A #1 ranking and perfect season on the line, while Florida hopes to rebound from last week’s disappointment and still make a case for the CFB Playoff in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game. This is the eighth meeting between the Gators and Crimson Tide in the SEC title game, and it’s no surprise the incentives are high for both teams. Counting Saturday’s meeting in Atlanta, these two teams have combined for 26 trips to the SEC Championship Game.
Behind its high-powered offense, Florida snapped Georgia’s three-year streak of SEC East titles. The Gators scored at least 31 points in every game to capture the division, but their CFB Playoff hopes took a huge hit last Saturday. Despite outgaining LSU 609 yards to 418, turnovers and a late personal foul after throwing a shoe cost Florida the chance to be 9-1 going into the SEC Championship Game. In that scenario, a win over Alabama ensured the Gators would book a trip to the playoff. However, as a two-loss team, the path is tougher even though a win over Alabama would be huge. After losing to Texas A&M 41-38 on Oct. 10 this fall, Florida rebounded by winning its next six games by 12 or more points. Coach Dan Mullen’s team should be ready to rebound on Saturday.
Alabama capped one of the best one-year seasons by a team in the SEC with a 52-3 win over Arkansas. The Crimson Tide won 10 SEC games (the most by a team in conference history) and claimed every one of those victories by 15 or more points. Since a 17-point win against Georgia on Oct. 17, coach Nick Saban’s team has won its next six contests by 29 or more points. Behind quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith, the offense is averaging 49.5 points a game, and the defense has made steady strides throughout the year. With a win over Florida, Alabama would claim its seventh SEC title under Saban.
Alabama holds a 26-14 series edge over Florida. The Crimson Tide are 5-4 against the Gators in the SEC Championship. These two teams have not played since the 2016 SEC title game.
SEC Championship Game: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 7 Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Spread: Florida -17
When Alabama Has the Ball
Prolific is the best and easiest way to describe Alabama’s offense. Under coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s direction, the Crimson Tide are averaging 49.5 points a game and lead all Power 5 teams by recording 7.9 yards per snap in 2020. Additionally, no team has held this offense under 38 points, and this group has scored at least 52 in three out of its last four matchups. Alabama has 17 plays of 40 yards or more and has lost only 10 turnovers in 10 games.
What makes Alabama difficult to defend is its ability to hurt defenses in a variety of ways. Quarterback Mac Jones has connected on 76.4 percent of his throws for 3,321 yards and 27 touchdowns to just three picks. On the ground, the Crimson Tide are led by the nation’s top offensive line, with rushers averaging 5.1 yards per carry. If the offense needs to throw to win, Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith (83 catches for 1,327 yards and 15 scores) are capable of connecting on several big plays. And even if defenses can key on Smith, the emergence of John Metchie III (40 catches), Jahleel Billingsley (10), and Slade Bolden (17) provide Jones with plenty of weapons on the outside. But if Sarkisian wants to play slower, he can lean on a massive and talented offensive line to clear the way for Najee Harris. The senior running back has rushed for 1,084 yards and 22 touchdowns in 10 games this year for the Crimson Tide.
Florida’s defense started 2020 by giving up 35 or more points in two out of the first three games. This unit surrendered 37 in last week’s loss to LSU, but there has been improvement along the way. The Gators rank fourth in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.5) and fifth in scoring (26.3 ppg). Coordinator Todd Grantham’s group is sixth in the SEC versus the run, seventh in pass efficiency defense, and sixth in third-down conversions allowed. Giving up big plays (10 of 40 yards or more) has been a problem for this unit in 2020.
How Grantham and Florida’s defense matches up with Alabama is one of the intriguing storylines on Saturday night. The Gators probably won’t have an answer to completely shut down this group, but they have to win some battles, get off the field on third downs or get stops in the red zone. Additionally, missed tackles against Harris or big plays allowed in the passing game have to be eliminated.
When Florida Has the Ball
Alabama has arguably the best offense in college football, but Florida isn’t far behind and has its own share of playmakers and a talented quarterback under center. Through 10 SEC games, the Gators are averaging 41.2 points a game and 7.4 yards per play. Coach Dan Mullen’s group isn’t far behind the Crimson Tide in the big play department (13 of 40-plus yards) and also ranks second in the SEC in red-zone scoring percentage.
Quarterback Kyle Trask is the catalyst for Mullen’s attack, tossing 40 touchdowns and 3,717 yards over 10 SEC contests. The senior vaulted into Heisman consideration with his prolific numbers, which include a 70.2 completion percentage and just five interceptions over 369 attempts. For Florida to pull off the upset, Trask has to have his best game of the season. And against ranked teams in 2020, the senior has delivered (786 yards and eight touchdowns to just one pick). However, Alabama is going to present a different set of challenges for the Gators. This unit has held its last six opponents under less than five yards per play, and after allowing 48 points to Ole Miss on Oct. 10, coordinator Pete Golding’s group has not allowed a team to score more than 24 points. Over the last four contests, the Crimson Tide have allowed just 36 points.
There’s no doubt Alabama’s defense is playing at a higher level than it was earlier this year, but Florida’s offense is also the toughest group this unit has faced since taking on Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide rank third in the SEC versus the run, first in pass efficiency defense, and first in fewest points allowed (16.8) per contest. Tight end Kyle Pitts has been a matchup nightmare for every team in the SEC this season, and his return to the lineup after missing last week’s game against LSU is a big boost for Trask and Florida’s upset hopes. Alabama will have to account for Pitts, but receivers Kadarius Toney (62 catches), Trevon Grimes (34), Jacob Copeland (21), and Justin Shorter (23) will test the defense’s ability to cover one of the deepest passing attacks in the nation.
The Gators don’t run it often (30.2 attempts per game), but the backfield is talented. Dameon Pierce (441 yards), Malik Davis (277), and Nay’Quan Wright (158) will each see a few carries, with Davis and Wright more involved in the passing game. Don’t expect Mullen to shift away from his scheme and approach this year, but Alabama’s front seven could be without lineman LaBryan Ray and linebacker Christian Harris due to injury.
After allowing Texas A&M and Ole Miss to throw for more than 300 yards in early October, no opponent has managed to exceed 270 passing yards against Alabama. Trask is likely to push that barrier, as Florida’s hopes of winning hinge on a huge performance by the passing attack. Pitts and Toney are a handful for any team to cover, so the Crimson Tide may have to trade some yards in exchange for getting stops in the red zone and finding ways to get off the field on third downs.
Alabama should already have a spot in the CFB Playoff, but a dominant win over Florida would entrench this team with one of the best one-year runs by a program in SEC history. However, Florida desperately wants to rebound after last week’s disappointing loss to LSU and stake a claim for the playoff. With two of the nation’s top quarterbacks and plenty of playmakers at receiver on display, consistent stops or a shutdown effort on defense might be tough. While Alabama has improved on this side of the ball, Trask and Pitts are going to land their share of punches. However, the Crimson Tide have too big of an edge in the trenches.