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Have the Florida Gators’ lines improved enough to upset Alabama?

Dan Mullen said physicality at the line of scrimmage was the difference in the SEC title game. How much better will UF be this time?
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen said Alabama's lines were the difference in the SEC title game. How will things be different this weekend?
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen said Alabama's lines were the difference in the SEC title game. How will things be different this weekend? [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP (2020) ]
Published Sep. 15

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.”

Related: Where Florida vs. Alabama ranks among The Swamp’s recent big games

What the Gators found out last year was that their impressive skill talent wasn’t enough to overcome lines that were not yet elite.

Florida running back Dameon Pierce didn't have many big holes to run through in Atlanta.
Florida running back Dameon Pierce didn't have many big holes to run through in Atlanta. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP (2020) ]

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.

Related: Why Dan Mullen says Emory Jones, not Anthony Richardson, is Florida’s starter

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.

Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) runs with the ball during the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against USF at Raymond James Stadium.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) runs with the ball during the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against USF at Raymond James Stadium. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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.

USF quarterback Cade Fortin (6) is sacked in the first quarter of Saturday's game against Florida in Tampa.
USF quarterback Cade Fortin (6) is sacked in the first quarter of Saturday's game against Florida in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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).

Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter has been one of the team's most improved players.
Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter has been one of the team's most improved players. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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?”

Related: One play shows why Anthony Richardson isn’t Florida’s starter yet

Injury updates

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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