How Florida Lost
Alabama leaned, and Florida fell
After an Antonio Morrison interception early in the third quarter, Florida scored to tie the game at 21-21. The Gators, for all the awfulness of their first half, had a chance to win this game at that point.
Alabama countered with a 16-play, 66-yard, seven-minute touchdown drive that featured five conversions on third down, including an insane, unbelievable, back-breaking screen pass conversion on third and 23 after pushing the Crimson Tide out of the red zone.
Florida countered that with a three and out. Alabama scored on the subsequent drive.
And so all hope for a win was extinguished.
Kyle Christy is the best
Christy punted seven times for 369 yards, good for an insane average of 52.7 yards per punt. That's third in Florida history, behind the 54 yards per punt he notched against South Carolina two years ago and the 53 yards per punt Fred Montsedoca averaged against Alabama way back in 1947.
And with Christy very much on track to have a season like his brilliant 2012 and not his baffling 2013, I feel okay in saying this: He will be Florida's best punter ever before all is said and done.
Christy averaged 52.7 yards on those punts despite having to pooch a 27-yarder from the Alabama 39, flipped the field from Florida's end to Alabama's six times, nearly coffin-cornered a perfect punt at the 1 without any help from his coverage team, and gave the Tide no better field position than its own 24 — which came on a 17-yard return that wasn't really his fault.
The average might not be the best in school history, and the importance of the punts was diminished by Florida's defensive meltdown — Alabama scored twice on plays immediately after great Christy punts, and, just as a reminder, Alabama never started closer than 76 yards from paydirt after a Christy punt — but this was pretty definitely the best game by a punter in Florida history.
And Christy took that distinction from himself.
Also, Christy gave me a reason for this section to not be mostly about Lane Kiffin, and I will forever remember that mercy.
Lane Kiffin kicked Florida's ass
I looked this up Friday night, because I was curious and reminiscing: Friday was the five-year anniversary of Lane Kiffin's only other meeting with Florida, the exasperating 23-13 win by the Gators over his Tennessee in The Swamp that I remember as the single least satisfying win I've ever experienced. On that day, Kiffin's offense plodded around and did its damnedest not to embarrass itself, leaving the crowd in The Swamp, one that was thirsty for blood after an offseason of impudence from Kiffin, unslaked.
Five years later, the blood was everywhere. And it had everything to do with Kiffin.
Kiffin has a lot of talent to work with at Alabama. I think Amari Cooper's the best wide receiver I've ever seen in the SEC. Alabama's third-string running back — Kenyan Drake — would start at upwards of 100 FBS schools. Blake Sims looked like a Heisman candidate on Saturday, and it wasn't just a matter of Florida's defense being horrific.
But Kiffin called what was very nearly a perfect game.
Motioning Drake out on the first snap of the game to get him in space against Morrison? Brilliant. Empowering Sims to take deep shots that left Florida helpless to stack the box with safety help? Great. The calls on third downs, 12 of which resulted in first downs? Excellent. Running the ball down Florida's throat, despite Cooper's seeming unguardability, to kill the Gators in the third quarter? Impressively cruel.
This was the worst game, based on total offense conceded, in Florida history, and, believe me, I'll fault Florida's defense for that when we get to that point in this post. But it was also one of the best offensive games in Alabama history from a play-calling standpoint, and only a slew of turnovers that I really can't make Kiffin's fault except in the abstract prevented it from being a 60-point shellacking.
I liked it better, Lane, when I hated you for your perceived incompetence.
Florida is forcing turnovers
Despite that nightmare on Saturday, Florida leads the nation in four statistical categories as of this Sunday. One is punting, and that's all on Christy. Another is opponent fourth down conversions; Florida's denied the only one it's faced, so, well, whatever.
But the Gators also lead the nation in takeaways, and still lead it in turnover margin, despite handing three turnovers to the Tide on Saturday.
And while some turnovers are fluky, because of fumble luck and other things, Florida is forcing these. The Gators forced three fumbles with hands and hats right on the ball against Alabama, and got their fourth turnover, Morrison's pick, on a fine play from Neiron Ball, who forced a pass and deflected it skyward. There was luck involved, sure: On that play and on the fumbles that were poked out near the sideline, Florida defenders got lucky that the ball was where they could make a play on it, and on Dante Fowler's hilarious fumble recovery, he got lucky that a brainless attempt to chest pass a lateral while falling only resulted in him being able to race after the ball again.
Luck was only a factor on those plays, though, because Florida got the ball out. To benefit from good turnover luck, a team has to put itself in position to make luck a factor, and the Gators, in an otherwise depressing defensive showing, managed to do that against one of the most notoriously turnover-averse programs in America.
If Florida can clean up some of the many, many issues with its defense while not losing all of the aggressiveness that has led to its turnover proficiency so far, this defense can still wreak havoc.
Both Good and Bad
No one quit
Florida got worn down and worn out on Saturday. Alabama ran 87 plays, most against Florida under Muschamp and sixth all-time against the Gators. Alabama had the ball for nearly 40 minutes, and for 22:24 (!!!) in the second half.
There was every reason for Florida to stop trying, especially on defense. Never happened. And I take a little pride in the fact that Florida's defense was "just" aerated, never cowed into submission.
But Florida's defense was still aerated. All that effort wasn't worth a lot. And that's really, really worrisome going forward: "What if this was Florida's best effort?" is a question that will linger for me.
Everything but Kyle Christy
Because, really, there's no other answer here.
Florida got worked
I think the fact that this was a 21-point loss has a chance to go down as the weirdest one of the college football season. A team shouldn't give up the most yardage in school history, make a quarterback in his third start look like some unholy hybrid of Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning, completely bust multiple coverages in hideous ways, fail wholly on third down, fail time and again to wrap up tackles, complete nine of 28 passes for 93 yards, record just one run of more than 11 yards, register its best pass play on a 28-yarder to a converted safety, commit three turnovers, and lose by 21.
That's the profile of a historic blowout. And while it's to the opportunistic defense's credit that it wasn't worse in the box score, most of us are blessed with eyes that work.
And they saw Florida get worked.
This secondary was, and maybe is, vaporous
The only arguably great coverage I saw in this game was from Vernon Hargreaves III, and Amari Cooper still scored on that play. And the good coverage, mostly from VH3, was also rare. And the average coverage was plentiful. And so was the bad coverage.
And so were the indefensible busts.
Look, Florida's young in its secondary. There are a lot of players who have very little collegiate experience playing their positions. Hargreaves entered this season as Florida's most experienced defender, at least in terms of meaningful playing time.
But Jabari Gorman catastrophically misread Alabama's first play. Keanu Neal catastrophically misread the later touchdown bomb. Brian Poole seemed to be flailing, and his bad coverage on the final Alabama touchdown of the game was really laughable: After getting shook at the line, he jumped at Cooper, but was too late to anticipate the play to break it up, and didn't even seem to have an idea of where the ball was. No one appeared to have a clue about how to play short zones. The only Florida pick of the game came from a linebacker catching a pass tipped by a linebacker.
And those players are principally coached by Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson, the two most simpatico — and, by acclamation from pretty much every observer of Florida football over the last four years, best — position coaches Florida has. Muschamp and Robinson can't make plays, of course — but neither, right now, can their charges.
And that's a shame.
So many missed tackles
Florida's aggression with players in the grasp helped get one of the four turnovers on the day — Marcus Maye just ripped one of those fumbles out. But its inability to get player in the grasp was stunning and devastating: Conservatively, I'd bet that the Gators missed upwards of 25 tackles, often missing two or three on the same play. (Update: 30!)
Alabama's got some slippery skill position players, to be sure, but missing tackles like Florida did turned generally sound positioning and some really good defensive line play (yeah, I know) into good gains, and crippled its defensive effort.
Jeff Driskel might be doing the best he can
I'll say this as a positive for Jeff Driskel: In the midst of what will almost certainly be his worst game as a passer, he still ran for 59 yards, despite two runs for a total loss of eight yards, and the fumble that happened on an exchange between him and Matt Jones appeared to me to be more on Jones than Driskel.
Annnnnnnd that's the last positive thing I have to say.
Driskel was awful throwing the ball in this game. He missed long. He missed short. He threw passes to no one in particular. He let the pocket collapse on him and rush throws. At one point, he completely failed to read a corner blitz, forcing Tevin Westbrook to shade over and save his life. His two picks, neither anywhere near as execrable as the one he threw against Kentucky last week, but were bad throws on bad decisions.
He completed nine of 28 passes for 93 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. That stat line is damning. It is far, far beneath even the kindest expectations for a starting quarterback at Florida, much less a third-year starter with as many talents as Driskel possesses. It is why one of the most compelling topics for the next two weeks will be whether and how Florida can get Treon Harris involved in its offense.
And, to make matters worse, it's not as if there's a clear path for Driskel to get better. The logical move would be to run him as often as possible, but Florida can't scrap its passing game entirely, because the favorable run boxes that Driskel can take advantage of won't be there if there's no reason at all to respect his arm, rather than the current no good reason. And the best scenario for using Driskel as a runner requires heavy use of the read option that Driskel ran effectively — and sometimes beautifully — in his first 15 starts ... but that has bedeviled him this year, with nearly every true read play seemingly failing.
I like Driskel. I think he's handled adversity — of his own creation, as well as others' — pretty admirably as a human being. He said "we" a lot in his postgame comments, but watching them, rather than seeing what was read on Twitter, reveals Driskel copping to individual failures, too — and, pressed for a little pop psychology, I think the "we" torrent is more about Driskel trying to speak as a leader and for others than it is about him passing the buck; he'd say "we" a lot after a win, too, I think. But that's gonna get read as "sharing the blame" by some, just like every little thing Driskel does wrong is going to get added to the ledger some Florida fans seem to have, where every quarterback is graded on the highest standards.
I think those high standards both can be and often are ridiculous, and I think that Florida fans have as high a standard for quarterback play as any fan base in college football has for the play of any specific position. When Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman, Chris Leak, and Tim Tebow made your formative memories, that makes sense.
But Driskel's problem right now isn't that he's not up to those standards — it's that he's consistently not up to even a reasonable baseline, and Florida needs him to be.
Muschamp has said more than once, even of late, that Driskel gives Florida the best chance to win, and I believe that — or, rather, that Muschamp believes that. But that statement appears delusional to most fans, and those fans want Driskel to prove that faith well-placed on a consistent basis; if he can't, as seems likely, they will want Harris (or Will Grier, who didn't even travel to Saturday's game thanks to back spasms) to come in for him.
Down to his last chance, Driskel needs to play better, and quickly.
And even I'm not sure he can.