The bad news for the Florida Gators is that they almost certainly won’t win the SEC Championship Game without help from Alabama. They’d probably be a multiple-touchdown underdog even if their starting lineup was fully healthy, and it’s nowhere close to full strength.
The good news for UF is that the Crimson Tide’s quarterback might give it some of the help required.
Jalen Hurts has performed well as a true freshman in a pressure cooker of a situation, but he’s still a true freshman. Part of still being a true freshman means he has turned the ball over in all but three games this season. Surviving the Western Kentucky, Kent State, and Chattanooga games without giving it away was good, but the next turnover-free game he has against a Power Five opponent will be his first.
Hurts has two tendencies Florida should be able to exploit during the game to get a takeaway or two. The first is that he can be sloppy with ball security.
We saw this on his first snap of the season:
Perhaps having ArDarius Stewart coming through on a fake jet sweep was one element too many for a true freshman’s first play, but either way, this was a sign of things to come.
Two weeks later against Ole Miss, Hurts inexplicably had the ball pop out of his hand while attempting to throw.
The upshot of Hurts’s occasionally lackadaisical approach to ball security is that defenses can force the issue. LSU was easily able to pop the ball out of his hand as he waved it around despite the pocket collapsing around him.
No defensive coordinator ever claims to having a passive defense, but Florida’s Geoff Collins is one of the more aggressive DCs out there. He is probably spending the week thinking up ways to pressure Hurts while also telling his guys to try to dislodge the ball as much as possible. LSU’s strip of Hurts was the third time he has fumbled while in the process of being sacked this year.
Of course, pressuring a freshman quarterback can pay turnover dividends in the form of interceptions, too. The Texas A&M game provided a clear instance of that.
Late in the second quarter, John Chavis used linebacker Claude George as a spy to keep Hurts from getting cheap yardage with his feet. Daeshon Hall managed to split a double-team and get a free path to the quarterback. With Hall bearing down on him, Hurts tried to hit Stewart on a shallow cross. Instead, he threw the ball right to George, who it appears Hurts never saw.
It’s banal, but it’s true: Harassing a young quarterback as much as possible will probably lead to turnovers.
The other tendency Hurts has is common for inexperienced quarterbacks. He and his targets are not always on the same page about which way the receiver is going to cut to avoid coverage.
An obvious example came in the second quarter against Mississippi State. Stewart got one-on-one coverage on a deep route and had his man beat. He kept going towards the post expecting a long throw. Hurts instead threw it to a spot that only made sense if Stewart cut across the field in front of the defender instead of continuing on behind the defender.
Hurts did a similar thing with Stewart last week in the Iron Bowl. Stewart motioned into the backfield to the right of Hurts and then went into the flat after the snap. His path initially looked like a standard wheel route, but he pulled up short after seeing two Auburn defenders coming his way. Hurts apparently saw neither Stewart going short nor the defenders because he threw it directly at the pair of Tigers.
The one place where the Florida defense does have its starters is cornerback. Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson could be first round draft picks next April, and they’re at full speed. The two of them should have opportunities to snag an errant pass or two from Hurts.
Florida’s pass defense is not something young quarterbacks want to face. Aside from the opener against UMass when the secondary had a couple of coverage busts for no good reason, only three signal callers have surpassed the meager levels of seven yards per attempt and a passing efficiency of 110 against the Gators: senior Joshua Dobbs, junior Austin Allen, and junior Danny Etling.
Florida has played six games against Power Five competition when an underclassman did all or most of the passing. The combined line: 70/160 (43.8%), 2 TD, 9 INT, 76.8 passing efficiency. Only Jacob Eason escaped without a pick; only Deondre Francois managed above six yards per attempt.
Alabama has more talent than any of those teams, so Hurts has a chance to perform better than those past six young quarterbacks. Even so, the talent around him can’t do much about his loose grip on the ball or his tendency to throw to a spot a receiver didn’t run to.
Florida has a chance to keep the game in Atlanta closer than expected, and a large part of that chance is generosity from the Crimson Tide’s young quarterback.