TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Blake Sims recorded Alabama's second-best passing day with 445 yards and the third-ranked Crimson Tide overcame a sloppy performance to beat Florida 42-21 on Saturday.
The Tide (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) committed four turnovers that turned into 21 points for the Gators (2-1, 1-1), who still couldn't handle the Sims-to-Amari Cooper connection.
Sims threw touchdown passes of 87 yards to Kenyan Drake on the opening play and 79 to Cooper later in the first quarter. Cooper, who came in leading the nation in receptions, caught 10 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns.
The Tide's turnovers and other miscues kept the game close into the fourth quarter. Alabama's 645 total yards was the most the Gators have allowed.
Florida's Jeff Driskel was harassed and ineffective passing. He was 9-of-28 passing for 93 yards and was intercepted twice while the offense produced just 200 yards.
It was over when: The Gators had no answer for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense in the second half, and the clincher came early in the fourth quarter when Tide safety Landon Collins intercepted Jeff Driskel on third and long. It was Driskel’s second pick of the game, and Alabama turned it into seven points on a TD pass to Cooper, extending the lead to 21 points.
Game ball goes to: It’s not hard not to give it to Blake Sims, who answered the critics with Saturday’s performance, but Cooper was simply uncoverable. The junior finished with 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns. It didn’t matter which Alabama quarterback was throwing him the ball. If Cooper wasn’t at or near the top of the Heisman Trophy watch before this week, he will be now.
Stat of the game: Think Sims was good? How about this stat? No Alabama player in history has gained more yards in a game than Sims, who accounted for 457 total yards against Florida. The Tide quarterback finished 23-of-33 for 445 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and he added 12 yards on the ground. He wasn’t perfect, fumbling once and throwing an interception on a tipped pass, but he was darn near close.
What it means: After the first three games, nobody really knew how good Sims and this offense could be. How would they fare against a historically strong SEC defense? That question was answered and then some Saturday. The Tide finished with 648 yards of offense, and Sims put an end to any quarterback controversy in Tuscaloosa. For Florida, the defense just ran out of gas in the second half, but the bigger concern is with Driskel, who finished 7-of-25 for 80 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. If the Gators expect to compete in the SEC East, they must have better quarterback play.
Troy at No. 13 Georgia, SEC Network: Georgia is coming off a 38-35 loss at South Carolina and is looking for a resounding victory here. The last time these teams met (2007), Georgia won 44-34. This Troy team, however, is 0-3 and allowing 40 points per game while averaging only 20.7. Look for the Bulldogs to jump out early in this one.
3:30 p.m. ET
No. 6 Texas A&M at SMU, ABC/ESPN2: The Aggies come in at 3-0 and they’ve been rolling so far this season. SMU has been a mess, 0-2 and with a new coach: June Jones resigned last week; Tom Mason is serving as the interim head coach and is making his debut. Perhaps the Mustangs are fired up and have a renewed energy, but even if they do, the Aggies are in position for a convincing victory. These teams' past three meetings, dating to 2011, have resulted in a 35.3-point average margin of victory for A&M.
4 p.m. ET
Indiana at No. 18 Missouri, SEC Network: The Tigers are quietly getting it done and look to close out their nonconference schedule 4-0. If they do, it would be the eighth 4-0 start under Gary Pinkel and seventh in nine seasons. Maty Mauk is coming off a four-touchdown-pass performance and Shane Ray is coming off a two-sack, four-tackles-for-loss performance.
7 p.m. ET
Northern Illinois at Arkansas, ESPNU: A victory would give the Razorbacks as many wins this season (three) as they had in all of 2013. That would be a big step forward for Bret Bielema's crew. Northern Illinois is a quality road team, having won 17 in a row in opponents' home stadiums, including one at Northwestern on Sept. 6. Arkansas brings in a second-best-in-the-nation 362 rushing yards per game.
Mississippi State at No. 8 LSU, ESPN: Saturday nights in Death Valley are always fun -- typically for the Tigers. They're 43-2 under Les Miles in Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium. This is a big "prove-it" game for Mississippi State, a team that's 3-0 and trying to take a big step into SEC West contention. Last year's meeting between these two was competitive until a 28-point fourth quarter by LSU.
7:30 p.m. ET
No. 14 South Carolina at Vanderbilt, SEC Network: The Gamecocks got a huge win versus Georgia and are looking to go to 2-1 in league play with a victory here. South Carolina jumped out to a big lead over Vandy the last time these teams met and it's likely to happen again if the Commodores don't get on track quickly. They've struggled mightily out of the gate and had to rally to beat UMass last week. Patton Robinette will start at QB; will coach Derek Mason stick with him this time?
Finally, the game is almost here.
For both Alabama and Florida, it's been a long time coming. The Crimson Tide breezed through the nonconference portion of their schedule to get here. The Gators missed their season-opener, gassed Eastern Michigan and survived Kentucky to reach its trip to Tuscaloosa undefeated and eager to prove that last season was a fluke.
What do we know about both teams so far? Not a lot. But that's what Saturday is for.
To get you prepared, we had SEC writers Jeff Barlis and Alex Scarborough assess the matchup.
Scarborough: Let's start with the pretty boys.
I could tell you Blake Sims is a changed man. I could tell you he's transformed overnight into a quarterback capable of carrying an offense against a good defense like Florida's. But I might be stretching the truth.
So what happens when Vernon Hargreaves III takes away those quick passes that have been so effective? What happens when Dante Fowler rushes off the edge? What happens when Sims gets in the weeds?
Frankly, I don't know.
But I do know this: I trust him more than I do Jeff Driskel.
Barlis: There's no doubt Driskel's performance against Kentucky undermined some of the optimism that had grown for him and for the Gators. He failed to recognize obvious blitzers, didn't run the ball when he needed to, didn't give his receivers a chance at catching the deep ball, and hesitated to hit an open Demarcus Robinson for a touchdown on what could have been a crushing mistake in overtime.
Driskel's numbers -- 25-of-43 passing for 295 yards, three touchdowns and an interception -- weren't bad, though, and he deserves credit for some key plays that helped Florida stave off a colossal upset.
I don't think anyone is expecting Driskel to brilliantly engineer an upset of his own this Saturday, but he can't afford the kind of big mistakes that have plagued him in the past. He just needs to be efficient, manage the game and give his team a chance.
It's not all on Driskel's shoulders. I think one of the biggest matchups of this game will be in the trenches when Florida has the ball. The Gators' offensive line has been a sore spot, particularly in pass protection, for the last couple of years.
Starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (ankle) is out, and while senior right tackle Chaz Green is a capable fill-in, his understudy is Roderick Johnson, a redshirt freshman making his second start in the third game of his career. He's never seen anything like the No. 3 Tide and it's stable of defensive linemen.
Scarborough: That's an interesting point. Alabama's D-line has been solid so far, but hasn't lived up to the preseason hype yet. A'Shawn Robinson, the All-SEC tackle/end, has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss. He's got help rushing the passer with Ryan Anderson, Xavier Dickson and Jonathan Allen, but that group can't allow Driskel time in the pocket.
If that happens, watch out for Alabama's secondary. Nick Perry will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting, and Jarrick Williams isn't likely to play after fracturing his foot a few weeks ago. Those are two of the Tide's most veteran DBs.
Landon Collins is as solid as they come at safety, but he'll need help. Eddie Jackson's return has been a boon, but pay attention to rookie Tony Brown, whom Nick Saban said will play a lot on Saturday.
Still, my biggest question mark for Alabama isn't on defense. Setting aside Sims' play at quarterback, who is going to step up besides Cooper? O.J. Howard hasn't caught a pass all season and Christion Jones has dropped a few passes himself.
While there are a lot of talented tailbacks to turn to, I'll be interested to see how Alabama's receivers and Florida's defensive backs match up.
Barlis: I will, too. These are two of the best run defenses in the SEC if not the country. Although both teams are inexperienced in the defensive backfield, neither passing game has more than one scary playmaker -- Cooper for the Tide, and Robinson for the Gators.
It appears both defenses will be in a similar situation -- apply consistent pressure on the quarterback or else a vulnerable secondary could be exposed. Florida's D-line was strong in the first half against UK but fatigued in the second when Patrick Towles went off. That made the mistakes by young DBs even more glaring.
I say the matchup the matters most on Saturday is Florida's defensive line against Alabama's offensive line. The Gators desperately need someone other than Dante Fowler Jr. to emerge, but I'm not sure this is the game for that to happen. Bama has an outstanding line that has keyed a deadly efficient offense. The Tide have just two three-and-outs in 32 possessions this season.
The bottom line in what could very well be a defensive struggle is that both teams prefer to run the ball but probably won't be able to dominate the game that way. It'll be up to the passing attacks.
I'm not sure Florida is quite ready to play with enough tempo to affect Alabama's defense. So whichever line keeps its quarterback the cleanest will win this game, and it will be closer than many folks think.
There are once again some big games around the SEC this weekend. The Florida at Alabama game should draw many top recruits, as will the LSU-Mississippi State game. There will be many recruits taking unofficial visits and even a few taking official visits. Here is a closer look at some top expected visitors.
"It feels amazing to spend this moment with my friends, family and everybody here at this school because they’ve done so much for me,” Hentges, the nation’s second-ranked tight end and No. 2 player in Missouri, said. “It's great to give something back to them. It's a blessing.
“Helias is very different than other high schools. It is so much more tight-knit. It is really a community. Our teachers and coaches expect so much more from us, and they expect greatness from us every day. They've really challenged us, and I wouldn’t have gotten to this point without everybody at this school urging me on every day.”
Hentges is one of two Missouri players selected to play in the Under Armour Game, and while the Show Me State doesn’t have the same reputation for top-end talent like California, Florida or Texas, he and good friend Alex Ofodile of Columbia Rock Bridge plan on showing everybody there is top talent in the middle of the country.
“Missouri always gets overlooked, even with some of the great players in Kansas City and St. Louis, it's not known as a football state,” Hentges said. “For us to get down there to the Under Armour Game and showcase our talent and hopefully open some eyes would be great. Maybe something like this helps get some recruits some exposure and coaches will say 'Hey, there are good kids in Missouri, let's go look there.'”
Coaches from all over the country did discover Hengtes, though. He was one of the nation’s most heavily-courted prospects -- receiving more than 30 scholarships from schools coast-to-coast -- before he committed to Alabama in late May. While Hentges admitted there was a lot of pressure to stay close to home and play for Missouri, the school down the road, he knew when he got the offer from the Crimson Tide, it was going to be tough to turn down.
“I was talking to Coach [Nick] Saban on the phone, and I couldn't believe it,” Hentges said. “Here I was talking to Coach Saban. He's the closest thing to God and Alabama, and here he is talking to me on the phone. He offered me a scholarship. I was in shock the rest of the day."
Once he did visit Tuscaloosa, Hentges knew it was the right place for him, and he wanted to become a part of what is being called one of the best recruiting classes in the last decade.
“Coach Saban expects a lot out of you,” Hentges said. “He's very business-like. I think everybody can see that on the field, but the amount of love and care that he gives to his players, people do not see that. I see that. Off the field, he'll tell you 'Whatever is wrong, come and talk to me about it.' Things like that are not shown by the media. He really is a father to his players. He holds them accountable, which I think is the greatest love. It really clicks with what I'm used to here at Helias.”
When did you know you were going to be a good football player?
“I thought I always wanted to play basketball. When I got to high school, I opened up some eyes going into the summer before my freshman year. I was able to make it on summer. We had a defensive line coach, Lorenzo Williams, [who] played at Mizzou and Brandon Coleman, who was a backup quarterback at MU. They said 'Hey, this kid is really good.' They knew what it took because they played in college. They said 'We have to give this kid exposure.' We just started sending my tape out, and schools like it. That made me realize maybe this football thing is for me.”
What type of tight end are you?
“I can stretch the field really well, and with my basketball background, I feel like I can high point the ball really well. Rebdounds. Boxout. I still want to be as tenacious as possible in the run game. I want to be a threat in the passing game, but then again be a glorified tackle.
Is there a player you really pattern your game after?
“I really like Jason Witten. I feel like he just does everything right. He gets it done in the running game. He gets it done in the passing game. He doesn't have blazing speed, but he gets the job done. I feel like I'm really comparable to him.”
Was the recruiting process overwhelming?
“It did get a little overwhelming. The spring of my junior year before I made the decision, I was getting 10 or 12 calls every day. That was so daunting. It was like 'Oh, man, I'm finally home, but I have three hours of phone calls to do now.' That was extremely daunting. Fortunately, we were able to hit the road and finally figure out what I wanted to do. Once that part was over with, it calmed down a whole lot.”
2. Jalen Hurd got a nice pick-me-up after Tennessee lost on the road at Oklahoma. The former four-star recruit turned promising freshman tailback checked his phone after the 34-10 loss and saw a notification on Twitter. And look at who it was. No, Faux Pelini didn't strike again. Instead, it was former Ohio State and NFL star Eddie George showing Hurd some love on the twittersphere. George, like a lot of us, saw in Hurd a potential star. Time will tell how Hurd's career turns out, but for now he can revel in the praise of an idol. "That just makes me happy," Hurd said.
3. For the first time in a long time, South Carolina doesn't have a two-quarterback system to worry about. In fact, we might not even know who Dylan Thompson's backup is at this point. It might be Pharoh Cooper, if you look at the number snaps taken in games. On the depth chart, Connor Mitch and Perry Orth are both listed as No. 2. It's a matter of semantics, of course, but the larger point might be the fact that there isn't even a whiff of a QB controversy in Columbia. When's the last time we could say that? Spurrier hasn't been the least bit tempted to pull Thompson from the game, and it's a testament to how well the veteran quarterback has played. So far, Thompson has made his four-year wait worth it. The redshirt senior has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions, and is averaging just over 300 yards passing per game. If he keeps this up, he might soon be in the conversation of the SEC's best quarterbacks. His 82.1 QBR rating ranks fourth in the league.
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Cooper Shines In Bama Win
3:29 2nd Qtr Northern Illinois 7 Arkansas 21 4:31 2nd Qtr Mississippi State 17 8 LSU 0 14:49 2nd Qtr 14 South Carolina 0 Vanderbilt 14 Final Troy 0 13 Georgia 66 Final 6 Texas A&M 58 SMU 6 Final Florida 21 3 Alabama 42 Final Indiana 31 18 Missouri 27