This is it. This is the week we find out if Florida is for real.
Entering Saturday's game, No. 3 Alabama is the favorite after embarrassing No. 12 Florida last year in Tuscaloosa. But things have changed in Gainesville. Will Muschamp is in his first year at the helm, and the Gators' defense is ranked in the top 10 in the country. It's a nationally televised game in primetime between two coaches who know each other like the back of their hands.
This is why they play the game, for weekends and games like this. While the line has shifted toward Florida from Alabama (-6) down to (-3.5) in some places, not many people expect the Gators to have a chance.
Stewart Mandel of SI.com — "Theoretically, the Tide face a significant road test this week at Florida. In reality, those teams are as evenly matched as LSU and West Virginia were. — has already declared Alabama the victor.
All the talking heads on College GameDay this morning picked Alabama.
But there's the feeling of upset in the air down here in central Florida. (Or, maybe it's just that cold front that sneaked into town overnight.)
Here's 10 things Florida must do tonight to beat Alabama and give Will Muschamp a statement win:
Run the ball: It all starts here. Florida is first in the SEC in rushing offense (259 yards per game), while Alabama's defense is first against the run. Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps have been tearing opposing defenses apart through four weeks. But they haven't played a defense like they will face tonight. In its only four SEC losses over the past four years, Alabama has faced a more than 2-to-1 run-pass ration in those games. The Tide have given up just one 100-yard rusher in their last 50 games; the key to beating them is pounding the rock.
Stop the run: Every game comes down to these first two. They're fundamentals. But they also have greater importance in this matchup. Alabama backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy are better than anything Florida has seen thus far, and together they average more than 200 yards a game on the ground. Both are big, bruising backs that the Gators will struggle to bring down one-on-one. But to win, Florida must stop, or at least slow, Richardson and Lacy and force A.J. McCarron to beat them in the air.
Get others involved: Florida has had success leaning heavily on Rainey and Demps, but more production will be needed from other positions against Alabama's defense. Tight end Jordan Reed and receiver Andre Debose, sat out last week's win at Kentucky with minor injuries and should be ready. Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said he will empty the kitchen sink tonight, meaning players like Reed and Debose should finally see an increased role in the offense apart from blocking for UF's speedy backs.
Force a turnover or two: Historically, turnovers have been the ultimate deciding factor in this rivalry. Florida couldn't recover from two giveaways in its first three drives last season, losing a laugher in Tuscaloosa 31-6. The Gators want to force three per game. But if they can keep the score close, and as long as they don't give it away on offense, just one or two should do the trick tonight.
Avoid the big play: Apart from turnover margin, the only stat Muschamp routinely emphasizes is big-play ratio. The Gators have done a nice job this season of limiting the game-changing big play. But Nick Saban and Alabama are known for it, especially against Florida. The Crimson Tide pulled away from Arkansas last week after McCarron threw a touchdown on a fake field goal, and receiver Marquis Maze has made a living throwing touchdown passes against the Gators.
Start fast: The Gators haven't played from behind once this season, scoring on their first possession three out of four games. A young, inexperienced team led by an emotional coach needs to play with a lead and avoid getting behind early. Florida couldn't recover from a first-quarter 14-0 hole last season. Forcing John Brantley to win a game through the air is a recipe for disaster.
Tackle: Another fundamental, another important one. When Richardson and Lacy get to the second level, the Gators defense needs to swarm to the ball and wrap up. If allowed to the third level, both running backs will run straight through Florida's diminutive secondary, breaking the type of long run the Gators 'D' must avoid. Florida will likely bring an eighth defender into the box on obvious running downs to try and slow the Alabama run game.
Take advantage: Alabama's linebacker, C.J. Mosley, is out for tonight's game. Arguably the team's fastest linebacker, Mosley's absence should help Demps and Rainey find some space. While everyone is enamored with their ability to get to the edge, Demps and Rainey truly beat you when they get north and south. Expect Alabama to try to keep them running laterally, which will be increasingly tougher without Mosley. Florida must take advantage.
Watch the screens: The Tide make a living in the screen game. Florida's defensive line has shown a knack for exploding off the ball and penetrating into the backfield, usually a dominant trait. Expect Alabama to try and exploit their aggressiveness.
Win the battle of field position: Weis said this week that punting isn't necessarily always a bad thing. He's absolutely right. In this game, which could very well be a slugfest decided late in the fourth quarter, winning the battle of field position will be imperative. The play of both team's special teams units should play a large role in this one.
If Florida can do all these things, then its chance of pulling off the upset increase significantly. I just don't think they're ready to do it yet. The Gators are young, and while sometimes that can be an advantage, it won't be against the experienced Crimson Tide. Muschamp will make sure they don't get blown out of The Swamp, however.
Prediction: Alabama 24, Florida 20.