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SEC Championship Game: Breaking down Florida’s impact players to face Alabama

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.–For the ninth time since 1992, a battle for supremacy in the Southeastern Conference comes down to Alabama and Florida. The 25th anniversary of the conference title game pins the 15th-ranked Gators against undefeated and top-ranked Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday.

Per the Las Vegas Insider, the Crimson Tide enters this week as a 24-point favorite.

Even with much of its team wrecked by injuries, there remains sense of optimism for Gators’ head coach Jim McElwain and his program. Florida hung tight with Alabama for much of last year’s contest, until running back Derrick Henry finally broke loose in the second half. While it lacks consistency on offense, big plays on defense and special teams will be aspects that Florida must rely on. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins mentors a group that ranks fourth in the nation in total defense (292 ypg) and second in pass defense (158 ypg).

Should the Gators remain close with Alabama in the second half, kicker Eddy Pineiro becomes a valuable weapon. Prior to signing in Florida’s 2016 recruiting class, he was a solid verbal commitment for the Tide.

Pineiro has made 18 of 22 field goals, including three in excess of 50 yards. He is the team’s leading scorer, topping out at 81 points. A win in Atlanta would position Florida for the Sugar Bowl, after multiple SEC teams failed to handle business last week. Listed below is a breakdown of the Gators’ impact players this week.

Florida Gators impact players for 2016 SEC Championship Game

5. Austin Appleby, Quarterback

He’s played in seven games this season, including scratching out five starts since transferring from Purdue in January. Appleby is 3-2 as a starter, with his best win coming on the road against Louisiana State University at Tiger Stadium. If one took numbers into consideration, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound signal caller has had a decent year. He’s completed 60 percent of his throws (87 of 145 passing), while tossing for 964 passing yards with six touchdowns to two interceptions.

The challenging task for Appleby is recognizing how to approach his sixth start against the best defensive front in college football, which belongs to the Crimson Tide. Anchored by Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson, Alabama is first nationally in run defense (68.7 ypg), total defense (247 ypg) and scoring defense (11.4 ppg), while it’s sixth in sacks with 41. Before joining McElwain at Florida, Doug Nussmeier succeeded him as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2012. Knowing the tendencies of a Nick Saban defense gives Nussmeier an edge, however, the Gators must challenge the Tide’s secondary with some deep shots downfield.

Despite having a top 20 pass defense (2,137 yards, 11th nationally) and surrounding a low completion percentage (51.2%, third nationally), Alabama is still susceptible at times on certain pass patterns.

Both Chad Kelly and Austin Allen accounted for 400 yards passing and though it seems highly unlikely for Appleby, he and Nussmeier can’t afford to be too conservative.

4. Alex Anazlone, Linebacker

The “next man up” mentality should become real for Anazlone on Saturday.

With Jarrad Davis out (2016 Butkus Award finalist), the junior will be in charge of directing traffic on defense. In his eight games, Anazlone is third on the team in total tackles with 53. He follows up that stat with four tackles for loss, three sacks, six quarterback hurries and two pass breakups.

All Florida focused on last year was stopping one running back that just so happened to capture the Heisman Trophy (Derrick Henry), but the Tide’s three-man rotation this week stands as a tall task for Anazlone and company. The Gators have the SEC’s third-best run defense (133.9 ypg) and with CeCe Jefferson and Caleb Brantley healthy, both guys look to dominate with Anazlone.

3. Antonio Callaway, Wide receiver/Return specialist

He is simply a big play waiting to happen.

Keep in mind, it was Callaway’s 81-yard punt return touchdown that gave Florida a 7-2 lead in the 2015 match-up. The sophomore excels in having both top-end and breakaway speed once the ball is in his hands.

He’s the team’s leading target, posting 603 yards and two touchdowns on 43 receptions. Callaway has one kickoff return for a touchdown this year, while averaging 17.7 yards on punt returns.

Look for McElwain and Nussmeier to find multiple ways for him to be involved.

2. Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Cornerback

LSU and Florida seem to always be in a debate over which team has the best defensive backs.

Aside from the Tigers and Southern California’s Adoree’ Jackson, the Gators’ secondary may be the most athletic, ball-hawking group that Tide’s quarterback Jalen Hurts will face all season.

Tabor, a junior, is the captain of Florida’s defensive backfield. As a projected first-round pick, Tabor has nine career interceptions. The 6-foot, 201-pounder accounts for four picks this year, including one for a touchdown.

His ability to man-to-man, press man, bump ‘n’ run and zone coverage allows defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to leave him on an island one-on-one. Regardless of Hurts’ record-setting season, the freshman has made some mistakes. He’s been intercepted nine times, including twice last week against the Auburn Tigers.

Aggressiveness on defense is something that could keep this contest close. Joining Tabor in his quest to victimize Hurts are: Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye and Marcell Harris.

1. T.J. McCoy, Center

Having McCoy line up against the best defensive front in college football is one of the more intriguing storylines for conference championship week. A redshirt freshman, McCoy will be making his third start at center for Cam Dillard. Blocking out crowd noise and getting Florida’s offense into the proper calls are two things he’s been working on in practice.

Setting up the run game and calling out protection schemes are important, but the most vital situation is a smooth center to quarterback exchange of the ball. Seeing bodies like Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Raekwon Davis all lined up over McCoy will pose an intimidating factor. If he can hold his own, McCoy should be able to keep the Gators positive situations.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

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