Photo: Kaiir Elam; Credit: Zach Goodall, AllGators.com
A rematch of the 2020 SEC Championship is on the horizon with Alabama entering into Gainesville to take on the Gators in The Swamp.
With both teams currently sitting at 2-0, the early season schedules have looked vastly different. While Florida has had the opportunity to remain vanilla in their play-calling against the lesser talented squad of FAU and USF, Alabama opened their season with a ranked matchup against Miami, producing a victory in convincing fashion.
Entering the marquee matchup against the Alabama Crimson Tide as heavy underdogs, the Gators reconstructed unit from last year's SEC East crown will be tested against an opponent that hasn't lost in 656 days.
As a result, there is an added emphasis on execution for the Gators this week, echoed by nearly all members of the team that spoke to media during the week.
In the spirit of execution, here are three must-win positional matchups for the Gators to contend with the Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Gators defensive backs vs Crimson Tide wide receivers
The unproven versus the unproven.
After seeing four first-round draft picks in the past two years, Alabama has reached an unfamiliar challenge of the wide receiver position being unproven.
However, it’s Alabama. They don’t rebuild, they reload, especially at the receiver position.
Currently ranked as the 21st passing offense in the NCAA through two games, new starting quarterback Bryce Young has picked up where Mac Jones left off last season while working with the same pass catchers he operated alongside in practice last season.
Seeing John Metchie — who garnered valuable time in the absence of Jaylen Waddle in 2020 — Jameson Williams, Jojo Earle and others step into the spotlight, the group has had success through the first two games.
The Gators secondary will be called to shut them down.
Florida’s defensive backs — led by projected first-rounder in the 2022 NFL Draft Kaiir Elam — are on a mission to bounce back following a year of struggle.
Seemingly accomplishing that goal so far, Bama is the unit's first real taste of what top-tier competition will look like.
Unfortunately for Jules Montinar's cornerback unit, there is little room for error in coverage.
While Elam is the closest thing Florida has to a guy that’s going to perform at a high level no matter the level of competition, his complements of Avery Helm and Jason Marshall outside — as well as TreVez Johnson and Jadarrius Perkins at STAR — will need to limit the second, third and even fourth options in the talented, yet unproven, group of Tide receivers.
In two games as a starter, Young’s most desirable trait as a signal-caller has been his knack for extending plays by moving out of a collapsing pocket while keeping his eyes downfield in a pass-first manner before zipping the ball into pass-catchers hands as they come open late.
That can’t happen — as often as it has at least— if Florida plans on pulling the improbable upset over the Tide.
If they’re able to stick to their man and force uncharacteristic mistakes from Young — or provide pass rushers with coverage sacks — Florida’s chances to win exponentially increase.
Gators linebackers vs Alabama offense
The loss of starting middle linebacker Ventrell Miller stings for Christian Robinson’s unit.
Last season, the Gators were in an unfavorable position when it came to the middle linebacker (MIKE) spot after losing David Reese II.
However, with Miller asserting himself at the middle linebacker position in impressive fashion against Ole Miss in week one, the Gators defense — while an unsatisfactory unit — found their guy for the next couple of years to occupy the position.
Now, given the injury that Miller suffered last weekend against USF, Florida once again finds itself in that same position, looking to fill a role that consists of more than just the player's productivity on the field. Instead, the middle linebacker assumes a plethora of roles that consist of tasks both mentally and physically to the defensive unit.
In simpler terms, whoever stands as the MIKE is the quarterback of the defense the way he provides communication. And if 2020 taught Florida fans anything, communication is important.
No longer having the luxury of veteran leadership in the middle, the Gators will look to new faces to occupy that role on the inside.
Namely, guys like Ty'Ron Hopper, Jeremiah Moon, Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate will be mixed and match to present the Alabama offense with different looks.
In that new role for the other four inside linebackers, they will be challenged to replace — or exceed — the production of Miller when working downhill to stop the run and when dropping back in coverage.
The run game may see a slight drop off as that is the prized possession of Miller’s game.
However, the added athleticism to the unit with Hopper and Burney on the field more frequently presents the defense chances to make plays when asked to drop back into coverage.
The most relevant question is not if the group is talented enough, but can they operate productively and efficiently in both their play and communication?
Florida's run game vs Alabama's front seven
The eyes of outsiders have been on the quarterback dilemma of Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson in the early portion of the Gators season.
As a result, Florida has seen a relatively big storyline go relatively unnoticed by the average fan, that being the resurgence of the rushing attack in 2021.
Following two down years in 2019 and 2020, the Florida Gators have reverted to their ways of Dan Mullen’s first season on campus in operating his smash-mouth spread offense.
Ranking first in the NCAA in yards with 381.5 per game, the Gators have produced a whopping 8.5 yards per carry on 90 attempts so far this season.
Seeing the usage of the run game rise quickly, the beneficiary has been the talented running back room, led by Malik Davis — who had the best performance of his career in week one — and Dameon Pierce.
The offensive line was a suspect group coming into the season and after two decent performances that saw them exceed their expectations, the five big men upfront get an opportunity to prove just how much they’ve improved from last season.
Facing off against an always menacing Alabama defensive line, creating holes for the backs — and both dual-threat quarterbacks — to run through will be a major factor in the Gators' production.
If the UF running backs can work through the monstrous bodies of Bama’s Phidarian Mathis and DJ Dale — as well as linebacker Henry To’oTo’o in the middle — into the third level, Florida will be able to control the clock and limit Alabama’s opportunities offensively.
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