a sack, four interceptions and five passes broken up.
Offensively, the main threats for the Gators are sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett and Calloway.
Scarlett paces the Florida ground attack as he has carried the ball 154 times for 778 yards and six touchdowns. He averages just over five yards per carry.
Calloway, the explosive threat for McElwain's team, has hauled in 43 passes for 603 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with a long catch of 78 yards. He is also a dangerous weapon as a returner, with 24 punt returns for 177 yards and three kickoff returns for 97 yards and a TD.
Powell is also a talented weapon at receiver with 34 catches for 313 yards and two TDs.
Redshirt senior quarterback Austin Appleby, making his sixth start in place of the injured Luke Del Rio, has thrown for 964 yards, along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He has completed 60 percent of his pass attempts. This includes a 98-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tyrie Cleveland against LSU on Nov. 19 in Baton Rouge.
Redshirt sophomore placekicker Eddy Pineiro has also proved to be a very important part of the Gator point production as he has converted 18 of his 22 field goal attempts, with a long kick of 54 yards. Redshirt junior Johnny Townsend has punted 56 times for an average of 47.6 yards, with a long boot of 62 yards.
Not many people are giving the Gators much of a chance to stop the Crimson Tide juggernaut, but Florida has talented resources on both sides of the ball.
This is why it is important for Alabama to take a workmanlike approach into the Georgia Dome and start fast against McElwain's team.
Florida struggles mightily on offense on numerous occasions, but its defense is talented and consistent enough to keep the game close for four quarters, especially if Alabama is sloppy offensively and stymies itself with turnovers or poor red zone execution.
In a close game, anything can happen and the threat of weapons such as Callaway can always equate into a long pass play here and there for the Gators or even an explosive play on special teams.
If the Florida offense cannot generate any amount of success, however, on a suffocating Tide defense that has not allowed a touchdown in a month, and help out its stop unit, Alabama may be able to simply wear down the Gators late in the contest and win going away, much like it did in last year's SEC title game, topping McElwain's team 29-15.