Beyond the Numbers: Using Kentucky to Measure Alabama and Florida
In the wake of Alabama's 38-20 victory over Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday, the national media has rushed to use the Wildcats as a benchmark to compare the Tide and the Gators.
The topic was a popular one, even before the game on Saturday. Members of the media were anxious to get Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks' thoughts on who might be the stronger of the first- and third-ranked teams. Brooks was somewhat noncommital in his answers prior to kickoff.
Brooks was quoted several times and gave answers that ranged from Alabama being "not quite as good" to "as good, just in different ways."
When the game was finished, Brooks was far more diplomatic, though his players seemed to favor the Gators, should the two match up in Atlanta in December.
Brooks stated that Alabama and Florida possessed the confrence's two best defenses, while his players felt that Florida's speed set them apart.
The national and local media will undoubtedly use the final scores of the teams' games against Kentucky as the first major telling point in what could end up as a season-long debate.
Florida's final tally against Kentucky was 41-7. Alabama's was 38-20. The games took place on the same field. The point spreads were similar: Alabama was favored by 16 while Florida was favored by 22.
Both teams covered the respective spreads, but even the most loyal of Alabama fans will tell you that Florida certainly looked more impressive.
Using an offensive onslaught to end the game before the gun sounded at the end of the first quarter, Florida pummeled Kentucky for a four-touchdown lead. Without question, Florida eased off of the gas pedal and cruised through the final three quarters.
Alabama scored early, but struggled for the next 27 minutes. Two late scores before halftime gave Alabama a 21-6 lead at the break. The Tide managed to maintain and extend the lead, but failed to deliver a knockout punch.
Alabama's starters were forced to play the entire game. The win was statistically unspectacular, but winning ugly in '09 certainly has a different feel than winning ugly in '08.
The media has been quick to point out the fact that Alabama, while winning comfortably, did not measure up to Florida.
The numbers, both the score and the statistics back up that idea. Alabama managed a respectable 352 yards of total offense, while the Gators gashed the Kentucky defense for nearly 500 yards.
On the surface, one could certainly agree that Alabama may still have some ground to cover to catch Florida. I can understand that, but I see it with a slight twist.
To me, the most significant fact to come out of Lexington on Saturday was that Alabama upstart quarterback Greg McElroy boarded the team's plane and flew comfortably back to Tuscaloosa.
Florida's all-world quarterback Tim Tebow spent the night after the game in a Lexington hospital, going through a battery of tests to make sure that there was no permanent damage after a vicious blow left him unconscious on the field.
As late as five days after the game, Tebow was still suffering from headaches that led doctors to order him not to read or watch television.
The spin out of Gainesville is that Tebow has made a full recovery and will play Saturday night, when they travel to Baton Rouge for a top-5 matchup with LSU.
However, for the first time in a career that has him mentioned with the best quarterbacks ever to play college football, Tebow will have to deal with something that, up to this point, he has not: doubt.
There is every chance that Tebow will suffer no lingering effects from the concussion. It would surprise no one if Florida changed nothing in their game plan, and continued to use Tebow as a battering ram on LSU's defense.
But, again, there is doubt. Can Urban Meyer afford to risk using Tebow in the same way that Florida fans have become accustomed? And, if Meyer is forced to alter Tebow's style of play, will he be as effective?
The fact of the matter is that no one, not Meyer, not the medical staff in Gainesville, and not Gator nation, knows for sure. For the first time in three years, uncertainty surrounds the Heisman Trophy winner.
Meanwhile, back in Tuscaloosa, Greg McElroy begins a game week as he normally would. Alabama travels to Oxford to face an Ole Miss team that is hungry to show that they were not overrated and overhyped.
A win against Alabama would vault them back into the national picture and ease some of the pain from the egg they laid in Columbia a few weeks ago.
Both Alabama and Florida are preparing for their toughest tests of the young season. With a common opponent under their belts, the numbers say that Florida is still superior.
Digging below the surface, however, shows that while Florida dominated Kentucky and Alabama did not, Alabama may be in better shape.
As most football fans would, I hope Tebow comes back at 100 percent. He plays the game in a way that commands respect, whether or not you wear orange and blue.
But, for me and for anyone that witnessed the hit and the after-effects, I wouldn't want to bet on Tebow returning to form, at least right away.
What does that mean for Florida? Probably not much, at least in the short run. I tend to think that they come out of Baton Rouge with the win, with or without Tebow.
As for what happens down the road, the picture is less clear. Anyone who watched the SEC Championship game last year would tell you that Tebow was without question Florida's most valuable player.
He made perfect throws time after time in the second half, squeezing the ball into the tightest of windows in the most key spots of the game.
I didn't buy into Tebow as a NFL-caliber quarterback before the game. After the game, I couldn't believe he wouldn't be the first one drafted.
Without him, Florida doesn't win that game in 2008.
Certainly, no one can assume at this point that the two are destined to meet in Atlanta again. There are miles to go for both teams before that becomes a realistic issue.
But, should '09 play out the way '08 did, and Florida can't depend on Tebow to make the same plays, the scale may shift toward the Tide in the rematch.
If you want to read the headlines and decide for yourself that 41-7 is far more impressive than 38-20, be my guest. For me, I'll take the 18-point victory and a healthy quarterback.
The score and the statistics may be more of a concrete judging point for the two teams, but what happened beyond the numbers may be far more important in the grand scheme.
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