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Sunday, March 07, 2021

A guide to beat the Tide: How UF can survive the SEC Championship game

In its past three games, Alabama has scored 35 points in the first quarter. Florida has scored 10.

Gators coach Dan Mullen in the visiting locker room after Florida's game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Gators coach Dan Mullen in the visiting locker room after Florida's game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The last time the Gators found themselves in this position, the year was 2016.

After a scheduling controversy caused by Hurricane Matthew, UF defeated rival LSU after then-Tigers running back Derrius Guice was stuffed at the goal line in the final seconds. Florida captured its second SEC East title in as many years and traveled to Atlanta to get absolutely annihilated 54-16.

On Saturday, the Gators clinched an SEC East title and punched their ticket to the dance for the first time in four years. But if they want to take the SEC title back to Gainesville, here’s what they have to change going forward.

The “middle eight” won’t do it anymore

As noted by my friend and colleague, Brendan Farrell, Florida tends to stick with a formula where it performs exceptionally well in the last four minutes of the second quarter and the first four minutes of the third: The “middle eight”, if you will. Sure enough, the Gators scored a touchdown with 33 seconds to go in the second quarter against the Volunteers on Saturday and another one less than three minutes into the third quarter.

In its past three games, Florida’s SEC Championship opponent, Alabama, has scored 35 points in the first quarter. UF has scored 10.

It doesn’t get better when looking at the second quarter, even with UF’s “middle eight” proficiency: The Tide have scored 59 points in the second quarter over its last three games to UF’s 34. If Florida is going to beat Alabama, it’s going to have to come out and immediately score points, something UF seems allergic to recently.

“There are times, like I said before, trying to do too much, moving the protection, times I could have let it play out and little things like that,” quarterback Kyle Trask said of the team’s performance against Tennessee. “Nothing too big or crazy. We will get it cleaned up and continue to get better.”

Quite frankly, however, Florida is running out of time. The Gators will play LSU next week — an opponent that Alabama hung 55 points on this past week — and if Florida doesn’t come out and score right away, the “middle eight” will become a miserable eight before the team can recover.

The defense can’t let teams hang around

In its last three games, all against unranked squads with losing records, UF has only led by an average of seven points at the half (Its largest lead of 10 was against Tennessee and its shortest lead of four was against Kentucky). And even though the defense has played decently well across all of those games — it’s given up under 20 points in each of those contests — the defense has a bit of a habit lately of letting these teams stay in the game when it heads to the locker room.

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A habit it needs to break.

Because Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, another potential Heisman candidate, won’t be inclined to hang around with UF’s defense. Alabama comes out fast and vicious, and Florida’s defense could find itself blindsided in the opening quarter, especially if its offense is as lackluster as it has been at the start of games.

Florida certainly has much more of a shot than it did in 2016, especially with the electric offense it will bring to Atlanta. But if that electric offense takes a while to get a spark and the defense lets the Tide roll over them, the Gators may take the best team they’ve had in years back to the exact same place it’s been going: A New Year’s Six Bowl.

Contact River Wells at rwells@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @riverhwells.

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