Friday, December 5, 2008

SEC Championship Preview

This Alabama-Florida match-up is catnip for the media because it perfectly fits into the kind of black and white, dichotomous narrative that makes for great (and easy) copy.

Alabama! Old-school! Tradition! Bear Bryant!

Florida! Nouveau riche! Fresh! Rash!

Alabama! Smash mouth! GamesAreWonInTheTrenches! Tough!

Florida! Finessee! Speed! Gimmicky offense! Five wide receivers...five wide receivers!

The stories practically write themselves. It's like a kid's movie. One team pounds the ball behind a massive offensive line, suffocates opposing offenses and grinds them into dust. The other team uses clever formations and pure speed to run by defenses and leave them gasping for air.

But in a shocking development, things are rarely so simple. Alabama is the team committed to the running game and pounding the ball, except Florida has the 10th-best running game in the country while Alabama checks in at 22nd. Alabama's all about defense while Florida's team revolves around a high-powered offense, except the Gators actually have the 7th best defense in the country. (Alabama's better, to be sure) Alabama has the dominant offensive line in this game, anchored by future NFL star Andre Smith, except Florida has allowed one fewer sack than the Crimson Tide. Alabama has the dominant defensive line and Saban's a master at crafting exotic blitz packages that put QBs to the turf, except Florida ranks 23rd in the country in sacks while Bama checks in at 57th. Those exotic blitz packages cause turnovers, but it's Florida that's third in the country in turnovers forced, while Alabama is just 40th.

But the narrative has a force and power all its own, so we get smash mouth v. finesse. (Ask SEC defensive backs if they see any element of finesse with Tim Tebow) We also get a lot of talk about Florida's injuries, but maybe not the most important ones.

Most of the attention has focused on Percy Harvin and his trick ankle, which he sprained against FSU. In another shocking development, Urban Meyer has been relatively tight-lipped about his star. It's a high ankle sprain, but that's about all we know. Meyer won't say whether Harvin will play Saturday; he's one of those infamous "game time decisions." All that said, I can't imagine Percy is going to sit this one out. He was huge in the 2006 SEC Championship Game and the Georgia Dome turf can only make him more dangerous. The question isn't whether he'll play, but rather how effective he'll be, and there's no way to answer that. Without information it's impossible to make an informed guess; Harvin could be anything from a barely mobile decoy to a fully armed and operational battle station.

Harvin's an extraordinary player, but Meyer can come close to replicating his contributions with Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. More of a concern is the defensive line, where two players (Matt Patchan and Brandon Antwine) are out for the season after suffering serious injuries; Antwine joins Florida's lengthy list of ACL tears. Lawrence Marsh is apparently back at 100 percent after playing through pain against Florida State. Against a team with Alabama's rushing attack, that could prove troublesome.

Offensively, the Gators have established the much ballyhooed "identity." Florida's a running team with the ability to go to the air if needed. As mentioned above, UF has the 10th-best rushing attack in the country, and four of the teams ahead of the Gators feature option attacks and never throw the ball. Considering Saban's vaunted ability to to scheme confusing defenses, I see no reason to expect Florida to start throwing the ball around the field as an homage to Steve Spurrier.

While Florida's running game features some traditional option and other plays that get Demps, Rainey and Harvin on the perimeter, the Gators generally run between the tackles, even with the diminutive freshmen. But Alabama can challenge that gameplan like no one else Florida has played. Massive defensive tackle Terrance Cody is almost guaranteed to occupy two of Florida's interior linemen. He's a disruptive force, and if Florida was playing 'Bama at the beginning of the season, when UF had serious issues on the offensive line, he'd probably tear a bloody swath through the Gators. Fortunately Carl Johnson has stepped in at left guard and stabilized the interior line.

I'm predicting a 24-20 win for Florida. This is a dramatic over-simplification, but I think it comes down to this: Alabama has a great defense. Florida has a great defense. Florida has a great offense. Alabama does not.

In other words, Florida can match Alabama's strength. Alabama cannot say the same thing.

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