296 touches, 2,671 yards, and 38 touchdowns. The combined statistics of Alabama’s leading rusher and receiver in 2020.
For the Alabama Crimson Tide this season, everything has come relatively easily on the offensive side of the football. With their smallest margin of victory being 15 points against the Ole Miss Rebels, the Bama offense has been a consistent factor in elevating them above the rest of the pack in the SEC.
Ranking as the fifth-best offense in the nation, the Tide has the ability to effectively gash opponents both on the ground and through the passing game, making it a difficult task to limit their production.
With Florida set to face off against the Tide in the SEC Championship this Saturday, their focal point defensively will be on limiting the most effective skill position players Alabama has to offer in order to force quarterback Mac Jones to beat them by utilizing other weapons instead of the top two dogs.
As a result, this week’s Florida Gators X-Factor vs. Alabama is limiting Bama’s star offensive weapons.
So far this season, the Tide has been led by stars Devonta Smith and Najee Harris. Accounting for 58.4% of their total yardage and 62.3% of touchdowns scored on the season, the dynamic air and ground duo have been nearly impossible for opposing defenses to stop or even limit during 2020.
With Alabama consistently restocking and reloading its roster year in and year out, it’s no surprise that after losing their top two pass catchers from last season in Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III to the NFL draft last offseason, the production in the receiving game has remained top-tier across the landscape of the sport.
Trotting out a defense that has been lackluster in nearly every facet of the game this season—struggling to create pressure on the quarterback, blowing assignments in coverage, and poor tackling efforts to bring down ball carriers—the importance for the Gators to sell out in an attempt to limit Smith and Harris looms large for their chances of hanging in the game.
How does Florida do that?
In correlation to the Tide’s uber-effective running game, the Gators should stack seven in the box unless in obvious passing situations to ensure they will not be battered and bruised by the imposing ground attack.
Consisting of a large mass of physically gifted trench monsters and spearheaded by Harris, who rushed for 1,084 yards on 183 carries during the regular season, the Tide's rushing game has been overlooked at times due to the explosiveness of the offenses receiving game throughout the year.
However, Harris holds an overwhelmingly impressive 5.9 yards per carry and nation-leading 22 rushing touchdowns on the year, making it a necessity to prevent him from finding his footing early on.
With the Tide containing a similar philosophy to UF head coach Dan Mullen in the regard that they run the football to open up the passing game—despite Florida's inability to rush the football consistently since the close of the 2018 season—limiting their effectiveness on the ground should be priority number one.
Employing a number of bodies into the middle to ensure Harris doesn’t take one the distance up the middle is a legitimate way to defend the Crimson Tide. However, where does that leave their just as effective passing game?
In this contest, Florida is going to have to take their wins and losses. In an attempt to anchor down the rushing game, the Gators are going to be left with holes to exploit by Jones in the backend.
Attempting to hinder the highly-effective Jones-to-Smith connection, UF will be subjected to the plethora of options opening up, like number two receiver John Metchie or tight end Miller Forristall. However, inhibiting the splash plays from those expected to make them is a win for the Gators' defense.
As a result, Florida should employ their best coverage man in Kaiir Elam to shadow Smith all night long. Given Elam’s length and ability to jam at the line of scrimmage, turning him loose on the best wide receiver in college football would be an opportunity for Elam to prove his progression throughout the year after some struggles earlier on.
Limiting the caliber of players like Smith and Harris is much easier said than done; however, it must be done in order to contain the prolific offense Bama has carried throughout the season.
With this contest likely to be a high scoring affair to start with, getting one or two stops on the defensive side of the football could make the difference in the game.
By hounding the two best playmakers the Bama offense has to offer, Florida holds their best shot at limiting the Crimson Tide attack and pushing for their first victory in the SEC title game since 2008.