September 29, 2011 2:19:00 PM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Dont'a Hightower isn't quite sure what to make of this new University of Florida offense, where the Gators are leading the league in rushing and have the tailbacks to thank for it.
"These last couple of years, you haven't seen too many guys come out and put up big numbers like that that's not Tim Tebow or Percy Harvin from Florida," said Hightower, a linebacker for the No. 3 University of Alabama.
As Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban says, that's the "old Florida." Now, the 12th-ranked Gators are running a pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis going into Saturday's meeting in Gainesville with the staple being handoffs to tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
Some things haven't changed. They still confound defenses with speed. Still dart through holes in a flash. And they're still racking up big chunks of yardage.
But now Florida's methods more closely resemble the offense Alabama defenders are used to seeing: Their own. Both have two running backs in the Top 10 in the Southeastern Conference, with quarterbacks ranked fifth (Alabama's AJ McCarron) and sixth (Florida's John Brantley) in passing.
Most of the big plays have come on the ground, too, for both teams.
Saban said the Gators are still dangerous in space and on perimeter runs and create difficult matchups.
"They're not the typical zone option, sort of spread, Mississippi State, old Florida," he said. "It's not that. But they do a great job of featuring the talent and the players that they have and what they do well, which I always thought Florida's old offense did that as well.
"Even though it's a little different style, they're still featuring the same players doing things that they're very, very good at."
Saban and Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart seemed to have gotten a pretty good handle on the old Urban Meyer spread in allowing 19 total points in the last two meetings. Last season, Alabama intercepted Brantley twice and Trey Burton once and held the Gators to 79 rushing yards. In the 2009 SEC championship game, quarterback Tebow had all but 25 of the team's 88 rushing yards.
Enter Weis and coach Will Muschamp. Weis is a former NFL offensive coordinator and Saban is an ex-NFL defensive assistant who spent two seasons as head coach with the Miami Dolphins, where Muschamp spent a year on his staff.
The offensive whiz Weis and defensive guru Saban didn't overlap during their stints in the NFL.
That will change Saturday.
"This is a little bit more of a pro-style offense," Saban said. "Their strength as a team has been their ability to run the ball and consistently make big plays running the ball. They're a great screen team. They've got a very good passing team. They haven't thrown the ball down the field a bunch, but when they have they've been pretty effective doing it."
Led by Rainey and Demps, Florida's running backs have already run for 1,057 yards and averaged 6.91 per carry. The Gators have 36 rushes of 10-plus yards.
For old times' sake, does Muschamp have any suggestions on how to stop Rainey and Demps?
"I don't think there's one answer for that. That can take a long time to really talk about," he said. "Obviously, you've got to gain the edges. We do run the inside zone and the power off tackle inside plays, so it's not like it's only perimeter run game. Obviously, you've got to get speed on the field. Do you match with nickel or do you match with big people?
"There's a little bit of a robbing Peter to pay Paul as far as what you want to do defensively, what you want to try to take away."
But, he added, "One missed tackle is pretty costly."
On the flip side, Alabama has allowed only one rushing touchdown and 183 yards on the ground -- 76 fewer than Florida is averaging -- in four games.
While Florida is averaging 40.2 points, Alabama has given up 32 so far.
Muschamp sees a defense that is familiar with the system and can adjust quickly to new offensive wrinkles.
"They've done a good job of recruiting the type of player they want," he said. "As you look at that, they're very talented and they're tied together from the back end to the front end and they've got experienced guys that have played in big games before. That's why I say they have a very good defensive football team."
Alabama noseguard Josh Chapman said Tide defenders aren't just physical. They can run too.
"We try to get guys running sideline to sideline," he said. "Our defense is known for running to the football, getting 11 hats on the ball. When you get guys running to the football, that's when you start getting on those small guys. They are fast guys, but big guys have to go get on little guys."