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Why Florida at Alabama Is a Dark Horse for 2014 SEC Game of the Year

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Why Florida at Alabama Is a Dark Horse for 2014 SEC Game of the Year
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The Iron Bowl? Must-see television. And if you're lucky enough to be able to afford a ticket to the game between Auburn and Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 29, buy one. Or two.

Georgia at South Carolina in Week 3? Sign me up. With the exception of 2012, when it was in the middle of the season, the game routinely establishes the landscape for the SEC East.

Texas A&M at South Carolina on the first Thursday of the season? Absolutely. Life without Johnny Manziel meets life without Jadeveon Clowney in a game that will tell us a lot about both programs.

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If you're looking beyond the headlines and want to find that one diamond in the rough that could serve as the dark-horse SEC game of the year, look no further than Florida at Alabama on Sept. 20 in Tuscaloosa.

Yes, Florida was mediocre at best and laughable at worst last year, sputtering to a 4-8 season. And yes, Alabama was a "kick six" away from either pushing the Iron Bowl to overtime or possibly winning it in regulation and taking home the SEC West crown. 

But this game between the Gators and Crimson Tide will serve as a tremendous gauge for both programs. Here's why:

 

What It Means For Florida

Florida's first three games are tune-ups for this big one. Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky—all in "The Swamp"—should allow new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to fine-tune his offense in game situations leading up to the trip to T-Town.

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Florida QB Jeff Driskel (left) and OC Kurt Roper

By the time the Gators face the Crimson Tide, they'll have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't within the new offense. If that means it has evolved into a wide-open attack in which quarterback Jeff Driskel slings it all over the field, then so be it. If the offense has been put on the shoulders of running back Kelvin Taylor and become more of a ground-and-pound no-huddle, fine.

Florida will have an identity at this point, and a win over Alabama would signal that the Gators are, indeed, "back."

But what if Florida loses?

That game kicks off a stretch of five games in which the Gators will travel to Tennessee after a week off, host LSU and Missouri, and then take a week off before traveling to Jacksonville to take on Georgia in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (yes, we still call it by its proper name).

If Florida falls to Alabama—and perhaps more importantly, if it's battered and bruised—the game with the Tide could serve as the beginning of the end for head coach Will Muschamp.

 

What It Means For Alabama

This game is huge for Alabama on both sides of the ball.

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Alabama QB Jacob Coker

Transfer quarterback Jacob Coker—the likely starter—is very much a mystery. After three games against lesser opponents West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss, he's still going to have a bit of mystery surrounding him, although we will know much more about him over the first three games than we do now.

Say what you will about the Gator offense, but Florida's defense is a different animal. The Gators boast one of the top secondaries in the country, a supremely talented linebacking corps and a front four that can get after the quarterback. 

Coker hasn't seen anything like what Florida is going to bring to the table, save for some "twos vs. ones" while he was serving as Jameis Winston's backup at Florida State. 

We'll know in this game if Coker is the real deal and can lead Alabama back to the division title and beyond.

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Alabama DE Jonathan Allen

Defensively, this will be a big test for head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

The Crimson Tide struggled with no-huddle teams with running quarterbacks during the final two games last season. If Driskel can get some help from his receivers, Florida could boast a multi-dimensional no-huddle attack that won't just give Alabama fits, but the rest of the SEC and country.

Fail either or both tests, and Alabama may not live up to expectations. Succeed in both areas, and the Crimson Tide will be nearly unbeatable in 2014.

 

What It Means Nationally

If Florida beats Alabama, it would eliminate any margin for error the Crimson Tide have in the SEC West, elevate Florida into the SEC East and national title discussion and give the the SEC one more true contender for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

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Florida head coach Will Muschamp

If Alabama beats Florida, it would remove any lingering doubts about new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and hurt Muschamp's case to keep his job—especially if Florida looks bad in the process.

If that job opens up, it could have a domino effect throughout all of college football.

Go ahead and get your popcorn ready for all the SEC headliners, but save a bag or two for Florida at Alabama on Sept. 20. It will have a big impact on the entire college football season, even if it isn't the first big-time matchup that comes to mind this year.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com and all schedule information is courtesy of FBSchedules.com.

 

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