Call it game day atmosphere at The Swamp. That’s when Florida fans pack Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to the rafters and turn it into the most deafening place on the planet. Often louder than a 747 takeoff, the decibel meter nromally reads at a level reserved for your normal typical heavy metal concert. When Gator fans show up ready to turn the place into a zoo, Florida is very hard to beat.
That’s just what Urban Meyer hopes it will be Saturday afternoon when Alabama comes to town (3:30 p.m., CBS TV) for a Southeastern Conference showdown between the fifth-ranked Gators and a Crimson Tide team still stinging from a 24-23 upset loss at the hands of Arkansas in Fayetteville last week. Last year it was Alabama’s turn to raise the roof when the Gators ventured into Tuscaloosa. Playing in one of the most intimidating and loud atmospheres any Gator team has ever faced, the Crimson Tide walked away with a decisive, 31-3 win over Florida that day.
Now it’s payback time. This year the Gators are a better football team than the one that Alabama beat so handily last year not to mention a lot healthier and even though Alabama is unranked, Meyer knows this is a dangerous team that Florida will be facing Saturday. He know that the Gators have to be better prepared than they have been for any game this season and he expects the Florida crowd to do its part to make the stadium even more intimidating than the atmosphere Florida played in last year in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s a call to arms,” said Meyer after Thursday’s practice. “Let’s go break some windows in that building over there.”
The Gators are coming off what Meyer called a “very good week of practice” unlike last week’s preparations for Kentucky. The Gators missed a day of practice due to inclement weather and it showed Saturday night when the team seemed out of synch for much of the game.
“We always say work week done and last week we made a mistake and said work week done on Thursday and it really wasn’t done because we didn’t practice on Tuesday,” Meyer said.
Lack of practice and lack of focus won’t be an issue on Saturday. Florida enters the game reasonably healthy although it’s still unclear how much freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin is going to be able to contribute. Slowed by a high ankle sprain since the first half of the Tennessee game a couple of weeks ago, how much Harvin is able to play remains a mystery. He got in one play last week against Kentucky and he’s not had a single day of practice at full speed this week.
“He’s still not full speed but he’s got a chance,” said Meyer, adding that freshmen Jarred Fayson and Brandon James are likely to see some action at the slot position that Harvin normally occupies. James also could get some reps at tailback, too, where DeShawn Wynn is fighting through a number of nagging injuries.
The loss at Alabama last year was Florida’s first of the season and it set the stage for a midseason swoon. It wasn’t until the final home game of the year against FSU that the Gators righted a listing ship and the improvement of that game carried over into the Outback Bowl win over Iowa.
Going into the Alabama game last year, the Gators were unbeaten but they were battered and bruised at several key positions and offensively they still hadn’t grasped the complexities of the new system that Meyer had brought with him from Utah. The loss — and not just the loss but the way Florida lost it — brought Florida back down to earth in a crash.
“I think it was reality … it was a gut check and we were exposed,” said Meyer. “We had some areas on our team that were exposed that day. As a coaching staff we were exposed and as a group of players we were exposed and we weren’t a great team last year. We had some very good players and at the end of the year I think we were a pretty good team. At that point in time we weren’t.”
What happened that day was so bad that Meyer admits, “You watch that film even today and you get a real sour stomach right here because that team didn’t play very good. As a matter of fact that team played awful wearing orange pants so you might not see those orange pants around here for awhile.”
It’s a brand new year and Florida is once again off to a 4-0 start, just like last year. Alabama is missing several critical players from a defense that was as good as it got in college football last year and the Crimson Tide is playing with a young quarterback, plus it’s missing its most dynamic player of all, Tyrone Prothro, who broke an ankle in the fourth quarter of the Florida game.
The Gators are favored and should be, but Meyer knows that it will take a total team effort along with some assistance from a crowd that he hopes will be loud, rowdy and ready to sustain the decibels for three hours.
“We have to have that,” he said. “They got us last year and now certainly that’s not the reason we were unsuccessful there but it played a part.”
The best game day atmospheres that Meyer has seen in Gainesville were last year when Florida beat Tennessee, 16-7, and later in the season when the Gators hammered FSU, 34-7. Not only did the crowds at those games help sustain the level of electricity in the stadium, they also played a big part in convincing a number of high profile recruits that this was the place to play their college football.
Just like last year’s Tennessee and FSU games, there will be plenty of high profile recruits in the south end zone of The Swamp.
While acknowledging that the big time game atmosphere helps grease the wheels of the recruiting process, Meyer admitted, “UT was an unbelievable atmosphere and we won the game and that’s an intimidating place when it’s played like that.”
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Meyer knows he has to get a big game out of his corners, Reggie Lewis and Ryan Smith. This is the first year both are starting for the Gators and they’ve made good progress, but Saturday is another test. Alabama’s top two receivers, Keith Brown and D.J. Hall are big and fast, in the same mold as the Tennessee receivers the Gators faced a couple of weeks ago in Knoxville.
“They [Alabama] have two really good players,” said Meyer. “Number 22 (Hall) and number 81 (Brown), they’re both very good players. Those are NFL players. Those receivers will be playing for a long time.”
Brown leads the SEC with 26 catches and he’s second in receiving yards with 410. Hall leads the SEC with an average of 22.1 yards per catch with a long reception of 78 yards, good for a TD.
To stop the talented wideouts, Meyer says the Gators will have to show a variety of looks and coverages.
“I don’t think anybody can stay with them man-to-man all day so we’re going to do a good job of mixing it all up,” said Meyer. “They’re SEC caliber receivers. Can you sit out there all day and play man? Absolutely not. Can you mix it up? Yeah.”
Meyer feels good about the play of Lewis, a converted wide receiver, and Smith, who transferred in from Utah, where he was a freshman All-America on Meyer’s undeated 2004 team. For two guys that have never started at cornerback in the Southeastern Conference, they’ve handled things quite well. Meyer thinks they will need some help, though, on Saturday.
“We can do better but we have to help them out a little more,” he said. “If we have good pass rush, thoe corners usually play well.”