By Stewart Mandel
October 03, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At this point, we have to wonder: Does Urban Meyer wake up in a cold sweat every few nights, having seen one of Nick Saban's blitz schemes in his dreams? Does he reflexively gag at the sight of crimson? Does he have an unusual disdain for elephants?

In the moments after the final gun sounded on his team's 31-6 loss to top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night, Florida's coach stood nearly motionless at midfield for about a minute, staring blankly at the jumble of players shaking hands in front of him, before finally turning and running to the Gators' locker room. He still seemed strangely dazed, and short on words, in a brief press conference afterward.

Dec. 5, 2009, must suddenly seem so long ago to him.

Meyer woke up that morning the reigning king of college football. His team had won 22 straight games, claimed two of the past three BCS championships and was playing that night for a chance at another. But underdog Alabama put a screeching halt to the Gators' joyride that December night in Atlanta, manhandling Florida 32-13 en route to its own national title.

On Saturday night, the two SEC titans met again in Tuscaloosa, and once again the Crimson Tide rolled over Florida. Saban's top-ranked squad scored on its first four possessions, teed off on overmatched Gators quarterback John Brantley and feasted on four Florida turnovers.

The Gators finished without a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 1, 2005 -- coincidentally, their last trip to Tuscaloosa, a 31-3 loss in Meyer's first season.

"We just self-destructed," said Meyer. "We have some things to work on."

The gap between the two squads was clearly greater than the six-spot difference in their AP rankings. Alabama is a fine-tuned machine right now, imposing its will on offense, becoming scarier by the week defensively. Even with a modest effort from Heisman winner Mark Ingram (12 carries, 47 yards) and despite a largely listless second half offensively (just 71 yards and five first downs), the Tide were never in danger.

"Maybe we shut it down a little too early in the game?" Saban wondered aloud afterward.

Florida, on the other hand, is a team in transition, lacking the type of offensive explosiveness with which it once oozed, desperately missing the swagger and leadership of departed hero Tim Tebow.

For a brief moment in the first quarter, Florida tried to channel its own beloved Heisman winner. Having driven 74 yards on its first possession, facing 4th-and-goal at the 2-yard-line, offensive coordinator Steve Addazio called for freshman goal-line specialist Trey Burton to throw one of Tebow's patented jump passes.

Unfortunately, it was intercepted in the end zone by Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson.

The miscue would prove a forebearer for the rest of Florida's night. Brantley and the offense showed flashes at times, but buried themselves with turnovers. Already down 17-0 in the second quarter, Brantley's interception to Dre Kirkpatrick gave the Tide the ball at Florida's 18, setting up another score. It was 24-3 by halftime and 24-6 early in the third quarter when any chance of a Gators comeback went down the drain on a Brantley pick-six to Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Afterward, the aw-shucks Brantley insisted this was "not a step back" for the Gators' work-in-progress offense, that "they're we're positives to build on." But when asked if he could identify some of those positives, the junior admitted, "No, not right now."

That's how much things have changed since early December -- with Florida scrambling to find silver linings, while Alabama reasserts itself as the new emperor of the SEC.

"We have a program here, and we have a high expectation and high standard for how we want to play what we want to do," said Saban. "I don't think we did that last week [at Arkansas] until about the last 17 minutes of the game, so I was proud of the way we came out today."

Meyer's program has some pretty tall expectations, as well, so high that even a 13-1 record and 51-24 Sugar Bowl rout of Cincinnati couldn't mask the disappointment of that one defeat in Atlanta.

Now, his program is at a crossroads. It's still loaded with five-star recruits, the large majority underclassmen. It's still the odds-on favorite to win the mediocre SEC East. No. 20 South Carolina -- which hosts Alabama next weekend -- is its sole feasible competitor.

But clearly, the program has a ways to go to reach the same plane as Saban's team, should Florida and Alabama meet yet again in December.

Five games into the season, Florida's offense remains an enigma. Much like Texas, another normally star-studded program struggling to reload, the Gators' utter lack of playmakers is puzzling -- and the guy responsible for getting the ball to them looks miscast. At times Saturday night, Addazio had the not-exactly-fleet-footed Brantley run the spread-option. It paid off once on their first drive, creating misdirection on a 19-yard reverse to Omarius Hines. Mostly, though, it looked clunky.

Brantley was more impressive when given the chance to throw downfield, finishing 16-of-32 for 202 yards, threading the needle several times to hit well-covered receivers. However, both his costly interceptions came on similarly intended throws.

'Bama's offense, meanwhile, is so deeply stocked and multi-faceted, they were practically toying with the Gators in the first half. Following Brantley's first interception, it direct snapped to receiver Marquis Maze in the Wildcat (as it did Ingram and Trent Richardson on other occasions), who unexpectedly threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Williams.

Still, they weren't satisfied.

"We came out hot in the first half, but we didn't do anything at all in the second half, said offensive lineman William Vlachos. "So, there's certainly room for a lot of improvement next week against South Carolina."

Florida's coaches and players all said virtually the same thing, though in more somber tones, about next week's game against 5-0 LSU. None dwelled on the significance of a second loss in seven games to Alabama.

"A loss is a loss," said safety Ahmad Black. "We've got a game next week. ... We can still win the East. We've got to overcome some obstacles."

He's got that right. Meyer has more personnel obstacles to deal with than at any time since that '05 debut season. Either he'll find some answers -- as he eventually did that year, setting the stage for a title run the next year -- or fall farther behind his Crimson conqueror.

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