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Tuesday, August 09, 2022
<p>Despite facing a vaunted, third-ranked rush defense, Florida must be able to move the ball on the ground with Chris Rainey (1) and Jeff Demps against Alabama on Saturday.</p>

Despite facing a vaunted, third-ranked rush defense, Florida must be able to move the ball on the ground with Chris Rainey (1) and Jeff Demps against Alabama on Saturday.

Charlie Weis and Florida’s offense will face a unique challenge when Alabama enters The Swamp on Saturday.

The Crimson Tide defense is without significant flaws, ranking No. 3 nationally against both the run and the pass. 

“I always look for weak links in personnel, people that you can attack,” Weis said.

“This is an unusual group because they really don’t have one. … It’s unique when you come against a defense that is solid at every position. That doesn’t happen that often.”

But it will this weekend, and Weis is expected to have a plan.

So what should the Gators do?

At first glance, running 5-foot-9, 174-pound Chris Rainey and 5-foot-7, 191-pound Jeff Demps into the teeth of a massive Alabama defense seems futile.

Many feel that the best counter is to spread the Crimson Tide out and ask John Brantley to establish a vertical passing game.

But history has shown that this strategy won’t get it done.

Over the past four years, Alabama has lost just four Southeastern Conference contests, and the opponent’s game plan in each was simple: establish the run.

Alabama’s defense faced 165 rush attempts and 82 pass attempts — a ratio better than 2-to-1 — in those four losses.

That formula won’t be easy to replicate. Regardless, UF has to make the effort.

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The reason Alabama wins so many games is because it stops the run so effectively. Those facts aren’t unrelated. To say, “The Gators can’t run it against Alabama, so they shouldn’t even try,” is to accept defeat.

The ground game doesn’t even need to rack up big yardage to be effective.

The Crimson Tide held opponents to 3.4 yards per carry or fewer in three of those losses, but teams were still able to convert first downs and control the game.

Weis and center Jonotthan Harrison each said UF has developed a smash-mouth identity.

While “the two rug rats” at running back, as Weis calls them, don’t scream smash mouth, UF’s play calling does. The Gators have a 1.8-to-1 run-to-pass ratio, and Demps and Rainey have sprinted UF to the No. 10 rush offense in the nation. Florida can’t abandon what it does best in the season’s biggest game.

Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody are long gone.

Josh Chapman is a solid nose tackle, but other than that, Alabama’s defensive line is without NFL talent.

Dont’a Hightower is a damn good linebacker, but if he has a weakness, it’s speed, and Demps and Rainey will constantly race him to the edge.

And what’s Florida’s alternative to running it 30 or 40 times?

Letting John Brantley air it out?

Even in a run-heavy attack, he’d be called upon to manage the offense, complete a high percentage and hit one or two deep balls.

That’s challenge enough for a passer who has averaged just 188 yards per game.

Especially against an Alabama defense that boasts perhaps the top cornerback in the nation in Dre Kirkpatrick and might have the NCAA’s two best safeties in Mark Barron and Robert Lester.

A better option is to ditch the hurry-up, pound the rock and keep ‘Bama backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy on the sidelines, where they can’t rack up yards and wear down UF’s defense.

Harrison predicts a physical, line-of-scrimmage game, and Weis knows what to expect.

“You have to go toe-to-toe,” Weis said. “You’ve got to be ready for a slugfest.”

The Gators wouldn’t be the favorite in a slugfest, but at least they’d have a puncher’s chance.

Contact Greg Luca at gluca@alligator.org.

Despite facing a vaunted, third-ranked rush defense, Florida must be able to move the ball on the ground with Chris Rainey (1) and Jeff Demps against Alabama on Saturday.

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