The No. 15 Florida Gators enter Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game as a 24-point underdog against the undefeated and top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, according to Bovada. This ties for the largest spread in the 25-year history of the conference title game.
But does that necessarily mean there’s no possibility the Gators can pull off the upset and win their first conference title since 2008?
If Florida wants to leave the Georgia Dome with a win, its offense is going to need to make a statement against the top-ranked defense in the country.
Three factors will determine if that happens.
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▪ No. 1: Florida needs to put points on the board and put them up fast.
The Crimson Tide has not allowed an opponent to score a touchdown in its past four games, has held eight of its 12 opponents to 10 points or fewer and has allowed opponents to make just 18 trips into the red zone.
Florida, on the other hand, has averaged less than 15 points per game over the past month and has produced more than twice as many turnovers on offense (seven) as touchdowns (three) in that span.
“Taking care of the ball is, obviously, extremely important against anybody,” UF quarterback Austin Appleby said, “but especially this defense. It’s just going to be about us having the mental endurance to take what they give us all day and to keep pushing and finishing blocks, finishing runs, finishing throws, finishing routes. That’s huge for us.”
▪ Which brings up factor No. 2: Explosive plays.
In 11 games, Florida only has 17 plays that have gone for at least 30 yards. That’s the lowest mark in the SEC and tied for the fifth-worst in the country.
“Obviously, it’s not something we’re proud of,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “It’s something we have to be able to do to get the ball in those guys’ hands and let them make some plays in space.”
To do that, Appleby will need to test Alabama’s secondary with a flurry of deep passes to sophomore Antonio Callaway and freshman Tyrie Cleveland, especially with safety and potential first-round draft pick Eddie Jackson out for the year with a fractured leg. If Appleby can connect on one or two, it could force Alabama’s defense to lay off the line of scrimmage, which can pave the way for running back Jordan Scarlett, who has 295 rushing yards over the past three games since taking over as UF’s feature back.
“We want to be able to run the ball, establish the run, get our play action off of it, and get the ball on the outside to our speed guys,” Appleby said. “That’s going to be key for us.”
▪ Florida will only be able to do that if it can execute factor No. 3: Winning the line of scrimmage.
In last year’s SEC Championship Game, Alabama dominated in the trenches, recording six sacks and holding Florida to 21 rushing yards.
The Gators’ offensive line this year is improved and more experienced than the group Florida brought into that meeting with the Crimson Tide, but injuries over the past month have been a problem.
Florida is on its third-string center in T.J. McCoy and has two starting offensive linemen whose status is up in the air in guards Martez Ivey (leg) and Fred Johnson (scooter accident).
To guard Tyler Jordan, success in the trenches will come down to consistency among the five offensive linemen on the field, whoever they might be.
“I think if we come out there each drive and just do our own job, know that the person next to us is going to take care of their business,” he said, “we’re going to be fine.”