Here's the two-word phrase an SEC team must eliminate to beat Alabama football | Toppmeyer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – What if Florida kicker Chris Howard didn’t miss a second-quarter extra point? Then the ninth-ranked Gators could have tied their game against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday with a fourth-quarter extra point, instead of needing a two-point conversion that failed.
What if Florida tackled better in space during the first quarter?
What if Gators coach Dan Mullen called something more creative than a read-option against a loaded box on Florida’s fateful two-point attempt that came up a yard short?
What if Florida linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. intercepted Bryce Young’s pass that went through his hands during the third quarter, amid a drive that ended in an Alabama touchdown?
What if Florida’s electrifying backup quarterback Anthony Richardson had not been sidelined by a hamstring injury suffered the week before? Or if Ventrell Miller, UF’s leading tackler last season, had not been out after surgery for a biceps injury?
Swing one of those what-if scenarios in Florida’s favor, and maybe the Gators win a game that ended in a 31-29 Alabama victory at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“When we play big games, the margin for error is going to be so small,” Mullen said.
When you play big games against Alabama, you can't let the what-ifs pile up.
Alabama (3-0) stumbled but didn’t crumble amid one of the college football’s most hostile environments.
But Florida’s performance throughout the final three quarters should give Ole Miss confidence. And Texas A&M. And Georgia, should the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide meet in either the SEC Championship or College Football Playoff – although the way Florida played the final three quarters Saturday, no one should discount the possibility of the Gators earning a place in Atlanta or the CFP.
Where was the vaunted Alabama defense that was supposed to smooth over any early-season hiccups caused by the departure of so many of last season’s offensive weapons?
For the second straight year, Mullen proved he knows how to pile up yards against Alabama’s defense.
Most coaches claim they adapt their offense to their personnel. And most coaches fib. Mullen actually does it.
With Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts leading the way, Florida passed Alabama silly in a 52-46 loss in last season’s meeting in the SEC Championship.
Emory Jones isn’t the passer that Trask was, and Florida’s receiving corps isn’t as talented as it was last season. But Jones can scoot, and Mullen pivoted to the ground game to exploit Alabama.
Saturday’s Gators attack was more reminiscent of the Tim Tebow offense that Mullen deployed as Florida’s offensive coordinator throughout a 2008 national championship season that included an SEC Championship Game triumph over Alabama.
Jones and running backs Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright repeatedly gashed Alabama, which surrendered nine runs of at least 10 yards.
Alabama proved ill-prepared to contain Florida’s speed option.
“They had a good plan, and when you’re playing the option, everybody’s got to be disciplined,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Somebody’s got the quarterback, somebody’s got the pitch, and we weren’t doing that correctly.”
Florida found success operating the read-option, too.
Dameon Pierce pulled the Gators within two points when he took a read-option handoff around left tackle for an 18-yard score in which he wasn’t touched until he was within a yard of the end zone.
Alabama’s defense didn’t need to be impenetrable throughout last year’s national championship run, because its offense was a dynamo.
This Alabama offense is plenty good, but it remains a work in progress.
That was evidenced by the Crimson Tide recording three straight three-and-outs during a second quarter in which the game began to swing in UF’s favor.
It was during that second quarter that I began to wonder – what if Alabama isn’t as unbeatable as it seemed during that season-opening romp over Miami?
It means Saturday won’t be the last challenge these Tide will have to fend off.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.