Commentary

Florida faces pivotal two-week stretch

Originally Published: September 26, 2011
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

No. 1 LSU doesn't play No. 3 Alabama for another 40 days.

Even though the game is still more than a month away, the buildup to the SEC West showdown has already started. Both teams have menacing defenses and rugged running games. Both coaches have won national championships, and there's always a little more intrigue anytime Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban faces LSU, his former school.

[+] EnlargeChris Rainey
AP Photo/James CrispFlorida running back Chris Rainey has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the Gators' last three games.

Fans of both teams are already calling the Nov. 5 game at Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium an unofficial SEC championship or even a pseudo-BCS National Championship Game.

But Florida might have as much say in whether the Crimson Tide or Tigers can win an SEC title this season. The No. 12 Gators host the Crimson Tide at the Swamp on Saturday, and then play LSU at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., on Oct. 8.

Florida fans can't be too surprised the Gators are 4-0 in Will Muschamp's first season as a head coach. Florida went through the first month of the season playing two nonconference cupcakes (Florida Atlantic and UAB) and two SEC opponents (Tennessee and Kentucky) it has recently dominated.

But few Florida fans could have expected the Gators to play so well this soon. Muschamp scrapped former Florida coach Urban Meyer's spread offense for a pro-style attack. Florida's defense was even surprisingly mediocre at times last season, allowing 30 points or more in five games during a disappointing 8-5 finish in Meyer's final season.

Through four games, Florida leads all SEC teams in rushing (259 yards per game), scoring (40.2 points) and total offense (461.8 yards). The Gators rank in the top five nationally in run defense (56.6 yards), total defense (231.8 yards) and scoring defense (9 points).

"We're 4-0. We're pleased with where we are," Muschamp said after Saturday night's 48-10 victory at Kentucky. "We've got a lot of things we still need to improve on. We cleaned up some things."

Obviously, the Gators haven't yet faced an opponent as formidable as Alabama, which routed then-No. 14 Arkansas 38-14 for a convincing home win on Saturday. But the Crimson Tide haven't faced an offense as potentially explosive as Florida's, either. With former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis directing the attack, the Gators have become a ground-oriented offense, predicated on getting speedy tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey into open space.

Rainey has run for 411 yards with two touchdowns, gaining 100 yards or more in each of the last three games. Demps, who spent the summer running sprints in Europe, has 34 carries for 320 yards with four touchdowns.

"The thing that obviously concerns you is Charlie does a great job creating space plays for them, which creates one-on-ones,'' Muschamp said. "When you are creating a lot of one-on-one situations, one missed tackle against those guys and they can take it the distance. They're outstanding players. They have great speed, they're great in the open field, they catch the ball extremely well, they run it hard, they're competitive and they're tough. They have all the intangibles that good football players have."

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis and John Brantley
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCharlie Weis has instilled some calm and confidence into QB John Brantley this season.

Weis also spent the first month of the season trying to restore quarterback John Brantley's confidence. Brantley seemed out of place in Meyer's spread attack, throwing nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions (with 22 sacks) last season. In Weis' pro-style offense, Brantley has completed 64 percent of his passes for 752 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Weis hasn't asked Brantley to make many difficult throws, relying instead on Florida's tailbacks to make explosive plays. The Crimson Tide, who rank No. 3 nationally in run defense (45.8 yards per game), will probably try to slow down Demps and Rainey to make Brantley and his receivers beat them.

"Obviously, there is going to come a point where somebody is going do some things that we've got to adjust to, and we've prepared for that,'' said Muschamp, who worked on Saban's LSU staff from 2001 to '04 and then on Saban's Miami Dolphins staff in 2005. "We haven't gotten to that point yet. Until we get to that point, we'll see how it goes. We feel comfortable about our other players in our offense."

Muschamp, who is affectionately known as "Coach Boom" for his fiery personality, knows the stakes are about to get much higher for the Gators. After Florida surrendered a field goal on the final play of the first quarter at Kentucky on Saturday night, Muschamp smashed a dry-erase board while shouting instructions to his team's defensive backs on the sideline.

Muschamp, the former defensive coordinator and heir apparent at Texas, didn't leave a chance to become the Longhorns' next coach to beat SEC also-rans. He went to Florida to compete against teams like Alabama and LSU.

"We just worry about Florida," Muschamp said. "Really, at the end of the day, we're going to take care of the University of Florida. We're going to be fine versus everybody we play, starting with Alabama.''

On The Mark

•  Former Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio received much of the blame for the Gators' woes last season, but his early work as Temple's coach might prove he wasn't the root of the problems. A week after taking Penn State to the wire in a 14-10 loss, the Owls blasted Maryland 38-7 on the road. It was Temple's first victory over an ACC team and its first road win over a team from a BCS conference since 2002. Tailback Bernard Pierce ran for 149 yards with a school-record five touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeWatkins
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireFreshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins has been a revelation for Clemson.

•  Clemson hasn't won an ACC title since 1991, and a big reason why is because it has never been able to handle success. But a week after beating defending BCS national champion Auburn 38-24, ending the Tigers' 17-game winning streak, Clemson beat preseason ACC favorite Florida State 35-30. Sophomore QB Tajh Boyd has already passed for 1,255 yards with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' high-paced attack. Muschamp and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher have to be asking themselves how Clemson freshman WR Sammy Watkins, a native of Fort Myers, Fla., got out of the state. Watkins already has 29 catches for 433 yards with six touchdowns.

•  Since upsetting then-No. 14 TCU 50-48 on Sept. 2, Baylor has hardly played high-level competition, blasting FCS foe Stephen F. Austin and Rice by lopsided scores. But Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III's stats through three games are still mind-boggling. He has thrown more touchdowns (13) than incompletions (12) through three games. Griffin has completed 70 of 82 passes for 962 yards for a quarterback rating of 236.2, which leads FBS quarterbacks.

•  A lot of Heisman Trophy voters might have written off Oregon tailback LaMichael James' chances after he was held to only 54 yards in the Ducks' 40-27 loss to LSU in the Sept. 3 opener. Since then, James has run for 559 yards, including back-to-back 200-yard games. James ran for a school-record 288 yards with two touchdowns in Oregon's 56-31 victory at Arizona on Saturday night. It should also be noted that James' rushing total is the highest against LSU's defense this season.

Off The Mark

•  Mike Locksley's tenure as New Mexico's coach mercifully came to an end on Sunday. It might go down as one of the worst hires in college football history. Locksley had a 2-26 record in two-plus seasons with the Lobos, and his team's last loss, 48-45 in overtime against FCS foe Sam Houston State on Saturday night, was one of the worst. Locksley was relieved of his duties after police arrested a 19-year-old man on DWI charges near University Stadium before Saturday's game. The car was registered to Locksley's wife and their son. School officials denied the man's claims to police that he was brought to New Mexico from Illinois by Locksley to play football for the Lobos.

•  A week after the ACC finally showed life, with Miami upsetting Ohio State 24-6 and Clemson knocking off Auburn, the league suffered another embarrassing Saturday. ACC teams lost to opponents from the Big East, Big 12, Conference USA and Mid-American Conference.

•  Talk about not handling success. A week after UNLV upset Hawaii 40-20 as 20.5-point underdogs, the Rebels were embarrassed by FCS foe Southern Utah in a stunning 41-16 defeat. The Rebels were undone by five turnovers and eight penalties and were outscored 31-6 in the second half.

•  Utah State probably didn't think it could get any worse after it allowed Auburn to score two touchdowns in the final 2:07 of a 42-38 loss to the Tigers on Sept. 3. But the Aggies found a worse way to lose against Colorado State on Saturday night. Holding a 21-13 lead in the final minutes, Utah State seemed to have the game in hand as the Rams lined up for a punt on fourth-and-30. But Utah State's Eric Moats muffed the return, and the Rams recovered his fumble at the Aggies' 15. Four plays later, Chris Nwoke scored on a 1-yard run, and then Pete Thomas threw a two-point conversion pass to Crockett Gillmore to tie the score at 21 with 42 seconds to play. Colorado State won the game 35-34 in two overtimes after the Aggies failed to convert a two-point conversion after their second touchdown.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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