September 29, 2006

BOL Breakdown: Alabama at No. 5 Florida

The Alabama Crimson Tide (3-1, 1-1 in SEC) will take to the road for the second consecutive week when it travels to Gainesville for an SEC showdown with the fifth-ranked Florida Gators (4-0, 2-0). A win for the Tide is essential if it hopes to be viewed as a legitimate contender for a birth in the SEC Championship Game.

BOL senior writer Travis Reier provides an in-depth look at this week's match-up.

Alabama running game vs. Florida run defense: Kenneth Darby's week has been filled with questions about his lack of production through the season's first four games. There was heavy speculation earlier in the week that Darby's days as the starting halfback were over, but Mike Shula put the talk to rest by stating that the senior is still the Tide's first option. Still, it wouldn't come as a surprise to see Jimmy Johns take on additional carries this week. And if Johns is effective, Shula would be wise to stick with the sophomore until he needs a blow. Forget about scripted series for the backs, give it to the guy who is producing and go from there.

Edge: The good news for Alabama is that UF defensive tackle Marcus Thomas will remain suspended for at least another week. Thomas has first-round talent, but off-the-field issues may cost him millions when the NFL Draft rolls around in April. The bad news is that Arkansas was without its top defensive tackle, Marcus Harrison, last week and the Razorback defense still kept the UA's ground game in check. With Thomas out, defensive end Ray McDonald has moved inside and the senior played well at tackle in the Gators' win over Kentucky, recording five tackles and two sacks. Brandon Siler and Earl Everett might be the top linebacker combo in the SEC. Edge to Florida.

Key match up: Alabama fullback Le'Ron McClain vs. UF linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett.

Alabama passing game vs. Florida pass defense: It wasn't supposed to be this way. Darby was supposed to carry the offense until quarterback John Parker Wilson and his receivers got up to speed. Instead, Wilson and wide receivers Keith Brown and DJ Hall are keeping the Tide afloat offensively. It appeared as if Shula tried to protect Wilson in his first road start a week ago, sticking with the running game even when it was apparent that Arkansas was committing eight defenders to stopping Darby and Co. In doing so, the offense found itself facing second- and third-and-long for much of the afternoon. Up front, it appears as if Marlon Davis will see increased time at right guard, where B.J. Stabler has started each of the last 14 games.

Edge: Florida cornerbacks Reggie Lewis and Ryan Smith are solid, but neither ranks among the SEC's elite cover guys. With three interceptions, free safety Reggie Nelson is the top playmaker in the Gator secondary. Florida's corners won't come up and challenge Hall and Brown like Arkansas did last week. Instead, they'll show press before bailing into a cover three look. UF will miss Thomas' ability to rush the passer from the tackle position. He sacked Brodie Croyle twice in the Gators' 31-3 loss in Tuscaloosa a season ago. But led by McDonald and defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, UF's front four managed to pressure Kentucky quarterback Andre' Woodson in the second half last Saturday night. Advantage to Alabama.

Key match up: Alabama left tackle Andre Smith vs. Florida right defensive end Jarvis Moss.

Mike Shula's first offensive play call will be: Power to Darby.

Don't be surprised if: Hall and Brown both surpass the 100-yard receiving mark against the Gators.

Florida running game vs. Alabama run defense: After going against Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, the game should slow down this week for Alabama's linebackers. At least that's the hope after watching that unit struggle in Fayetteville. Like Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe, the Gators' base run play is the zone read. That means more assignment football for UA's defensive ends, linebackers and defensive backs. Florida will also run a minimum of two reverses Saturday, but the Gators' top speed guy on the outside, Percy Harvin, has been slowed by a high ankle sprain and will be limited at best for Alabama.

Edge: Florida tailback DeShawn Wynn has been unusually consistent the past two weeks, running for more than 100 yards in wins over Tennessee and Kentucky. Wynn doesn't have the same kind of burst as McFadden and Jones, so that should aid an Alabama linebacking corps that has been somewhat slow in getting to the football. The return of Terrence Jones at strongside linebacker would also help, but his status for UF remains uncertain. This one is even.

Key match up: Alabama MLBs Prince Hall and Matt Collins vs. Florida TBs DeShawn Wynn and Kestahn Moore.

Florida passing game vs. Alabama pass defense: How good has Alabama's secondary been thus far? So good that a non-existent pass rush couldn't prevent it from recording three more interceptions at Arkansas. Still, pressure on opposing quarterbacks will need to pick up or the secondary will take big hits. In last year's win over Florida, UA defensive linemen flustered Chris Leak early in the game by getting their hands into passing lanes. Leak, like most quarterbacks, does not respond well to heat up the gut.

Edge: Leak likes to look the free safety off to the left before coming back to wide receiver Dallas Baker on crossing and post routes on the right. Baker hit the Tide on the skinny post twice last season. When Tim Tebow enters the game for Leak, Alabama's front seven needs to approach him as if he were an additional tailback. Key the zone read keeper and quarterback draw until he proves capable of making throws. Screens are always a part of Meyer's game plan, so Alabama's defensive backs need to carry over their solid tackling from the Arkansas loss. Despite Leak's big numbers, this one is even.

Key match up: Alabama free safety Jeffrey Dukes vs. Florida quarterback Chris Leak.

Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen's first play call will be: Zone read to Wynn.

Don't be surprised if: In an effort to get pressure on Leak, Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines goes with the 4-2-5 just as much as the 3-3-5 this week.

Special Teams: In this space last week, I wondered how Leigh Tiffin and P.J. Fitzgerald would handle their first road tests. Outside of his 46-yard field goal at the end of the first half, the trip to Arkansas couldn't have gone any worse for Tiffin. Shula and special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer would love to have Jamie Christensen available for Florida, and Christensen says he's close to being fully recovered. Being healthy enough to do the job is one thing, but regaining the rhythm he had developed with Fitzgerald and snapper Luke Spaulding prior to his injury is another.

Edge: The Gators feature one the SEC's top punters in Eric Wilbur. The senior is in his fourth season as a starter and has a net average of 41.5 yards per kick. While Ungerer hinted earlier in the week that he is close to going with Javier Arenas as the Tide's full-time punt return man, Wilbur's talents may keep Simeon Castille in the top spot for one more week. Speaking of punt returns, 5-foot-7 Brandon James handles those duties for UF. The electrifying little man came close to returning two punts for touchdowns in the Gators' 21-20 win over Tennessee. James might also get some carries at tailback this week, providing a needed change-up to Wynn's grinding style. Alabama wasn't the only team addressing placekicking woes this week. Chris Hetland had two extra points blocked against Kentucky and has missed his only two field goal attempts of the season. Earlier in the week, Meyer looked into the possibility of replacing Hetland before deciding against a change. Wilbur and James combine to give the Gators the edge here.

Game prediction: For Alabama it's as simple as this: Weather the first 10 minutes of the first quarter without falling behind by 14 points or more and the Tide will be in the game in the second half. It's time to make the no-shows at Georgia (2003), Ole Miss (2003) and Auburn (2005) a thing of the past. Like it or not, the toughness of Shula's teams will be questioned until this happens. Florida 19, Alabama 16.

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