SEC Championship Preview: Does Florida Have a Chance Against Alabama?
Saturday’s game does not exactly look like it will be one of them.
The Crimson Tide and Gators have squared off in eight previous SEC title games, with each team winning four championships apiece. Alabama looks poised to take the series lead, as Nick Saban’s squad is a 24-point favorite, with an implied win expectancy of 92.6% based on the moneyline.
The Tide (12-0) are second in our power ratings (barely behind Ohio State) but come into the game on top of the AP and Coaches Poll, as well as the College Football Playoff rankings. They are also first in Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (which adjusts scoring margin by strength of schedule), coming in at 24.54 points above average. This is the best mark since Tim Tebow’s Florida team that won the national championship with a +25.37 rating in 2008 (a team that incidentally beat Alabama in the SEC Championship).
This year’s Florida team is not exactly a slouch itself, ranking 15th in the AP Poll and CFP Rankings, 16th in the Coaches Poll, 29th in our ratings, and 32nd in the SRS (+8.08).
The Gators (8-3) made it to Atlanta on the strength of their defense, ranking seventh nationally in yards allowed per play (4.63) and fifth in points allowed per game (14.6).
The problem for them is Saturday will mark the first game this year that Florida indisputably will not field the game’s best defense. Alabama leads the nation in both yards allowed per play (3.96) and points allowed per game (11.4).
This will be especially problematic for a Florida offense that has struggled mightily this season, especially lately. The Gators are 102nd in yards per play (5.27) and have averaged just 4.1 in their last two games.
A very stoppable force is about to meet an immovable object.
Let’s take a look at what we can expect when both teams have the ball.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama’s defense deservedly gets a ton of attention, but their offense has also been one of the best in the country.
The Tide rank 16th in the country in yards per play (6.63) and 19th in points per game (39.4). Against SEC opponents, their 6.79-yard average gain leads the conference, as does their 38.0 points per game average.
In terms of opponent-adjusted, per-play efficiency, Alabama is seventh in offensive S&P+, per Bill Connelly’s metrics at Football Study Hall. The Tide complement a dominant running game, which ranks 6th in rushing S&P+, with an efficient passing game that is 30th.
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a true dual threat, accounting for nearly seven yards per play. He has completed 209-of-317 passes (for an SEC-best 65.9% completion rate) for 2,454 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 9 interceptions.
Against SEC opponents, he leads the conference in completion percentage, is third in yards per throw (7.8), and is second in passer efficiency rating. On the ground (including sacks), he leads all SEC quarterbacks with 840 yards and 12 touchdowns, doing so on 154 carries for 5.5 yards per carry.
His top targets include receivers Ardarius Stewart (49 receptions, 810 yards, 8 touchdowns) and Calvin Ridley (62 catches for 684 yards, 7 touchdowns), and tight end OJ Howard (35 catches, 404 yards).
The group will be challenged by a Florida defense that is toughest against the pass. The Gators' secondary is 13th in the country in yards per throw (6.1) and 7th in S&P+ and will match up well against Alabama’s efficient passing game.
Florida has allowed a 45.8% completion percentage, and only Michigan has allowed a lower rate this season. In terms of success rate (the percentage of plays that get a team closer to scoring), the Gators' pass defense is fourth in the country (30.9%), per Connelly’s metrics.
Alabama’s passing game is 41st in success rate, so they should have their hands full against a loaded defensive backfield featuring Teez Tabor (four interceptions, five pass breakups) and Quincy Wilson (three interceptions, six pass breakups).
If the Florida pass defense has a weakness, it is a propensity for allowing big plays, as it is last in the 14-team conference in yards allowed per completion (13.4). That said, Alabama might not be the ideal offense to take advantage here, as the Tide passing game ranks 10th in the league in yards per catch (12.0); in conference play, this dropped to 11.8.
If the Gators have an advantage when Hurts drops backs to pass, the teams may be more evenly matched when he hands off.
Alabama is ninth nationally in yards per carry (5.7), sixth in the nation in rushing S&P+, and ninth in success rate. Damien Harris leads a deep backfield and was third in the SEC in yards per carry (7.2), gaining 897 yards on 124 attempts. He’s joined by Josh Jacobs (516 yards, 6.7 yards per carry) and Bo Scarbrough (448 yards, 5.7 per rush).
The backs will try to gain yardage against a Florida rush defense that is 24th nationally in yards per rush (3.6), 9th in S&P+, and 27th in success rate. The unit has excelled in terms of making plays in opponents’ backfields, ranking 16th nationally in terms of “stuff rate” (the “percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage”), per Football Study Hall.
This is actually an area the Gators could be able to exploit, as Alabama’s offense is 88th in stuff rate.
Overall, this battle looks to be close to a push. Even if Florida has an advantage, it probably isn’t big enough to compensate for the mismatch on the other side of the ball. Speaking of which…
When Florida Has the Ball
The point spread and over/under (41) give Florida an implied team total of 8.5, and given the strength of Alabama’s defense and the weakness of the Gators offense, it isn’t hard to see why.
Florida’s offense is 96th in S&P+ overall and is 102nd on the ground and 86th when passing.
Quarterback Austin Appleby is averaging just 6.6 yards per throw, which would be 12th in the SEC if he had enough attempts to qualify. He is completing 60.0% of his passes and averaging 11.1 yards per completion.
Appleby has also been sacked on 8.2% of his drop backs, compared to teammate Luke Del Rio (who will miss the game with an injury), who had a 3.8% sack rate.
This simply will not do against Alabama, who is fourth in the country in yards allowed per throw, eighth in completion percentage, and second in passing S&P+.
The Gators will not fare better on the ground, where they are 97th in yards per attempt (3.99). It has gotten even worse over the last five games, where Florida is just averaging 2.9 yards per rush, with their game against South Carolina the only contest in the stretch where they averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry.
There are some redeeming qualities for the Florida ground game, mainly their ability to avoid negative rushes and move the ball in short yardage situations; they are 20th in stuff rate and 6th in power success rate (the percentage of successful rushes on 3rd or 4th down with two yards or fewer to go), per Connelly.
But there were just too few big plays here; Florida’s rush offense ranked 120th in IsoPPP, another Connelly metric that measures explosiveness on successful plays.
Again, they hardly look like a match for Alabama, who not only leads the nation in yards allowed per carry (2.2) but has the 10th-best average this century.
As you might expect, Alabama is also 1st in rush defense S&P+ and success rate and is 13th in stuff rate.
Stranger things have happened in college football, but this has all the markings of a long day for Florida.