The SEC's Ultimate Spoiler: Could Florida Stun Alabama?
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Are you a fan of a team that needs some help to make the College Football Playoff? Are you an SEC hater who would love to see that league have to sit on the sidelines while representatives of other conferences play for the national title? Meet your new favorite team. (At least for this week.)
Your hopes rest on the backs of the Florida Gators, a 10–2 squad that has gone three-and-out on 10 of its past 29 possessions, has averaged a paltry 4.3 yards a play in its last four games and barely beat Vanderbilt (9–7) and Florida Atlantic (20–14 in overtime) at home last month. For Florida to create the chaos you crave, the offense described above must move the ball Saturday against an Alabama defense that ranks second in the nation in yards per play allowed (4.1). To make matters more difficult for the Gators, the Crimson Tide (11–1) must win the SEC title game to make the playoff. So, there is zero chance Alabama will come out flat.
If you were looking for some confidence or bravado from Gators coach Jim McElwain, who won two national championship rings running the offense for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban from 2008-11, look elsewhere. McElwain is resigned to the fact that sophomore Treon Harris—who has averaged six yards a pass attempt in his last four games—remains his starting quarterback. McElwain accepts that his banged-up, relatively inexperienced offensive line is all Florida has at this point to keep Alabama's three-deep-at-every-position defensive line out of the backfield. McElwain realizes teams that run the quarterback well have forced the rare struggles Alabama's defense has endured during Saban's tenure, and he doesn't have one of them.
"We aren't built that way," McElwain said Monday. "We'll put something together to hopefully at least make them think. My biggest thing is I just hope they come away scratching their heads and say, 'That was cute.'"
So there you go, chaos fans. Your standard-bearer hopes the defensive masterminds on the other sideline consider the Gators' offense adorable.
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McElwain was kidding, of course. And he spent enough time with Saban to develop an understanding of how the Alabama defense works. Also, if McElwain ever wanted to break out a radically different game plan, this would be the week to do it. Last week's 27–2 loss to Florida State was important for pride and recruiting purposes, but this week's contest is for a conference crown. Even if the Gators haven't played like champs down the stretch, they've still got the chance to win a game no one in August expected them to reach.
The Gators may not have much offensive firepower to attack Alabama's suffocating defense, but they will have plenty of good vibes coming their way from across the country. If North Carolina (11–1) beats Clemson (12–0) in the ACC title game, there is no guarantee the selection committee will simply swap the Tar Heels for the Tigers in the top four. After last week's defeat, there is no way Florida is making the playoff, even with a miracle win. So, for the Stanford (10–2) and Ohio State (11–1) fans hoping someone can crack a window into the playoff to get one of their teams in—or for the Ess Eee See haters who simply want to see the SEC Network struggle to create programming in December—the Gators are the only sure shot.
Wait. Don't leave. I realize I haven't given you lovers of mayhem much reason for optimism, but it's important to be truthful. Your tiny sliver of hope will come in the form of Florida's defense. The Gators rank No. 6 in the nation in yards per play allowed (4.4). They rank fourth in the nation in sacks (38). The Jonathan Bullard-led line—which must play without injured rush end Alex McCalister—can bring down quarterbacks, and the Gators' excellent trio of cornerbacks (Vernon Hargreaves III, Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor) can make those quarterbacks pay if they heave the ball away before getting hit. It's quite possible some of those defenders may take some extra motivation from the fact that no one is giving them a chance. In Las Vegas, Florida is currently listed as a 17.5-point underdog. "I think everybody takes that as however they want to take it," Hargreaves said. "I didn't even know that was the point spread. I couldn't care less about a point spread, but some guys may use it as motivation. Some guys may use it as whatever they want to use it as."
If Florida can make Alabama quarterback Jake Coker throw a few interceptions, the defense might be able to set up the offense with a field so short that even the Gators (as currently constituted) can score. Of course, that scoring probably must take place in the end zone. Gators redshirt junior kicker Austin Hardin has made just five of 13 field goal attempts this season.
There we go with that negativity again. How are people supposed to get excited about Championship Saturday if the team that can bring the most chaos hasn't been able to consistently find the end zone in a month? McElwain wasn't entirely helpful on that front this week. "Everything we do tendency-wise, we've got to do opposite," McElwain said. "If we don't, they'll be on it." This seems troubling considering the Gators' inability to regularly gain yards with the plays they're accustomed to running out of the formations from which they're accustomed to running them. This assessment of the worst-case scenario seems equally troubling. "You know, we just can't sit there and be target practice for these creatures," McElwain said, referring to the beasts on Alabama's front seven. "They've got creatures, now."
McElwain did offer some cause for hope, but it will do little good for those who are seeking gratification this weekend. "I'm looking forward to something that I'm not sure anyone expected," McElwain said. "That's us, the Florida Gators, this football team, playing in the SEC championship and going to Atlanta with the opportunity to win a football game that means so much in a place the Gators belong."
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That statement was a not-so-gentle reminder that in the spring it appeared McElwain inherited a team that might struggle to get bowl eligible. It was an encouragement to recall that this team lost starting quarterback Will Grier to an NCAA suspension (Grier tested positive for a banned substance) after six games. It was a suggestion to remember that the offensive line was supposed to look like this all season—not only after it got banged up toward the end of the year.
McElwain's reminders were intended to calm a Florida fan base that has grown impatient with the offense even though it entered the season expecting little from the offense in the first place. Meanwhile, McElwain juxtaposed noting his staff's first-year success with effusive praise for Alabama's entire operation because he'd love for his administration to open its wallet and allow him to build similar infrastructure at Florida. This is especially important to McElwain because Jimbo Fisher, another former Saban assistant, has already done that at Florida State. Assuming Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart takes over at his alma mater Georgia (as has been reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and others), another of Florida's rivals will begin copying Saban's blueprint.
We understand that all these things may pique the long-term interest of those in the state of Florida and elsewhere in the SEC East, but it doesn't do anything to answer the short-term question of the playoff bubble teams and the SEC haters. What does Florida have to do to beat Alabama?
Short answer: Pull off a miracle. But by making the game in the first place, the Gators have already done that once this season. So, they might have used up their ration.