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October 2, 2011

HURT: Tide answers challenge

It couldn't have been much louder if the Florida Gator fans had been handed portable jet engines upon entering the stadium.

It couldn't have been more of a direct challenge if Charlie Weis had knocked Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to the turf, not after the Florida offense attacked Alabama's most vaunted defensive back on its first play from scrimmage and netted a 65-yard touchdown for the audacity.

It couldn't have been a better test for a University of Alabama team that failed such examinations a year earlier.

Last year, when stung at South Carolina or answered by Auburn, Alabama didn't respond in a championship manner. This year, when Florida applied an early dart and seemed intent on playing the speedy hare in the race, Alabama sent an answer. It was not going to be the tortoise. It was going to be the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The final score was 38-10, even though Alabama spent the final eight minutes contentedly running clock.

Even in the frenzied first quarter, as the two teams traded blows and came out with a 10-10 tie, there were ominous signs for Florida. From its own first drive, it was apparent that Alabama, especially Trent Richardson, could run the football at will. And while Florida managed a couple of additional drives -- one netted a made field goal, one a miss -- the heat was being turned up with each ensuing possession. The biggest reason was that the Gators were the converse of Alabama offensively. Florida could not run. Finally, that meant it could not hide.

In part, that was because the Gators lost quarterback John Brantley to a leg injury late in the first half. But the momentum had departed for Florida before that. Even with Brantley, there was little chance of a comeback, which was one-dimensional at best while he played. But without him, the Gators were zero-dimensional in a second half which saw them gain just 44 yards. With Courtney Upshaw leading the way, Alabama kept steady pressure on Brantley and his successor, Jeff Driskel. The rest of the defense eroded Florida's resistance, not just neutralizing the line of scrimmage but establishing a new one that at times seemed as far away as Ocala.

Offensively, Alabama played with all the grace and gentility of a backhoe, but style points weren't really the issue. AJ McCarron's statistics were downright mundane -- he threw for 140 yards, 41 less than Richardson gained on the ground -- but he has now started five games and won by a combined score of 192-42, the sole statistic in which Saban is interested.

What comes now -- with all due respect to Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Tennesee -- is the waiting.

There had already been some rumbling about Nov. 5, but then the Crimson Tide cleared the Florida hurdle far more easily than I thought it would. Honesty compels the admission that I thought Florida would defend better and get the special-team bump that actually went to UA on Marquis Maze's 70-yard kickoff return and make it close. The Gators did not do that. They only kept things interesting for a quarter. So the significance of November 5 now grows, and will grow for a whole month.Fans will see that date in the falling leaves and carve it on their Halloween pumpkin, waiting for October to end and the Alabama-LSU game to begin.

Nick Saban, of course, is not a fan. He will do everything in his power to force the focus on Vanderbilt next week, and Ole Miss after that. But knowing what we now know about this Alabama team and its response to at least a small dollop of adversity, can anyone else be blamed for wanting October to hurry up and end, and the 2011 version of the Game of the Year to arrive? Everyone wants that.

Everyone, that is, except this Alabama team, if it has indeed learned the lessons of 2010 as it seemed on Saturday night.


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