To be sure, when Alabama has the ball in their battle with Florida in Gainesville tomorrow night, there are some interesting questions: Who is Alabama's No. 2 receiver? How will Florida choose to attack quarterback A.J. McCarron, who is growing more and more comfortable in his role? Will fiery sophomore tackle Dominique Easley (6.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL) be limited after suffering an ankle injury in practice? Et cetera.
That said, the truly fascinating matchups take place when Florida takes possession. That's what we are going to focus on here.
After four weeks, Alabama's defense ranks first in overall Def. S&P+ and first in quite a few S&P sub-categories: rushing defense, passing defense and standard downs defense. They have been nearly perfect. That Florida has been rather proficient, both on the ground (they are 14th in Rushing S&P thus far) and on passing downs (they rank 16th, while Alabama ranks a comparatively lowly 11th), is a somewhat favorable sign, but if Arkansas couldn't gain even 250 yards against the Tide, what rabbits can Charlie Weis pull out of his hat to consistently matriculate the ball down the field?
How Does Florida Move The Ball On Standard Downs?
Yesterday, Tide Sports published a really interesting article about Charlie Weis' offense at Florida and its ties to those of Ray Perkins at Alabama.
Perkins, of course, played at UA under Paul W. "Bear" Bryant in the 1960s and succeeded Bryant as head coach of the Crimson Tide from 1983 through '86. By that time, Perkins had already been involved in the creation of an offense that is still in use today - in whole or in part - by National Football League teams including the Patriots, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints. [...]
There are no magic plays in that playbook, but the concept behind it revolutionized offense. The legacy of the Erhardt-Perkins offense is the use of a smaller number of plays run from a large number of formations with different personnel groupings - the same running play, for instance, might be run from eight different formations. It might be run with four wideouts, with two wideouts and two tight ends, or with three wideouts and one tight end.
"When you have multiple formations, you could dictate what you wanted people to do (on defense) where you could take advantage," said Richard Williamson, a former UA player who coached in the NFL for more than two decades. "They would move people around and create matchups."
Said Perkins, "In essence, you're running the same play. You're just giving them some window-dressing to make it look different."
Four games into the season, there are three things we know about Florida's offense with absolute certainty: 1) The Gators have two incredibly dangerous and unquestionably unique run-catch weapons in Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, 2) they are unafraid of heavily utilizing these two players (and Trey Burton) in many different roles, and 3) few coaches are more willing to milk everything out of a matchup advantage than Weis is.
Weis' playbook is notoriously enormous (though if they are running similar plays out of multiple formations, I think there's some wasted paper in there; Mike Leach utilized the same "few plays, many formations" approach, and his players famously didn't even use a playbook), and though his program-building abilities may have proven shaky at Notre Dame, his ability to run an offense has not. One-third of the way through his first season in Gainesville, he has created a rock solid, run-heavy unit that will do well against most teams on the schedule. They are simply too fast for most defenses.
But the Gators have only been solid on standard downs thus far, and you need to be spectacular to move the ball on the Tide. No defense is better on first-and-10, second-and-5, third-and-3 and so on than Alabama's.
Thus far, Florida has run the ball 71 percent of the time on standard downs (67 percent while the game is considered 'close,' i.e., within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, 21 points in the third quarter and 16 points in the fourth quarter), well over the national average of approximately 60 percent. Meanwhile, Alabama opponents have quickly come to the conclusion that they cannot run on the Tide -- opponents are only attempting to do so about 48 percent of the time. Seventy-two percent of Florida's standard-downs rush attempts in close games have gone to Rainey and Demps, and it's worked: the two are averaging 6.6 yards per carry in these instances.
But as fast as they are, will they be able to routinely get to the edge against the 'Bama front seven, even one that doesn't feature linebacker C.J. Mosley? And if not, will they at least gain enough yards to avoid second-and-8 after second-and-8?
If Not Chris Rainey, Who Catches Passes?
Florida has one of the most unique targets-and-catches tables you are going to see:
|Player||Pos.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rt||Target Rt||Yards/
|Frankie Hammond, Jr.||WR||7||5||69||71.4%||7.8%||9.9|
Weis quite often will use motion to try to create the advantage he seeks (and one could certainly see him attempting to get one of the running backs matched up with a linebacker), but as often as not, Rainey and Demps have caught passes straight out of the backfield and close to the line of scrimmage, where blockers are available nearby.
Alabama is so good near the line of scrimmage, however. Earlier this week, Weis spoke of opening up the playbook a bit -- "They're going to get the kitchen sink" (admittedly, that might just be a nickname he has created for Hunter Joyer) -- and if that is the case, that is probably going to involve downfield passing. Will it work? Will Deonte Thompson or Quinton Dunbar be able to produce at a higher level than they have shown thus far? For a frame of reference, you want your No. 1 target averaging at least eight or nine yards per target, not 6.2. Tight end Jordan Reed was a semi-frequent target before missing the last two games to injury; will he play an extended role in his (expected) return?
I am asking a lot of questions here, and with good reason: nobody really knows what Weis is going to do. Florida's base plays (Rainey/Demps wide right, Rainey/Demps wide left, dump to Rainey/Demps underneath) will have to work to a degree if the Gators are going to be able to compete for four quarters versus the Tide, but Weis knows as well as anybody that he will have to open up the playbook a bit, and nobody knows what that means.
I do know, however, that if a complementary weapon, be it Thompson, Frankie Hammond or perhaps Andre Debose, doesn't make a larger-than-normal contribution, Rainey and Demps will have to combine for about 350 yards to win.
And I don't know about you, but I am thinking that is probably doubtful.