Tag:AJ McCarron
Posted on: October 25, 2011 7:22 pm
Edited on: November 1, 2011 12:30 pm
 

Keys to the Game: LSU at Alabama

Posted by Jerry Hinnen. Much more in the way of previewing at the LSU-Alabama Daily.

LSU WILL WIN IF: they win the battle of the big play. On a down-to-down, play-by-play basis, we'd give the slimmest of edges to the Tide--the Tigers have been just a shade more yielding on defense (4.0 yards allowed per-play to the Tide's FBS-leading 3.2) and just a shade less consistent on offense (5.6 yards per-play to Alabama's 6.8), though how much of that is the Tide's better play and how much is the Tigers' tougher schedule is open to debate.

What isn't is that if Jarrett Lee can't hit Rueben Randle for one or two of their now-trademark bombs over the top (the sort of play the Tide has been vulnerable to in the past, though less so this season), it won't matter how good Spencer Ware and the LSU offensive line are; Mark Barron and Robert Lester cheating towards the line of scrimmage is going to equal a run-game shutdown. And defensively, if Tyrann Mathieu, Barkevious Mingo, Morris Claiborne can't come up with a handful of turnovers, sacks and the like to get the Tide off the field quickly, even the Tigers' incredible front seven will wear down over the course of the game against Trent Richardson and Co. The good news for the Tigers is that they've done a phenomenal job of generating those kinds of big plays over the course of the season. The bad news is that the Tide are going to make them harder to come by than anyone else on their 2011 schedule.

ALABAMA WILL WIN IF:
they win the battle of field position. One major effect of all those LSU big plays -- particularly from their defense and special teams -- is that they frequently have short fields to work with while forcing their opponents to drive 70, 80 yards or more. (How do you become the No. 1 team in the nation with an offense ranked 78th in total yardage? By using field position to create more red zone attempts than all but five other teams in the country, then getting touchdowns out of 79.5 percent of them and points out of 97 percent. That's how.) But what happens when the Tigers have to defend shorter fields? When they have to consistently string together the 8-, 9-, 10-play drive instead of their opponent?

We don't know for sure. But if AJ McCarron can avoid the killer turnover, if Marquis Maze can flip the Tigers' usual domination of special teams to give the Tide the upper hand, if Richardson can consistently pound out a few first downs when deep in the Tide's territory, we'll find out--and we doubt it would be good news for the Tigers.

THE X-FACTOR: Les Miles. It won't matter that the stakes are as high as they can possibly be for a regular season college football game. Won't matter that his team will be on the road in one of the nation's most hostile venues. Won't matter that making one wrong call at the wrong time could cost his team their shot at a national championship. Miles is Miles is Miles is Miles, and he's going to make whatever "crazy" decision he feels gives his team the best chance to win. And if that decision -- fake punt, no-huddle 4th-and-1 on his own 34 in the first quarter, halfback double-reverse pass, whatever -- works out, it may undo an awful lot of good work elsewhere by the Tide.

Posted on: October 23, 2011 3:03 am
Edited on: October 23, 2011 3:11 am
 

SEC Winners and Losers, Week 8


Posted by Jerry Hinnen

A handy recap of who (and what) really won and really lost in the SEC's Week 8.

WINNERS: Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. On the eve of the 2011 season, the LSU quarterback situation was supposed to be the team's Achilles heel. The senior Lee had spent his entire career as erratic at best and a turnover machine at worst; Jefferson was suspended and might never return; and despite intense fan interest, Zach Mettenberger hadn't been able to beat either out for so much as the backup's job. But after the Tigers' demolition of Auburn, it's time to give the Bayou Bengal quarterbacks their due: not only are they not a weakness, they're a major reason LSU is 8-0 and now preparing for an undefeated megatilt against Alabama.

The stats are argument enough: a combined 16-of-23 for 219 yards (9.5 an attempt), three touchdowns, and no interceptions. (This was LSU's fifth straight game without a turnover, by the way.) But the two touchdown throws they made in the second quarter -- one by each, both of 40-plus yards, both to the rapidly-improving Rueben Randle -- are an even better argument. On the first, Jefferson was leveled by an Auburn blitzer and stood strong in the pocket to deliver Randle a precision strike; on the second, Lee "dropped it in a bucket," as they say, allowing Randle to beat double coverage. The end result was that a quarter that began 7-3 and with Auburn in a dogfight ended with LSU up 21-3 and the game over. If those two throws are examples of what LSU can expect in two weeks, even Alabama might not be good enough to beat the Tigers. At this point, it seems obvious no one else in the SEC can.

LOSER: Houston Nutt. Honestly, this isn't entirely fair to Nutt, who just coaxed the best performance from his team all season and has nothing to hang his head about, final score-wise; losing to a legitimate top-10 outfit like the Razorbacks by five points is an accomplishment, especially when the outcome is still in doubt in the final minute. Still: a 17-0 second-quarter lead over that kind of opponent -- not only one of the best teams in the country, but an opponent whose fans enjoy needling Nutt and the Rebels about their failures -- is the kind of golden opportunity that Nutt and his team simply couldn't afford to let slip through their fingers. In the end, solid performance or not, it's just Nutt's 10th straight SEC loss ... and another few before the year's end could be the end for Nutt.

WINNER: James Franklin. On the other end of the spectrum, we've got a coach for whom beating Army isn't really that big a deal ... but beating them by a comprehensive 23 points is. The Commodores had only one week of study for the Black Knights' triple option and held them to 288 total yards anyway, forcing three turnovers in the process. The 'Dore running game racked up a stout 344 yards and Vandy may have finally found a quarterback in Jordan Rodgers, who didn't set the world on fire (10-of-27, one touchdown, two interceptions) but whose 10 completions did go for better than 18 yards a pop. In short: this was the kind of performance that suggests the 'Dores 3-3 record wasn't a fluke, and that they could go bowling in Franklin's first year. It won't be enough to win him Coach of the Year with Miles and Saban around, but it's still a heck of a job.

LOSER: Drama. Another week, another series of blowouts in the SEC. Save for Arkansas's escape from Oxford, the average score of the four Week 8 games involving SEC teams was 41-13. After another week of winning their two games by some outrageous combined score -- 66 points' worth this go-round -- LSU's and Alabama's average margin of victory has ballooned to a full 30 points. It's a good thing the Tide and Tigers have next week off; not only will it give us another week to savor the buildup to the Game of the Century of the Year, but maybe it'll give us a chance to enjoy more than a single helping of competitive SEC football.

WINNERS: Alabama's receiving corps. The Tide's wideouts were alleged to be the team's one weakness entering this season, and doubly so once Duron Carter was ruled ineligible. But Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks and Kenny Bell made that expectation look more ridiculous than ever in the second half Saturday night, hauling in acrobatic circus grab after acrobatic circus grab and eventually totaling 11 receptions, 213 yards, and Bell's game-clinching touchdown. AJ McCarron didn't have his best night, but Maze, Hanks, and Bell made him look awfully good all the same.

LOSERS: Auburn's special teams. The way LSU (and their quarterbacks in particular) are playing, it didn't matter what Auburn did today. But the one area where you can't show any weakness vs. Les Miles's team is in special teams, where they will kill you with field position if given the opportunity. Given the Tigers' strength in this area so far in 2011, Gene Chizik was probably expecting a draw in this phase, at least. Nope: punter Steven Clark had his worst game of the year, repeatedly failing to pin LSU deep when given the chance, and dynamic freshman kick returner Tre Mason fumbled away a second-half return to turn the game from decisive LSU advantage to full-on rout.

LOSER: Matt Simms. Ugly as Simms' final line in the box score was (8-of-17, 3.4 yards an attempt, no touchdowns, one interception), he was facing Alabama on the road; lots of quarterbacks would have looked just as bad, and Simms did play a role in getting the Vols to a 6-6 halftime tie. But Derek Dooley's decision to burn Justin Worley's redshirt late could indicate a move towards getting the freshman snaps at Simms' expense, and though he had a lot of company on the Tennessee sideline, he wasn't able to do much in preventing the Tide onslaught in the second half.

WINNER: College football. No. 1 LSU and (now consensus) No. 2 Alabama are going to meet in two weeks, both undefeated, both extremely heavy favorites to finish their regular season schedule perfect and run a way with the SEC East with a win over the other, both having established their national championship contender's bona fides weeks ago. It really, really, really shouldn't get any better than what we now know we'll see Nov. 5.


Posted on: October 12, 2011 2:14 pm
 

SEC RapidReport roundup: Trotter still Tiger QB

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

Running down everything you need to know from the current news in the SEC, courtesy of our CBSSports.com RapidReporters (and others).

AUBURN. Despite a miserable 6-for-19, 81-yard, 2-INT performance against Arkansas, Tiger quarterback Barrett Trotter will still be the starter in Saturday's showdown with Florida. "He's our quarterback today; he'll be our quarterback Saturday," Gene Chizik said. Many Tiger fans have been clamoring for a greater role for true freshman Kiehl Frazier, but Chizik reiterated that Frazier would remain a "changeup."

For their part, both offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Frazier himself agreed that the freshman isn't ready to take on the full-time quarterbacking responsibility. Auburn will have to face Florida without starting senior guard Jared Cooper, out with an ankle injury. He'll likely be replaced by redshirt freshman Chad Slade.

FLORIDA. Meanwhile, Auburn's Saturday opponents have their own worries at quarterback with John Brantley out. But freshman backup Jeff Driskel has returned from his ankle injury and split reps during Tuesday's practice with fellow freshman (and starter vs. LSU) Jacoby Brissett. Though the two are now locked in close competition to be the starter at Auburn, Will Muschamp said he doesn't plan on keeping his decision a secret once it's made ... though he has also hinted at leaning in either Brissett's or Driskel's direction.

Despite reports suggesting his Gator career was over, sophomore linebacker Dee Finley has not yet made a final decision on whether to transfer out of the program or not, Muschamp said.

VANDERBILT. More QB drama: for the first time this season, the Commodore depth chart at quarterback has an "or" between starter Larry Smith and backup Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of Aaron Rodgers. Head coach James Franklin said the team would "kind of have a competition" at the position and whichever quarterback performs better in practice this week would get the nod against Georgia. Rodgers came on in relief of Smith vs. Alabama and completed 11 of 18 passes, but with two interceptions.

LSU.
The No. 1 Bayou Bengals' Nov. 5 trip to Alabama is already being marked on many college football fans' calendars as the Game of the Year--including LSU's, who chanted "We Want 'Bama" at the end of their team's beatdown of Florida. But don't tell that to Les Miles. "I hear the talk," he said. "But I promise you that talk doesn't exist in our building. That's fan chat or a media buzz. That buzz doesn't take place in our building."

With Miles stressing ball security, LSU has now gone three games without a turnover. At +11, the Tigers rank fourth in the nation in turnover margin. With the Auburn game a week from Saturday set for a 2:30 CT kickoff (on CBS), LSU will go an entire season without playing an SEC night game for the first time since 1935.

ELSEWHERE: The already-struggling Tennessee running game could be without starting tailback Tauren Poole, day-to-day with a hamstring injury ... new/old starting quarterback Matt Simms is happy to return to the starter's role against LSU, the team he nearly defeated last season ... Arkansas's bye week comes at a good time for quarterback Tyler Wilson, who needs the extra time to recover his lost voice ...

Don't expect to beat Alabama on the Tide's mistakes: they're committing the second-fewest penalties in the nation and AJ McCarron hasn't thrown an interception in 127 pass attempts ... Good news and bad news on the injury front for Georgia, who should see inside linebacker Alec Ogletree back on the field as scheduled come the Bulldogs' Oct. 29 meeting with Florida, but will miss receiver Malcolm Mitchell for this week's trip to Vanderbilt ...

Amidst the higher-profile stories breaking in Columbia Tuesday, Andrew Clifford and Dylan Thompson are battling to be this week's backup quarterback against Mississippi State. Steve Spurrier said picking one or the other could be a game-time decision ... Ole Miss will stick with Randall Mackey as the starter at quarterback against Alabama Saturday, but there's no set backup there, either ... But at least the Gamecocks and Rebels have a starter. Dan Mullen has said he won't name Mississippi State's until kickoff, if then. Chris Relf is attempting to fend off a challenge from Tyler Russell, who sparked the offense to three second-half touchdowns against UAB.

Posted on: October 11, 2011 12:07 pm
Edited on: October 11, 2011 1:47 pm
 

Keys to the Game: Alabama at Ole Miss

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

ALABAMA WILL WIN IF: a meteor fails to strike the Crimson Tide sideline midgame. And even that might not do it: you'd have to take into account the size of the meteor, the ratio of starters to second- and third-stringers struck down, whether Nick Saban was still ambulatory, etc. Because when Ole Miss's own coach is nearly begging for mercy from the Tide weeks before the game, you know it's a mismatch. And so this one is, as anyone who watched the Rebels' 30-7 loss to Vanderbilt and the Tide's 34-0 win over that same Commodore team knows. As long as Alabama can avoid a sudden, freakish storm of turnovers and special teams mistakes -- and keep quarterback Randall Mackey from improvising a big play here or there -- the Tide will come out of Oxford safe and sound.

OLE MISS WILL WIN IF: their engineering department has figured out a way to arrange for a meteor strike through, like, magnets or something. But, fine, if we're going to approach it seriously, whatever slim-to-none chances of victory the Rebels have rest on their improved defense making Alabama work for their points and possibly pulling out a game-changing turnover here or there. While the Tide have come by their four-yards-and-a-cloud of dust reputation honestly, the 2011 version has also proven surprisingly explosive, as Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy have shown the ability to take it the distance from any point on the field, AJ McCarron has shown impressive downfield touch, and Marquis Maze has become a lethal special teams weapon in the return game. If the Rebels want to stay close, they have to at least force the Tide to drive the field--and hope that somewhere along the way, McCarron makes the kind of killer mistake he's avoided thus far this season.

THE X-FACTOR: Meteors. Or Maze, whose dynamic returns have meant that Alabama isn't just brutally efficient on offense and all-out ruthless on defense--they're probably better than you at special teams, too.

Posted on: October 8, 2011 10:34 pm
Edited on: October 8, 2011 10:36 pm
 

QUICK HITS: No. 2 Alabama 34, Vanderbilt 0

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

ALABAMA WON: Congratulations to Vanderbilt for their two long first-half drives, possessions that at one point gave them an almost-unthinkable 142-116 yardage advantage over the co-national title favorites. But once both those drives ended in missed field goals, there was only one final outcome. (Actually, there was only one outcome even if they'd been made, but things would have been somewhat more interesting.) Trent Richardson overcame a slow start to finish with 107 yards and a touchdown.

WHY ALABAMA WON: That it was Alabama playing Vanderbilt in Tuscaloosa is, really, all the analysis you need. But the game might have amounted to more of a competitive contest if AJ McCarron didn't have his best day yet throwing the ball for the Crimson Tide. The Vanderbilt secondary is legitimately one of the best in the SEC, if not the country -- corner Casey Hayward deserves some All-American consideration, if we're any judge -- and McCarron still finished his night completing 23-of-30 for 237 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. 

That last fact is no doubt what Nick Saban will come away happiest about (especially against an overmatched opponent like the 'Dores), but the rest of us can applaud the third of those touchdowns, a pretty 39-yarder to DeAndrew White. 

WHEN ALABAMA WON: Since "when the team bus successfully navigated its way to the stadium" isn't a fair answer, we'll say when Carey Spear missed the second of those two aforementioned field goals, a 38-yarder with 4:18 to play in the second quarter and the 'Dores still trailing just 7-0. The Commodore sideline visibly wilted seeing 7 plays and 59 yards' worth of work come to nothing, and the Tide's touchdown just before the half was the proverbial nail in the coffin.

WHAT ALABAMA WON: There isn't really anything to win in a home game against the Commodores, but the Tide likely avoided losing any momentum in the polls (such as theirs is as they bump up against the LSU-Oklahoma ceiling), didn't suffer any major injuries, and saw their quarterback play his best game of the year. We doubt anyone in T-Town is complaining.

WHAT VANDERBILT LOST: Starting quarterback Larry Smith left the game with an injury, but even that doesn't seem so bad after backup Jordan Rodgers performed admirably given the circumstances (11-of-18 and that 59-yard drive). Certainly James Franklin would have liked to have kept things more competitive, but this just isn't the kind of game by which his team's improvement should be measured.


Posted on: October 6, 2011 3:33 pm
 

SEC Interrogation, Week 6

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

In which we demand the SEC give us answers to its most pressing questions. Here those are:



Florida's running game: can you give your quarterback(s) any breathing room?
Any team that can start Chris Rainey or Jeff Demps at tailback and then substitute the other in for the first is going to be a threat on the ground, regardless of who their team faces; when the tiniest sliver of a crease could equal an 80-yard touchdown before the coaches have their headsets correctly adjusted, the Gator ground game is where a defense's focus is going to start ... and probably finish.

That probably goes double for LSU this Saturday, since with John Brantley out and some combination of true freshman Jeff Driskel and other true freshman Jacoby Brissett taking over at quarterback, the Gators' passing game is the most glaring of question marks. But it doesn't matter how badly the Tigers stack the box, how fearsome LSU's defensive front is, how well John Chavis has his charges prepared--Florida must find a way to get Demps, Rainey, and possibly Trey Burton moving forward on the ground. Even with Brantley looking as sharp as he ever has in the first half, the Gators still couldn't rush the ball at all vs. Alabama; Rainey, Demps, and Mike Gillislee carried 17 times for 13 yards, and the end result was zero points over Florida's final 10 drives.

If Driskel and Brissett have any prayer of completing passes consistently against the carnival of athletic freaks that make up LSU's secondary -- in Baton Rouge, no less -- that secondary is going to have to be not just concerned but downright obsessed with the Florida running game. That won't happen if that running game doesn't pick up some good early gains, maybe break a 20-to-30-yarder somewhere, and keep the Gators out of anything but the occasional third-and-long. Otherwise, Chavis's Tigers will spend all afternoon teeing off on the newbies under center and generally choking the life out of Charlie Weis's attack. Weis failed miserably in his first attempt at finding a way to run the ball against an elite SEC defense; a second failure will equal a potentially even-more-miserable defeat.



Barrett Trotter: are you up to giving Auburn a passing attack again? The Tigers' 4-1 record and road upset of South Carolina has helped mask a major, major flaw in the Tiger offense, and a surprising one given Gus Malzahn's track record: Auburn's vertical passing game has all but vanished. In the five quarters since the start of the second half against Clemson, junior QB Trotter has completed just 52 percent of his passes, for only 5.9 yards an attempt, while throwing 4 (often ugly) interceptions to just 3 touchdowns. That's not to mention the eight sacks taken by Trotter the last two games or that neither FAU nor the Gamecocks are going to be mistaken for having world-class secondaries any time soon.

Judging by Arkansas's efforts to stop the run against Texas A&M (or lack thereof), Trotter should get plenty of help from Michael Dyer and the Auburn running game. But that alone won't be enough for the Tigers to keep pace with the Hogs, not given the way Bobby Petrino's quarterbacks have shredded the Auburn defense the past two seasons (702 combined yards, 7 touchdowns) and the kind of form Tyler Wilson and Jarius Wright are in right now. With the Tiger secondary as flammable as ever (provided your quarterback isn't Stephen Garcia), Arkansas is going to score a boatload of points.

Which is why the injuries to receivers to Trovon Reed and Emory Blake couldn't have come at a worse time for Auburn. Trotter already needed to take a substantial step forward to keep the Tigers within striking distance on the road; now he'll have to do it without two of his top three receivers. If there was ever a week for Malzahn to earn his substantial assistant's salary, this looks to be it.



Georgia secondary: are you for real? When Kellen Moore gouged the Bulldogs for 28-of-34 passing and 3 touchdowns Week 1, it looked like the Bulldog defensive backs had regressed back to their dark Wille Martinez-led days. But with safety Bacarri Rambo returning from suspension, the Dawgs have held their last four opponents to team QB ratings under 86 and rank 11th in the country in opponent's pass efficiency despite the Moore carpet-bombing.

Those past results are no guarantee of future performance, since facing Tyler Bray in Neyland Stadium represents a vast step up in competition from the likes of Garcia, Zack Stoudt, the slumping Chris Relf and whoever it was Coastal Carolina trotted out. But it's worth remembering that the Vols still have next-to-nothing going on the ground; even after totaling 199 yards against Buffalo, the Vols rank a horrid 109th in the country in yards per-carry. If the Dawg defensive backs can slow down Bray at all, the Vol offense could grind to a halt ... and barring another turnover-fest from Aaron Murray, Georgia should be able to walk out of Neyland with the victory.

So: can those Dawg DBs slow down Bray or not? The evidence to date is encouraging, but with the memory of Moore's night at the Georgia Dome still lingering, it's not compelling just yet.

Other SEC questions worth asking: How does AJ McCarron look against the Vanderbilt secondary? (Don't laugh; this is the best set of defensive backs McCarron has faced yet. A strong showing would further cement the belief that the Tide have no Achilles heels.) Can Marcus Lattimore keep pace in the Heisman race? (Sure, most of the attention on Carolina is focused on new quarterback starter Connor Shaw. But a second straight subpar outing against a Kentucky defense that kept LSU's ground game bottled up for a half would put the sophomore badly behind at the midseason mark.) Does Mississippi State have any fight left? (The Bulldogs have looked utterly listless and deflated ever since losing to LSU. Is there any indication that could change down the road vs. UAB?)

Posted on: October 1, 2011 11:39 pm
Edited on: October 2, 2011 12:04 am
 

QUICK HITS: No. 3 Alabama 38, No. 12 Florida 10

Posted by Jerry Hinnen



ALABAMA WON: John Brantley's untimely injury might have made the final score more lopsided, but we don't think we're on much of a limb when we say it wouldn't have changed the final outcome, not with the Tide continuing to hit on just as many cylinders -- go ahead and call it "all of them" -- as they did in routing Arkansas the week before. Bruising ground game? Check, with Trent Richardson rolling to 181 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. Stifling defense? Check, with the Gators gaining all of 162 yards and scoring all of 3 points in the 59:41 following their 65-yard touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage. Big-play opportunism? Check, as Courtney Upshaw's 45-yard pick-six two minutes into second quarter ended the Gators' early momentum for good.

Check, check, check, checkmate.

WHY ALABAMA WON: Here's a statistic that illustrates the Tide's physical dominance over a team that itself had gotten off to a mighty physical start: Florida has outrushed its first four opponents by an average of 259 to 56, then was outrushed itself 226 to 15 by the Tide. Until an opponent finds some way of standing up to the Tide on both lines of scrimmage, three-touchdown victories are going to continue to be the norm.

But even so, an opponent like Florida might have at least been able to stay competitive if AJ McCarron had continued living up to his preseason (and early-season) reputation for the occasional wayward pass or poor decision. Sorry, Gators: McCarron only threw for 5.6 yards an attempt, but he continued to make nothing but safe, effective throws and the Tide finished the game without a turnover.

WHEN ALABAMA WON: The Tide likely already had all the points and all the lead they would need once they went up 24-10 in the second quarter. But Brantley's injury -- on yet another huge play by Upshaw -- made that all but official. At that point the only questions were how many yards Richardson could rack up and how many touchdowns the Tide would win by.

WHAT ALABAMA WON: Surely, a few more first-place votes. But unless Tyler Bray plays the game of his life in a few weeks, the Tide have also now cleared the only serious hurdle between themselves and rolling undefeated into the Game of the Year against LSU in November.

WHAT FLORIDA LOST: In the record books and SEC standings, not all that much, really; South Carolina's loss means they could maintain the favorite's role in the SEC East, and this was never the sort of team that could really dream about running the table to a crystal football. 

But if Brantley is out for any extended period of time, that is as major a loss as they come. Jeff Driskel is a fine, fine prospect, but he's shown little to date that indicates he's ready to navigate the final three-quarters of an SEC schedule. As iffy as Carolina and Georgia have looked, if the Gators are forced to make do without their starting quarterback, the East door will be wide, wide open.

Posted on: September 29, 2011 1:22 pm
Edited on: September 30, 2011 3:32 pm
 

SEC shakedown: Florida vs. Alabama

Posted by Jerry Hinnen

In which we break down the SEC's biggest games. This week: Gators and Crimson Tide, 8 p.m. ET Saturday on CBS.




AT STAKE: Nothing less than the winner's continued presence in the national championship race. Yes, Alabama could potentially lose and still work their way back in via a victory over LSU, but the way teams like Oklahoma and Wisconsin are playing, we wouldn't risk it if we were them. And no, Florida isn't widely viewed as a national title contender at the moment--but a win over the Tide would change that in the biggest of hurries.

WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST: Give AJ McCarron time to throw. The Tide's pass protection hasn't exactly been an Achilles heel so far this 2011 season, but it hasn't been a strength, either; the Tide have given up eight sacks in their four games, ranking them 77th in the FBS in that department, and that's with the offense heavily favoring the run game and North Texas and Kent State on the schedule.

Now tackles Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker will have to deal with the most fearsome pass rush they've faced yet. The Gators have collected seven sacks the past two weeks alone, and it's not the result of just one superstar player; Will Muschamp's blitz packages have resulted in six different Gators collecting at least one sack, with linebacker Jonathan Bostic and defensive end Ronald Powell tying for the team lead with two. Tackles Jaye Howard, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd mean the Gator pass rush is just as strong inside as it is outside, too. In short: the Tide offensive line is going to have its hands full.

But the rewards for keeping McCarron clean should be lavish. The Gator secondary is athletic and has been highly productive to date (four interceptions in the last two games, 4.7 yards per-attempt allowed for the season), but they're also young, mistake-prone (as the avalanche of penalties vs Tennessee showed) and no doubt highly concerned with the Tide rushing attack. Keeping McCarron upright likely also means the handful of big plays that would keep the Gators defense honest ... and honesty is no way to deal with Trent Richardson.

WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL, THEY MUST:
break Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey free for big plays--and we mean really big plays, plays of the 60-, 70-yard touchdown variety the Gators have already enjoyed vs. Tennessee and Kentucky.

Against the Tide, that's easier said than done, of course. But that's also the Gators' best hope. The Tide have allowed only four plays all season longer than 20 yards (second-fewest in the nation), and yielded just one to Arkansas. Result? Being forced to drive the length of the field, neither the Razorbacks nor Penn State before them were able to muster more than one serious drive before the game was well out of reach.

And it's not as if the Gators are any better built for pounding out long, methodical possessions; for all their brilliance neither Demps nor Rainey is the sort of back to move a pile of Crimson Tide defenders on 3rd-and-2, and while much improved, John Brantley still only completed 59 percent of his passes in the Gators' two SEC contests to date. Charlie Weis must figure out a way to get Demps and Rainey into space -- we suggest a heavy dose of the screen passes and check-downs that so damaged the Vols -- and hope they can work their magic. Otherwise, first-year punter David Lerner is going to get an awful lot of work.

WHAT ALABAMA CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: The Florida Field crowd. The Swamp hasn't always been The Swamp as of late -- it was just last year the Gators conspired to lose an unthinkable three consecutive home games -- but with the 4-0 start, the burst of energy from Muschamp, the primetime start, and no less an opponent than Nick Saban's Alabama, the atmosphere in Gainesville promises to be as hostile as any college football will see this year.

On the whole, a veteran team like the Tide should be able to handle it. But can McCarron? And if the Tide fall behind, will he be alone in feeling the pressure?

WHAT FLORIDA CAN'T ACCOUNT FOR: The inevitable deflation of that crowd. At some point, Alabama will connect for a big play, whether it's Marquis Maze on special teams, Richardson breaking loose on a screen pass or Eddie Lacy coming off the bench to thunder for 40 yards or so. While Florida has any number of upperclassmen leaders, this remains a young team on the whole, with a first-year coaching staff, that's enjoyed nothing but prosperity so far in 2011. When Alabama socks them in the mouth and the crowd loses its buzz momentarily, there's no guaranteeing how the Gators will respond.

AND IN THE END: Buoyed by the home crowd, Florida's defense holds up much better in the face of the Tide running game than Arkansas's did. But there's not enough weapons in the Gator passing game to keep Demps and Rainey from being swarmed under, and the Tide seizes control early in the second half. Alabama 27, Florida 16.

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