We spent an entire offseason deliberating about who would punch their tickets to Atlanta in December. And though the “hot” choices might have been LSU and Tennessee, 2016 produced a predictable rematch for us.
Alabama should handle Florida convincingly in a more lopsided version of last year’s SEC title bout. Florida needed a 98-yard touchdown and a host of other miscues to upset LSU two weeks ago. Alabama is too focused to fall into the same trap; the Gators shouldn’t reach the end zone more than once or twice on Saturday.
On top of that, the Florida defense faltered against the three best offenses it faced. Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida State combined for 100 points in Florida’s three losses. Alabama is deeper and scores more often than any of those schools.
That doesn’t preclude this game from being entertaining — at least for a quarter or two. Here are three bold predictions for Saturday’s matchup between Nick Saban and his Florida protege, Jim McElwain:
1. Alabama scores at least one defensive touchdown
The Crimson Tide have recorded 9 touchdowns on interception and fumble returns this season. Since Oct. 15, Florida’s offense has turned the ball over 12 times.
The Gators are pretty stout on special teams — they haven’t allowed a return touchdown all year. Alabama is now without ace return man Eddie Jackson, so a special teams score seems less likely. Defense will be where the Tide capitalize in this one.
Austin Appleby has taken far better care of the football than “injured” starter Luke Del Rio. Appleby threw just two interceptions on 145 attempts compared to Del Rio’s eight in six games. But Alabama can hit a team with so many different studs on the defensive side — particularly up front, with its three-headed pass rushing monster of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson — that limiting fumbles becomes a real challenge.
It’s difficult to expect the Florida offense to remain mistake-free against Alabama when it hasn’t done so against lesser opponents.
2. Florida keeps it close early thanks to Quincy Wilson, Teez Tabor and Antonio Callaway
Like last year, the Florida offense became a tire-fire in November. But even injured as they are across the board, the Gators have a potent defense that can give a start-and-stop the Alabama offense if Jalen Hurts & Co. aren’t on point out of the gate. As we witnessed in the Iron Bowl, Hurts still experiences the occasional freshman moment, too.
Wilson and Tabor might be the best cornerback tandem in the country. If they can keep ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley — Hurts’ favorite targets — in check for a few drives perhaps the freshman quarterback will be tempted to force risky passes when he shouldn’t.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Florida within 6 or 7 points of Alabama near halftime. The Crimson Tide should eventually wear down that defense — by keeping it on the field and maintaining control of the clock — like it did to Auburn’s before pulling away in the second half. Early on, though, I foresee a tight game.
Maybe Doug Nussmeier even digs into his bag of tricks and gets Florida’s offense into the end zone on a trick play. Anything he can do to get Callaway open, I bet he’ll try.
3. Alabama LB Ryan Anderson wins MVP
Hurts should be the odds-on favorite, of course, and it’s hard to stand out on a Tide defense littered with future NFL stars. But Anderson has been one of the country’s more underrated pass-rushing linebackers this fall (7.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs). I think he’ll enjoy a big game in Atlanta.
The Florida O-line has improved in pass protection this season, but corralling Anderson, Allen and Williams is simply too tough.
Florida State, up there with Alabama as one of the best pass rushing teams in the country, sacked the Gators six times last Saturday. Expect the Crimson Tide (41 sacks in 12 games) to pressure Appleby in the pocket early and often. Allen and Williams can and should draw attention from running backs left in pass protection or tight ends chipping off the line.
That should leave Anderson with a few favorable matchups.