Sunday September 21st, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It’s not often that a double-digit win over a conference rival sparks self-reflection, but try telling that to Alabama right tackle Austin Shepherd. It might seem like Shepherd and his Crimson Tide teammates handled their business in Saturday’s 42-21 win over Florida at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide remained unbeaten and in the playoff hunt.

But Shepherd said the biggest part of Alabama’s win wasn’t what happened on the field. It’s what happened inside the locker room.

“Obviously,” Shepherd said, “we all grew up.”

• ELLIS: Three thoughts on Alabama's turnover-filled win over Florida

Saturday’s matchup of SEC bluebloods wasn’t a regular meeting between Alabama and Florida. The two programs combined to win five of the last 10 national championships, but neither team was planning for playoff berths just yet. Too many questions lingered ahead Saturday’s game for both.

For the Crimson Tide, coach Nick Saban’s squad needed to prove it hadn’t misplaced its mojo after a two-loss season in 2013. Alabama didn’t look like Alabama in a sluggish 33-23 win over West Virginia on Aug. 30.

The Gators needed to simply prove they belong in the SEC. This is a program that embarrassed itself with a dismal 4-8 campaign last fall. A meeting with the Crimson Tide was a perfect measuring stick.

Early in Saturday’s game, Saban’s crew didn’t resemble a championship-caliber roster. Though quarterback Blake Sims (335 passing yards, three touchdowns) put up a stellar first half, Alabama held only a tight 21-14 lead at halftime due to to three uncharacteristic turnovers. Florida stayed in the game by turning two of those early miscues into touchdowns. The Crimson Tide simply didn’t look like the well-disciplined program that had come to define the Saban era.

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The second half, however, was a different story. After another Alabama turnover set up Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel for a 12-yard touchdown to knot the game 21-21, Alabama turned on its defensive prowess and started making better decisions on offense. Largely behind the effort of Sims and a monster day from receiver Amari Cooper (10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns), the Crimson Tide tacked on three more scores. Driskel and the Gators’ struggling offense couldn’t keep up.

In many ways the second half was vintage Alabama football. Saban lamented his team’s turnovers and 11 penalties, but the coach admitted the execution in the second half exhibited growth.

“I thought in the second half we really controlled the game,” Saban said. “We were able to gain control of the line of scrimmage and were able to run the ball effectively.”

• RICKMAN: Prescott, Mississippi State finally get signature win over LSU

Before last year’s season-ending losses to Auburn and Oklahoma, most players on Alabama’s roster hadn’t experienced adversity. A sense of complacency had crept into the locker room. That’s why Saturday’s meeting with Florida was exactly the kind of early-season test the Crimson Tide needed. Alabama undoubtedly could have been better. Had it not turned the ball over four times, Saban’s team would’ve run away with this game. But players still felt the win was a major step forward.

“We learned what we were made of,” Alabama running back Jalston Fowler said. “We toughed it out.”

While the Crimson Tide left Bryant-Denny Stadium with a win to build on, Florida walked off with even more questions. Last season the Gators’ offense was one of the worst in the country. After facing its first big test this year, that unit doesn’t look much better.

Driskel simply couldn’t get anything moving on offense. The quarterback completed just nine of his 28 passes and tossed two picks. Meanwhile, tight end Clay Burton led the Gators with a measly three catches. Alabama’s stout front seven pressured Driskel all night into inaccurate throws, and the redshirt junior couldn’t keep drives alive. Florida converted only two of 13 third downs and managed only 3.6 yards per play on offense.

Driskel, who came to Florida in 2011 as the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country, doesn’t look like the comfortable answer on offense. Muschamp told reporters he considered inserting freshman quarterback Treon Harris in place of Driskel. But the coach maintained that Driskel gave Florida its best chance to win, though the quarterback admitted the offense left points on the field.

“We just didn’t make it happen today,” Driskel said. “We’re going to have to clean some things up and learn from the tape moving forward. We’re not going to hang our heads. There’s a lot of football left to play.”

Last year’s offense was the primary reason that Florida produced its worst season since 1979. Muschamp spent much of the offseason praising his team’s offensive improvement, but the Gators don’t look anything like the program that dominated much of the last decade. That holds true on defense, as well, as Florida allowed 449 yards passing Saturday. Issues exist on both sides of the ball.

It seems so long ago that Muschamp led Florida to an 11-win season in 2012. Now Florida must navigate another campaign as its coach’s seat gets hotter.

“We need to stay the course with the idea that right now, that’s a good football team,” Muschamp said. “But we have a good football team, too, with everything still sitting out in front of us.”

After the game Alabama defensive back Landon Collins told reporters why Saturday’s contest was so important. “It’s SEC play,” Collins said. “It’s one of the big games that you have to win because it can make or break your season.”

Alabama’s win might not have defined a season for either the Crimson Tide or the Gators, but it undoubtedly sent two teams in different directions.

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