September 29, 2006

Unranked Alabama no break for Florida

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Every year schools in major college football conferences trumpet the strength of their respective leagues - and inevitably compare themselves to the Southeastern Conference.

This weekend offers a not-so-subtle reminder that, in reality, there just is no comparison.

Where else but the SEC can teams with the tradition and power of Alabama (3-1) and Florida (4-0) with their "Roll Tide" yells and sexy coeds wearing Houndstooth hats and the Gator Chomp and fierce intensity within The Swamp clash in a big conference game and it still be practically considered a break in the schedule for one of the teams?

Fifth-ranked Florida, which rallied to defeat rival Tennessee two weeks ago, is beginning a four-week stretch that features games against the Tide, No. 9 LSU, No. 2 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia. Rival Florida State, ranked No. 19, still looms in the season finale.

With that pothole-filled road waiting, the Gators can ill afford to stumble against Alabama lest their SEC and national championship aspirations sustain considerable damage.

"Florida is unique," second-year Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "We have three (rivals) that are tremendous, and then we play Alabama. That's a rivalry, too.

"At Georgia, that atmosphere is like none other, and Tennessee and Florida State each one's unique. These (Florida) players get three (rivalries) and even more than that because the passion is so strong in this conference."

Alabama, which would be unbeaten if not for a kicking game meltdown against Arkansas a week ago, knows this all too well. Facing Florida is a major headache, and another loss would virtually eliminate the Crimson Tide from the SEC West race - especially with Tennessee, LSU and Auburn remaining on the schedule.

"I think every one of us realizes the kind of football team we are playing," Alabama coach Mike Shula said. "We are playing in their stadium, it is going to be loud and we have to play our best game of the year just to have a chance."

For the Tide, that will likely require serious improvement in a stagnant running game. Alabama has managed a pedestrian 149 yards per game, and that includes a 219-yard outburst against Louisiana-Monroe. Hyphenated opponents usually translate to a statistical spike.

"We do feel like it helps if you have the ability to run the football in this conference," Shula said. "You can take over a game if you have the lead and the ability to run the ball. It keeps the defense off balance a little bit because they're not just rushing the passer the whole game. We've struggled, but we will continue to run the ball and we feel that will help us in the passing game."

Kenneth Darby, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards the previous two seasons, has struggled for just 233 thus far. Backup Jimmy Johns is expected to get more carries.

"There's been some times where there wasn't much room to run," Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader said. "There have been other times when maybe we should've gone right and we went left. Then there's some times where he's been tripped and I can't figure out why we have so many legs in the way."

Quarterback John Parker Wilson, receivers Keith Brown and DJ Hall and an excellent defense have helped Alabama compensate for its running problems. The Tide defense and passing game face severe tests against Florida, which ranks among the nation's top 10 in total offense and defense.

Gators quarterback Chris Leak has barged into Heisman Trophy contention by completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns. Leak has a stable of able receivers in Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin - Rivals.com's top-rated recruit in the Class of 2006.

Although defensive tackle Marcus Thomas - who leads the Gators with three sacks - is suspended, Ray McDonald, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey can all bring pressure. Free safety Reggie Nelson has three interceptions.

The Gators might also have the additional motivation of getting revenge for last season's 31-3 blowout loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But even that doesn't put Alabama at the top of Florida's list of enemies.

"For old-time Gators, who are 50- or 40-plus it's Georgia," Meyer said. "For new age people it's FSU, and then you have to beat Tennessee."

And somewhere along the way comes a traditional power like Alabama, that's battling to stay in the championship race.

That's why the SEC remains college football's most demanding conference.

Week 5 Game of the Week: Alabama at Florida
Alabama running offense vs. Florida run defense: Kenneth Darby was hoping to become the first player in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, but at his current pace that's not going to happen. He has managed just 233 yards through four games and the Tide coaches are conceding that backup Jimmy Johns (a more physical runner at 6-foot-3, 227 pounds) needs more attempts. The biggest issue is inconsistent blocking from the offensive line. That doesn't bode well when facing a team like Florida, which ranks fourth nationally in run defense and is allowing opponents an average of less than 1 yard per carry. The Gators have allowed their last three opponents a total of 49 rushing yards, although Tennessee's Arian Foster played sparingly and Kentucky's Rafael Little did not play at all against Florida. Linebackers Earl Everett and Brandon Siler have been exceptional.Edge: Florida.
Alabama passing offense vs. Florida pass defense: Looks like the Tide are handling the loss of quarterback Brodie Croyle just fine. John Parker Wilson has thrown for 913 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception while completing 63.6 percent of his attempts. Junior Keith Brown has 26 catches just eight fewer than all of last season and DJ Hall is averaging 22.1 yards per grab. The Tide offensive line has been better in pass protection than in run blocking, but has still allowed eight sacks. Florida ranks 60th nationally in pass defense, allowing 186.7 yards per game. Defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Derrick Harvey each have a couple sacks, and Reggie Nelson is an excellent free safety who already has three interceptions. A point of concern may be at cornerback where 5-foot-10 Reggie Nelson and Ryan Smith could have some match-up problems against the 6-foot-2 Alabama receivers. Edge: Alabama.
Florida running offense vs. Alabama run defense: DeShawn Wynn has posted consecutive 104-yard outputs against Tennessee and Kentucky and has rushed for 304 yards thus far. Backup quarterback Tim Tebow provides a jolt to the running game when he spells starter Chris Leak. Tebow is averaging 41.2 rushing yards a game. Overall, the Gators average 175.7 yards rushing, but struggled with just 121 yards on the ground against Tennessee. That suggests there could be some trouble against Alabama, which has had its ups and downs against the run. The Tide allows just 99.3 yards rushing, but that stat was enhanced by playing pass-oriented Hawaii, which rushed for just 22 yards in the season-opener. In its last two games Alabama allowed 123 yards to Louisiana-Monroe and 172 to Arkansas. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry has 15 tackles and 3 for losses, but outside linebacker Juwan Simpson is the most productive defender with 21 tackles in three games. Edge: Alabama.
Florida passing offense vs. Alabama pass defense: Leak is remarkably efficient and has a stable of sure-handed receivers, which explains why Florida ranks ninth nationally in pass offense at 289.8 yards per game. Leak has thrown for 1,066 yards with 12 touchdowns and only four interceptions while completing 63.6 percent of his attempts. Baker has emerged as Leak's favorite receiver with 24 catches, but Caldwell and Cornelius have at least 10 catches and have combined for five touchdowns. Leak needs 1,539 yards to pass former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel as Florida's all-time leading passer. Yardage doesn't figure to come easily against an Alabama pass defense led by cornerbacks Simeon Castille and Ramzee Robinson. Castille already has two passes defended and three interceptions. The Tide has held their last two opponents, Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas, to fewer than 100 yards passing - although Hawaii did accumulate 350 passing yards in the season opener. Pass rush appears to be an area of concern, with Alabama managing only four sacks thus far and none by a defensive lineman. Edge: Florida
Alabama special teams vs. Florida special teams: Yikes. Neither team has proved to be particularly dangerous on kick returns, but both have covered kicks very well. Florida punter Eric Wilbur is averaging 42.6 yards on 11 punts, while Alabama's P.J. Fitzgerald averages 38.6 yards on 12 punts with five downed inside the 20. Florida place-kicker Chris Hetland is 0-for-2 on field goal attempts and had two extra points blocked by Kentucky last week. Alabama freshman Leigh Tiffin has converted 8 of 13 field goals, but last week missed three field goals and an extra point in overtime of a 24-23 loss. Indications are that Jamie Christensen, who has not kicked all year because of a groin injury, will resume kicking duties this week. Last season Christensen converted 16 of 25 attempts. Edge: Florida.
Alabama coaches vs. Florida coaches: In his fourth season in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's Mike Shula has a 23-18 record - but he's 13-3 in his last 16 games. Alabama assistant coaches Joe Kines, Dave Rader and Sparky Woods have all been head coaches at the Division I level. Kines is recognized as one of the nation's premier defensive coordinators and Alabama has ranked second nationally in total defense the last two seasons. Second-year Florida coach Urban Meyer is 52-11 in five-plus seasons as a head coach, 25-3 when he's in his second season, 31-2 in home games and 5-2 against ranked opponents. Edge: Florida.
Alabama will win if: The Crimson Tide can finally mount a consistent running game. Darby and/or Johns need to get respectable gains on early downs to avoid obvious passing situations. Wilson must also continue to play at a high level and take advantage of Brown and Hall, who have been among the nation's best receiving duos in the first third of the season. Pressuring Leak would cause some problems for Florida's passing game, but the Crimson Tide hasn't yet been able to get a consistent pass rush.
Florida will win if: The Gators defense wants to keep Alabama's struggling running game at status quo and force the Tide to be one-dimensional. The Gators have a strong pass rush, and it will only be more aggressive if Wilson is facing obvious passing situations. Leak must continue playing at a high level, which will be enhanced if Wynn can notch a third-straight 100-yard rushing game.
X-Factor: Alabama true freshman offensive tackle Andre Smith has been excellent thus far, but hasn't faced a defensive end the caliber of Florida's Jarvis Moss - who has 14 tackles, three for losses and a sack. Smith's success blocking Moss figures to be a big key in whether Alabama will have offensive success.
Notes: Florida will wear throw back uniforms as part of its 100 years of football celebration. The Gators uniforms will be modeled after those worn in the mid-1960s. Florida, one of just 19 remaining undefeated teams, is hoping to start 5-0 for the first time since 2001. The Gators are riding an 11-game home winning streak UF's Leak has 12 touchdown passes which ties him with Houston's Kevin Kolb for the most in the nation. Backup quarterback Tim Tebow has rushed for 165 yards and has a 7.2 average per carry, which is the most in the nation among quarterbacks. Alabama has eight interceptions, which is the second most in the nation. Receiver DJ Hall has played in just three of the Tide's four games, but has a touchdown catch in all three and he's averaging 50.7 yards on those scoring receptions. Alabama is 8-1 in Gainesville, Fla.. which includes a 40-39 overtime victory in 1999.
Buchanan's pick: Florida 28-17
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, college football writer: Florida 24-14
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Florida 28-10
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Florida 21-14
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