Good news college football: Alabama looked human on the road against Florida and its dizzying crowd Saturday afternoon.
Bad news college football: the Crimson Tide got the win even while being outplayed in the second half at a top 10 team's house.
Both elements share as a reminder of the hill Ole Miss, or any program, needs to climb to beat the defending national champions. Dan Mullen provided somewhat of a blueprint, but his offense's execution wasn't quite right in big spots. Quarterback Emory Jones turned it over early and the Gator defense didn't have an early answer for Bryce Young and company as UA surged to a 21-3 lead. After a valiant comeback, Jones was indecisive at the mesh point during the would-be tying conversion and Nick Saban's post-game smile indicates just how narrow the win was.
But it was still a win and Alabama is still atop the polls.
The Gators have more well-known players on the roster relative to the Rebels, but Lane Kiffin's program has some clear advantages compared to Florida's on Saturday, beyond the coaching connections that the casual observer will continue to point out. And yes, not a single Saban assistant has come back to beat him at Alabama--we get it.
But it has to start somewhere, right?
An easy-to-see difference between UF and OM lies at the heart of the game's most important spot. Matt Corral--who, ironically, was dropped from the Gator commitment list in favor of Jones when Mullen took over the program--is far and away from a more accomplished, experienced, and in 2021, careful quarterback. Corral can present similar running elements that worked for Jones while providing much better second and third-level passing ability in a more explosive scheme than Mullen's.
Where the Gators and Rebels are about even, perhaps with a minimal edge to Ole Miss, is at the position that really bothered Alabama's defense Saturday: running back. Florida used a trio of backs in Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, and Nay'Quon Wright to pester the Crimson Tide's back-seven defenders into missed tackles. The Rebel group of Jarrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, and Henry Parrish could be even more talented, though their primary function resonates with the Gator group. Davis is the balanced back, like Ealy, while Pierce is the power broker like Conner and Wright is the slashing south Florida native, just like Wright.
Upfront, the group that should be praised for helping Florida win the edge in out-rushing Alabama 258 to 91, features a combination of experience and classic trench size. Ole Miss isn't too far off there, though the Rebel pass protection is probably a notch higher than that of Florida through three games. Both groups are the unsung heroes, despite some reshaping, for their respective offenses with SEC dreams in Atlanta still technically within the realm of possibility.
Defensively, conventional wisdom reminds us that Florida is ahead of the curve here, especially in the secondary, though the unit has had head-scratching moments over the last year and a half of football. Beyond Kaiir Elam, who was outstanding against Alabama and should sit as the front-runner for being the first cornerback taken in the upcoming NFL Draft, is an alpha on one side of the field that Ole Miss cannot match. But elsewhere, especially at safety, the Rebels have fared more consistent than Florida's bunch in coverage, as well as in the foundational element of tackling, which was a major issue for Todd Grantham's unit early and late against the Tide.
Elsewhere on D, the Rebels can stack up to Florida, with proven pass rushers like Sam Williams leading the charge. He has four to his name, and the unit holds nine through three games, the same number as UF's. Each group has supplemented the front four with pass-rushing linebackers and blitzers well to this point in 2021. Versus the run Florida shined against No. 1 except for on the final drive, as Brian Robinson's power helped the visitors to all but run out the clock. Florida has been tangibly better against the run overall, even with the Alabama game factored in, perhaps a cause for concern for DJ Durkin and the defensive staff.
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Re-watch the game in the Swamp, though, and it won't take long to realize Alabama's biggest on-field X-factor was one of the youngest players on the field. It's Bryce Young, who shined in his first road test despite some communication errors with his center, making some third downs a bit longer and getting the ball back to Jones and UF. Elsewhere, he was accurate and never showed signs of being physically rattled, rushed or panicked despite that atmosphere present in his first true road start.
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So, how can Ole Miss bother Young?
Real aggression makes the most sense against a young quarterback. Yes, the Californian is mobile and accurate on the run, but he has been devastating with a clean pocket and efficient against conventional blitzes. Florida brought 'backers on routine Saturday and it didn't affect much. Young was sacked twice in the afternoon but didn't turn the ball over. The only time there was a chance he could was a massive missed opportunity for Brenton Cox, the defensive end who dropped into zone coverage late in the third quarter. Young never saw him and throw it into Cox's chest, but he jumped out of excitement and dropped the sure turnover. Alabama would go on to convert a fourth down and score a touchdown.
Every point, and by proxy, every opportunity to get off the field against Alabama, is critical. Even making Alabama settle for a field goal there puts Florida up soon after and dramatically increases Florida's ability to win in what was a two-point game in the end. The other major miss for Florida on the scoreboard was an extra point shank, again something that is inexcusable at the SEC level and against that team.
Can Durkin scheme up disruption for Young? Blitzing and pass rushing helps, but there is more success to be had by diversifying coverage schemes against what is beginning to look like a pass-first Alabama offense. Florida played straight-up more times than not, failing to move pre-snap and thus allowing Young hints at coverage before the ball was in his hands. Ole Miss must not do the same and it doesn't have to be terribly exotic. The entire secondary doesn't have to shift before the ball is snapped. Subtlety and less-obvious coverage disguise may work better.
Shift the nickel's leverage from inside to out, or vice versa. Roll one safety down when the cadence begins. Cornerbacks can flirt with a press look and back off just before the ball is snapped. Mature defenders can create uncertainty with any deferment from the conventional. Some don't have to be communicated from the coaching staff, either. As long as a player doesn't disguise his way out of the coverage responsibility, which does happen, the possibilities of a stop sit higher than normal.
With the Ole Miss secondary experience, as most contributors are upperclassmen, coupled with the extra week of prep as the bye week begins, Durkin and the staff can push for more creativity to limit Young mentally as much as physically. Of course, Alabama is quite talented on the outside with its top duo, John Metchie III and Jameson Williams, who offers top-end speed as well. Alabama utilizes two tight ends, too, with Cameron Latu as the conventional and Jahleel Billingsley as the flex. The latter was in the dog house early in the season but seems to be back in Saban's favor, catching a touchdown on Saturday via a wheel route.
Alabama doesn't have the benefit of the bye week as Southern Miss is headed to Tuscaloosa Saturday to catch a fat check as well as an L, but Saban won't tell you he is going to work out some struggles in an actual game setting, something that can be viewed as an advantage. The offensive line for Alabama, particularly on the right side, showed some room for potential change against Florida. The same can be said for the linebacker corps, confused by simple pass drops, another area where Saban should expect Ole Miss to challenge.
Let the chess match between legend and disrupter-turned fan-favorite begin.
CONTINUE READING: Is Ole Miss The Best Offense In The Country?
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