Kentucky Review / Alabama Preview

Whew!  What could have been a comfortable win turned in a death struggle at the Swamp, with potentially the season and Will Muschamp’s future hanging in the balance.  While much is being made of the improvement of the Wildcats, not enough credit is being given to the Gators for not throwing in the towel like they likely would have last season, and to an offense that actually is showing signs of becoming SEC-level as the season progresses.

The youth and inexperience of the secondary showed it’s ugly side, as total breakdowns led to 2 long TD passes, allowing the Mildcats to stay in the game and give them hope for the upset.  Talk about fighting through your own mistakes – dropped interceptions, crazy penalties (the facemask in the 2nd OT period), and missed tackles almost lost this game.  And yet, the defense rose up in overtime, fought through the fatigue, and really showed mental toughness.  Despite allowing 300+ passing yards mostly due to 6 pass plays totaling 173 yards, the run defense really made Kentucky one-dimensional most of the night.  The D-Line played well, but only Dante Fowler provided consistent pressure on the QB – other DL have to improve in this area against the improved quality of opposition to come.  The linebackers has a solid game led by Tank Morrison’s 10 tackles, but weren’t challenged by the UK offense as they will be later, so the jury is still out.  It was the secondary that unfortunately received the most attention – both good and bad.  The CBs opposite Vernon Hargreaves had some struggles, and the new safeties suffered from some completely busted coverages.  At least the secondary recovered with 3 interceptions led by Keanu Neal’s 2, a pleasant change from last season.  Still, there is a lot of work to be done on the pass defense.

About the Gator offense.  Yes, the offense, which rolled up over 500 yards, featured a RB (Matt Jones) who rumbled for 159 yards, and featured an emerging star in WR Demarcus Robinson, who tied the Florida reception record of 15 catches (shared by Carlos Alvarez), had 215 receiving yards, and 2 TDs – a monster game.  Yet despite the gaudy stats, there is a lot of work still to do and areas to clean up.  Jeff Driskel looked tentative keeping the ball on the zone read all night, which cost the offense the chance to extend some drives.  Of larger concern is that he is still slow in getting rid of the ball to an open receiver occasionally, and still struggles picking up blitz packages.  He did show maturity on the play of the game – his TD pass to Robinson on 4th down in the 1st OT.  Perhaps the fact that this is the 3rd offense he’s had to learn in 4 years accounts for some issues, but his reluctance to run is still surprising unless he is under orders from the staff to protect himself and not force 2 true freshmen to take over – just like in 2011 when he was one of those freshmen (along with the departed Jacoby Brissett).  The O-Line was able to pound the inside running game when needed against a smaller Mildcat D-Line, and got a lot of work against pressure and blitzes as Kentucky came after Driskel early and often.  There are still issues with the guard play, especially in pass-protection against blitz packages.

Now it’s on to Alabama, which will be a huge road test and a very tough environment in which to pull off an upset.  While many of these Gators have big game experience from 2012, there are just as many newcomers who are contributors in 2014 that haven’t been in this environment before.

The Crimson Tide has lost a lot of quality personnel the past 2 seasons, and while still very talented, is not the same juggernaut as it was from 2008-2012.  Bama is breaking in 2 new QBs of their own, and it will be crucial to the Gators’ chances to see if they can rattle and confuse either Blake Sims or Jacob Coker (who transferred from F$U).  Make no mistake – the arrival of the biggest tool in football in Lame Kiffen won’t change Nick Satan’s ultimate preference of pounding the rock with a power running game, featuring the best RB rotation in the country.  TJ Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyon Drake make for a great group, even in a conference full of outstanding RBs.  Bama does have the luxury of also having an outstanding WR in Amari Cooper and a stud TE in OJ Howard to provide balance to the offense and not allow opponents to load up against the run……so far.  Sadly, the Gator front seven had not shown it can stand strong against a power running game since 2012, and this likely will tell the tale of this game.  If the Gators had the secondary of the previous 2 seasons, it could roll the dice and crowd the LOS – but with the mistakes shown last week, I don’t see this as a viable option unless the Gator staff decides to go down swinging and let the young guys try and survive on their own against the pass.  I expect to see more of the experienced Brian Poole at both CB and defending the slot.  Of larger concern is the coverage of the safeties, who were exposed last week.  Neal showed some flashes of becoming an excellent player in the future, but he, Jabari Gorman, and Marcus Maye have to improve in coverage – and quickly.  They have 2 great secondary coaches in Travaris Robinson and Will Muschamp to coach them up and clean up mistakes, but it takes time.

The Tide defense started showing cracks last season, and, while still very good at times. was overrated.  This year, West Virginia exposed even more weaknesses against both the run and pass, despite the perception that it’s a Nick Satan defense and that they can’t be beat – not true by a long shot.  The only way this can happen Saturday, though, is for the Florida O-Line to somehow find it’s footing and play better than it has in almost 2 seasons.  The play at the tackle positions and at center has been solid, but the guard play has left a lot to be desired.  Blitz pickups are a weakness, and Driskel hasn’t shown he can make adjustments well enough on his own to offset them yet.  That being said, I’m sure there are a lot of new looks and some wrinkles in the base sets that OC Kurt Roper has yet to reveal.  One area that has to be used in the passing game is the middle of the field and down the seams.  The loss of TE Jake McGee really hurts here, and someone will have to step into this role.  Quinton Dunbar and Robinson have the size to make tough catches, and TEs Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook have to elevate their play in this game.  At least the performance of Jones will make the Tide defense pay attention to the running game – actually showing some balance in the offensive attack for the first time in years has to make the job of the offense easier.

I believe that Florida has enough talent to stay with Alabama, but can they sustain a high level of play for 4 quarters in a hostile environment?  My feeling is that the weakness of the guard play on offense and the inexperience in the defensive secondary will be too much to overcome right now, but I really hope for a competitive effort, and perhaps a few surprises on offense that could make the game interesting well into the second half.  This game can be a huge building block going into the bye week, heading into the most important part of the schedule with Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, and Georgia coming up.

Prediction:  Alabama 34      Florida 17