In the immediate aftermath of Florida’s 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship, coach Dan Mullen pointed to one big reason why the Crimson Tide were headed for another national title while his Gators were settling for the Cotton Bowl.
“They’re a little more physical, I think, at the line of scrimmage than we were,” Mullen said that night in Atlanta. “We’ve got to get a little bit better up front. Get back here, get another shot at them next year.”
That shot comes Saturday when No. 11 UF hosts No. 1 Alabama in one of the biggest games Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has seen in decades. Are UF’s lines ready?
“We’re getting there,” Mullen said this week. “We’ll find out.”
What the Gators found out last year was that their impressive skill talent wasn’t enough to overcome lines that were not yet elite.
The Tide held the edge in sacks (5-2) and tackles for loss (7-5). ‘Bama averaged more than twice as many yards per rush (4.7-2.1) and gave quarterback Mac Jones more time to throw than what Kyle Trask had.
That was evident on the final play. The Tide only rushed four defenders, but that was enough against UF’s protection. The Gators failed to pick up the blitzing linebacker, which led to the game-ending sack.
‘Bama has experienced its typical turnover since then. Only three linemen who started that game are back: offensive tackle Evan Neal, offensive guard Emil Ekiyor and nose guard DJ Dale. The other four were drafted.
But the Tide’s fronts don’t look any weaker to running back Dameon Pierce.
“Physical, you know,” Pierce said. “That’s ‘Bama. That’s their identity.”
UF’s identity, however, has changed with its personnel.
The Gators have evolved from the nation’s No. 1 passing attack last year to the No. 1 rushing attack this year. More than a third of UF’s rushes against ‘Bama failed to gain at least two yards (excluding sneaks and short-yardage touchdowns). Through two games this year, UF is getting stuffed at half that rate.
The Gators’ defensive line will look different, too. After a historically bad defense got pushed around in Atlanta, UF knew it had to upgrade its interior. They added three 300-pound transfers: Daquan Newkirk (Auburn), Antonio Valentino (Penn State) and Tyrone Truesdell (Auburn). Newkirk and Valentino started the first two games (a combined four tackles, two quarterback hurries), while Truesdell has contributed despite enrolling only a few days before the opener.
Between the Iron Bowl experience of Newkirk and Truesdell and the SEC title game experience of pass rushers Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter, the Gators’ front should know what to expect.
“All we know is they’re a physical football team,” Cox said. “That’s all Alabama’s ever been, a physical team.”
Through two games, UF has looked like one, too. The Gators are 18th nationally in sacks (seven) and 26th in rushing defense (2.6 yards per attempt). Carter, a Hillsborough High alumnus, ranks third nationally in tackles for loss (5½).
But UF’s progress came against two overmatched opponents (Florida Atlantic and USF), not the reigning national champions. Cox still isn’t worried.
“Of course, we’re ready,” Cox said. “Big question is: Are they ready?”
Richardson has practiced every day this week but continues to get treatment after leaving last week’s game with a tightened hamstring, Mullen said. Regardless of Richardson’s availability, Jones is expected to start Saturday. Alabama linebacker Will Anderson (knee) practiced Tuesday, and coach Nick Saban said the all-SEC talent could play Saturday, if he continues to improve this week.
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