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December 5, 2009ATLANTA _ When the University of Alabama football team was here last year to face Florida's blazing offense the Gators' elaborate scheme was like nothing the Crimson Tide had seen.
So the coaching staff tried to help the defense by giving players wristbands with cheat sheets, to try and minimize the potential confusion.
"Well, I've never been a big wristband guy and it certainly didn't help us in that game," Coach Nick Saban said. "If they have to look on the wristband and see what they're supposed to do, we're in trouble, especially when you don't know what the other team is going to do and their multiples are in the hundreds.
"We made up 162 pages of formations. That's a record. Forget about the plays, just the formations."
Needless to say, the wristbands will not make another appearance in the Georgia Dome on Saturday despite everything Florida can do, but the mission remains the same: Stop the Gators' offense, stop Tim Tebow.
Only this time the Tide has in a way had a whole year of preparation.
"I think it helps a lot that we're used to their offense," senior end Lorenzo Washington said.
"We've played it once before, and we've also seen their offensive coordinator from last year who's at Mississippi State. That's kind of like playing them earlier and Auburn's offense is similar, Virginia Tech ran some similar things like the little shovel pass and we played a couple of other teams that did similar things to what Florida does. You can go all the way back to last year and what Utah did."
But Florida has what those teams could only wish for, Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner who appears to be on the short list again along with Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram. He's already won two national titles, holds the Southeastern Conference records for all-purpose yards (11,389), rushing touchdowns (56) and rushing yards by a quarterback (2,833).
For his career he's passed for 8,556 yards and 84 touchdowns and has rushed for 2,833 yards and 56 touchdowns. More specific to this matchup, last year he led the Gators on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to win the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, 31-20.
"It seemed like in the fourth quarter everyone was trying to do extra things," said junior middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who acts like the quarterback of Alabama's defense and will try to counter every move Tebow makes. "Everyone just needed to be doing what we've been doing instead of trying to be the hero, everyone needed to do their assignment."
However, Florida's offense isn't quite the same even though the Gators have nearly every starter back from last year's national championship team. The big exception is in the passing game with wide receivers Percy Harvin (who missed the 2008 SEC Championship Game due to an injury) and Louis Murphy having moved on along with offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.
Consequently, most of Tebow's numbers are little down except for passing touchdowns which dropped dramatically from 30 to 17, and Florida has relied more his legs. The quarterback already has 193 carries for 796 yards and 13 touchdowns, compared to 176 for 673 yards and 12 scores his junior year.
The Gators have been running more option, attacking the edges in numerous ways and occasionally hitting a shovel pass up the gut. That and screen passes are main reasons why junior tight end Aaron Hernandez is Tebow's favorite target with 51 catches for 654 yards, ahead of Riley Cooper's 41 receptions for 703 yards.
"It would depend on what defense we're in as for who would have it," McClain said about defending the shovel pass. "It's a discipline thing. If the defensive end can crash down when the guard pulls and knock the guard into the tight end then that play is dead right there.
"The tight end is one part of it, there are two other guys."
To oversimplify, Florida's offense is like facing a team running the wildcat every snap with a 240-pound guy who can throw. The Gators do it so well they lead the SEC in rushing offense, total offense, passing efficiency and third-down conversions.
"It is difficult to defend, because it's about numbers," Saban said. "So you really have an offense that the point of attack can change from out there to out here, to running it in here or throwing it down there.
"All those things can change in one step, whether it's play-action pass or how they create their options."
Just about every part of Florida's offense is like that, which is why both Saban and McClain said this week: "You just have to expect them to do something new."
However, in terms of the big picture the Gators may not be able to.
Last year after Florida's high-profile loss to Ole Miss, its offense averaged 495 yards during the next eight games, 279 rushing.
During the last eight games of this season, Florida averaged 413.9 yards, 201.3 rushing, but even those reduced numbers are misleading. The Gators didn't have a 400-yard performance during that span until the last two games, when they posted 584 against FIU and 545 on Florida State, and had a combined 534 rushing yards. The Golden Panthers rank 119th out of 120 teams in total defense, with the Seminoles 108th.
Florida played four teams ranked in the top 30 in total defense: No. 15 South Carolina (339 yards), No. 17 Tennessee (323) and No. 29 LSU (327). During those games the most points the Gators scored were 24 against Gamecocks (although they did notch 41 against Georgia, ranked 31st).
That's not the only concern for Florida's offense.
The Gators have had problems in the red zone, scoring on 44 of 56 possessions for 78.6 percent which ranks 10th in the SEC, and touchdowns on half of the possessions (28).
Frequently going without anyone in the backfield, Florida's quarterbacks have been sacked 28 times, third most in the conference. On the flip side, Alabama's defense is third in sacks with 31, with the improved pass rush already five ahead of last year's total.
"I think that that's going to be a real critical factor in this game," Saban said of the pass rush. "Very critical.
Florida true freshman Xavier Nixon moved into the starting lineup at left tackle for the final three games, with massive Carl Johnson (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) sliding over to left guard. The Gators went from giving up 15 sacks over the previous four games to two against South Carolina and two vs. Florida State, but this will be the real test.
One that's been in a year in the making.
"I hate spread offenses," McClain said. "I like downhill teams, downhill running backs. That's just my style of football. I like to hit someone almost on every play."