GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Just before Florida’s Southeastern Conference opener against Tennessee, defensive tackles Jaye Howard and Dominique Easley sprinted onto the field with giant chains draped around their necks.
"We were ready to get unleashed," Easley said.
With Howard and Easley unbound, the Gators held the Volunteers to minus-9 yards rushing. Given the magnitude of Saturday night’s game against No. 3 Alabama, there’s no telling what they will do for motivation. This much is certain: Howard, Easley and the rest of Florida’s defense will play a huge role in the outcome.
"It’s a line-of-scrimmage game," Easley said.
Without question, the Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 12 Florida (4-0, 2-0) want to run and stop the run. It’s fundamental football in the SEC, and essential for both teams this season.
Alabama ranks second in the conference in rushing (231 yards a game) and leads the league in rushing defense (46). The Gators lead the SEC in rushing (259) and rank third against the run (57). So it’s strength against strength in the Swamp, a game likely decided in the trenches, old-school football at its finest.
Alabama has relied on running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy to take pressure off inexperienced quarterback AJ McCarron in 2011.
Richardson, a 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior from Pensacola, has 441 yards rushing and eight touchdowns this season. He’s also the team’s second-leading receiver, with nine catches for 121 yards and a score.
"I know that sometimes when people have high expectations for someone, they question how well he is playing," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I never questioned how well he was playing. I just didn’t think that he was getting the opportunities. In the last couple of games, he has gotten some opportunities and really taken advantage of them and done a good job."
Lacy has been equally dynamic. The 6-foot, 220-pound sophomore from Louisiana has 365 yards rushing and four touchdowns. He also has five receptions for 86 yards, and a team-leading 17.2 yards a catch.
Together, Richardson and Lacy have given the Tide a 1-2 punch averaging close to 7.6 yards a carry.
The question is will they have similar success against Florida. The Gators manhandled all four of their opponents, stuffing runs and forcing quarterbacks to make quick throws.
"It’s going to come down to tackling," Gators coach Will Muschamp said. "They’ve got really good, hard-nosed guys that are tough players. It’s going to come down to some one-on-ones where you have to tackle well in the open field. It’s certainly the best running team we’ve faced, there’s no question."
The Crimson Tide, which won the last two meetings by a combined score of 63-19, had similar praise for Florida’s Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.
The 180-pound speedsters, both seniors, have been at their best in 2011. Rainey has 411 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Demps has 320 yards and four scores. They also are the team’s top two receivers, with Rainey catching 11 passes for 214 yards and Demps hauling in nine for 70.
"Those guys from Florida are arguably one of the fastest teams in the country," Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. "Hopefully we’ll be able to contain those guys and keep them running east to west rather than north and south."
The Gators haven’t had to be all that creative in their four wins. Demps and Rainey basically outran everyone in every direction, and the games were over by halftime. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said that will change — will have to change — against the Tide.
"They’re going to get the kitchen sink," Weis said. "You guys have been writing about holding things back. Well, you won’t have to worry about that this week. They’re going to get plenty."
Weis said Alabama’s defense has no weaknesses, one reason he expects the Tide will try to take away what Florida has done best through four games. And that’s getting Rainey and Demps in open field on the edges.
"You can’t just do the same thing each week," Weis said. "You have to have a plan where they stop this, you have to have another way of getting to another means to an end. You go into the game and you have a plan, then you have some tweaks in the plan ready to go depending on what they end up doing."
Whichever team does that better, whichever is able to rely on its strength, should have a better chance to win.
"I think we’ll show up Saturday," Weis said. "We have a lot of confidence in our own ability. We realize this will be quite the challenge and we have a lot of respect for both Alabama’s defense and their coaching staff. But we have a lot of confidence in ourselves, too."