It is often said that in order to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide, a team has to play a perfect game.
The Florida Gators learned that lesson the hard way nine months ago in the SEC Championship Game. They scored 46 points, their third-highest output all season, yet came up short of their first SEC crown since 2008.
It could be argued Florida played a perfect game on offense, but Alabama scored five touchdowns on five drives in the first half, and the Gators could not make up for it.
Now the top-ranked Tide rolls into Gainesville and the task may be even taller for the Gators this time. They have a quarterback situation to sort out and a significant talent gap to close.
So how can they beat the Tide? They’ll probably have to be pretty close to perfect, and here’s what a perfect game might look like.
Playmakers Must Step Up
Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney have moved on to the NFL and their absence is a huge loss for the Gators in a matchup like this. The dynamic duo combined for 297 yards and two touchdowns on 17 touches in last year’s game, and played a huge role in closing the talent gap between Florida and Alabama.
Jacob Copeland had a great performance against South Florida last Saturday, recording five of his six catches on the season and 175 of his 190 yards, but no other Gator receiver has over 68 yards through two games.
Dan Mullen is known to keep it simple early in the season, but Copeland has been the only pass catcher that has shown big-play potential so far. Not to mention that a Gator tight end has yet to record a single catch in the absence of Pitts.
Just like in Atlanta last year, it can be assumed that Mullen is saving everything for Bama. It would be hard to imagine the Gators will not find creative ways to get the ball in the hands of their tight ends on Saturday.
Copeland looks poised to break out after his performance in Tampa, but the Gators will need more than just him if they are going to be able to score with Alabama.
Guys like Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson out wide, and Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble at tight end, will need to make some big plays to make up for the loss of Pitts and Toney in this kind of matchup.
Make The Two Quarterback System Work
Dan Mullen always seems to show off his best play-calling ability in Florida’s biggest games. He was great against Alabama last year, throwing everything he had at the Tide, and yet that may not have been his best game at Florida.
Go back to LSU in 2019 when the Gators went into Death Valley to face the top-ranked Tigers and Joe Burrow. Mullen mixed and matched Kyle Trask and Emory Jones to near-perfection that night, and had the Gators a touchdown away from the Tigers before LSU added one on late.
Mullen was great again with Jones and redshirt freshman sensation Anthony Richardson in the first half against South Florida last Saturday. Things fell apart after Jones threw two interceptions early in the second half, but the two combined for three first-half touchdowns through the air.
Richardson’s health is something Gator fans have been monitoring all week after he pulled a hamstring on an 80-yard touchdown run. His availability will be key for the Gators because of his potential for explosive plays - so far this season, he has touchdown passes of 47 and 75 yards and touchdown runs of 74 and 80 yards.
It is possible Richardson will eventually become the full-time starter this season, but throwing him to the wolves against Alabama might be slightly reckless.
Jones is still a big weapon with his legs, but his propensity for turning the ball over this season is a big concern. How Mullen can combine the rushing and passing ability of the two, especially Richardson’s knack for game-breaking plays, will be one of the biggest tests of his elite offensive mind yet.
Hold On To The Ball
The Gators cannot give Alabama any extra opportunities. Florida turned it over twice in the SEC Championship and, as in any one-score game, it could be argued that those two fumbles were the difference.
Jones’s propensity for turnovers is problematic for the Gators’ chances. He has thrown two picks in each of his first two games and that simply cannot happen again if the Gators want to knock off the Tide.
Again, the Gators cannot make things easy on Bama. They do not have enough to run with the Tide if they are handing them chances. The one time the Gators turned Alabama over in Atlanta, they handed the ball right back to them on the interception return.
If the Gators leave The Swamp on Saturday night having not turned the ball over, or even just having won the turnover battle, their chances of a victory go through the roof.
Put penalties in this category as well. Playing perfect means playing clean, and turnovers and penalties are a huge factor in that. If the Gators are shooting themselves in the foot on Saturday, things could get ugly.
Control The Pace
This is absolutely the hardest thing to do against Alabama because it involves winning the battle up front.
The pass rush has been a strength for the Gators so far and will be their best chance of controlling the pace on Saturday. Bama’s athletes up front are known for being bigger, faster, and stronger than anybody else’s in the country, so it’s a huge ask to win that battle.
The guy to watch in this aspect of the game will be Zachary Carter. Carter has three sacks, a forced fumble and five-and-a-half tackles for loss in his first two games. He had a sack and two tackles for loss against Bama last year, proving he can win against this front.
On the flip side, the Gators' offensive line will have to show that the first two games have been no fluke. USF and Florida Atlantic are a little different than Alabama, so the big boys up front have a lot to prove.
Rain is expected in Gainesville on Saturday, which could play into Florida’s hands. Usually, Bama is the team that wants to run you into the ground, but with the way the Gators’ run game has looked this year, it may be in their favor for that kind of game to unfold.
If any team will not be phased by Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, it will be a Nick Saban-coached Alabama, but either way, a large and loud crowd presents a big advantage for Florida.
Last year’s SEC Championship was played in a Mercedes-Benz Stadium that was about a quarter-full, creating a game that lacked a big-time atmosphere.
Alabama has not come to The Swamp since 2011 and Gator fans will be fired up to welcome them back.
The Swamp will not be the difference in the game, but it should definitely help make the game closer than it would be on a neutral site. The Gators need to use it to their advantage and make things very difficult on the Crimson Tide if they are going to pull off the upset.
If the game is close late in the fourth quarter, it will be a special environment that many have not seen before in Gainesville.
Now imagine if the Gators play that perfect game and pull off a victory.
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