First, let me start on a positive note by saying how impressed I was with the fans at the University of Alabama. They tailgate well and without the pretense of silverware (yes, I'm looking at you Oxford, Mississippi) and were passionate about their team yet always polite. I had fans before the game wish us luck and for a good game, which does not happen in Gainesville or Knoxville in my experience. I had fans tell me they hoped to see us again in Atlanta (who can blame them, considering their dominance). I even had one guy tell me how much he missed Steve Spurrier as coach of the Gators and lamented the fact that Spurrier wasn't prowling the sideline of this game, even if it meant a Bama loss. I also got to meet the man, the myth, the legend, Warren St. John. So Tuscaloosa, I thank you.
Now for the painful part.
I've struggled since about mid way through the 1st quarter with what my thoughts were about this game, as it was obvious that the Gators were out scouted, out schemed, out coached and out manned from the get go. In fact, I dare say it was the worst beating I've watched as a Gator fan... and I went to Tempe in 1996 and was in the Swamp to watch LSU kill the Gators in 2002. Unlike those beating, the Gators were never in this game. The tough question now remains as to what comes next? Has Urban Meyer been exposed? Can Urban Meyer adapt? My answer is that I hope so, but I need convincing.
Urban Meyer points authoritatively at a second rate opponent in the Mountain West.
Coming out of the MAC and the MWC, Urban Meyer was flying high with the hot new system in college football. It is an offense that is meant to create mismatches, misdirection and options for the quarterback and at times it looked impressive... but it was unproven against the big boys of college football. Now, five games into his first season in the SEC, the offense is still unproven. We know it can roll when their is a talent disparity as displayed by our first teamers against Kentucky, but when things are even or you are outmanned, what does it have to offer? The observable sample of games to judge this on is still limited, but the early results are troubling. We can look at the Tennessee and Alabama games and disregard the others. In both cases, the defensive front sevens were fast and physical. For Tennessee, the secondary was competent, but unspectacular and for Alabama it was a notch above Tennessees. Against these units, the vaunted spread option was able to muster 2 touchdowns and looked impressive on only one drive(with the other drive amounting to a spectacular string of 3rd and long completions to keep the drive moving).
Tennessee established the blue print for attacking the Meyer system which can be summed up in three basic points. First, create pre-snap confusion. Tennessee did this by employing the "bucket of minnows" tactic of walking around before the snap to stop Leak from getting a read. For Alabama it was easier. Since they use a base 3-4 defensive alignment, they were able to disguise where the 4th rusher was coming from for base defensive plays. The second principle was to apply pressure. Both teams feature physical and talented front fours which, in the absence of tight ends and blocking backs, could routinely get in the backfield and disrupt the play early on, forcing Leak to make quick decisions and to throw on the run. On top of that, both teams brought linebackers up the gut repeatedly to stuff the up the middle run (which employs no full back) thereby forcing Leak to take the ball outside on the option, or to scramble to get off a pass. Third, play risk-free and conservative in the secondary, ensuring that short passes or option pitches don't become long runs for touchdowns.
Urban Meyer's system produced many long plays from scrimmage last year, but not typically with a vertical attack. The offense puts alot of horizontal pressure on a defense, making it imperative that the first man make the tackle because the defense is stretched thin. Thus, a short play often became a long play following a missed tackle. Tennessee and Alabama did not miss many tackles which turned an offense which is explosive in the stat book a year ago into one Woody Hayes would have been proud of... except Woody Hayes would find a way to protect his quarterback.
Woody Hayes celebrates a 2.5 yard run up the gut.
The Gators will get at least three more great tests of the system this season when they play hard-hitting, athletic defenses at LSU, against Georgia and against Florida State. By the end of that run, we can have a better verdict on the Meyer system's ability to play with the big boys of college football or Meyer's ability to adapt his system to the demands of the Gators' schedule. If they cannot protect the passer or convert short yardage goal line situations, the system will fail. Right now, Meyer is still an unproven coach. By the end of this season, we'll know if he can be great or just another one-trick-pony Hal Mumme clone. There is only one thing certain after Saturday, Brady Quinn is probably the happiest person around that Urban Meyer chose Florida over Notre Dame.
Brady Quinn, not being forced to run the option, happily drops back to pass.