The SEC Championship Game Preview: Much at Stake for Florida, Alabama
The Southeastern Conference is heralded by many as the best conference in college football.
While the Big 12 certainly has an argument this season, there is no question that they make 'em bigger, faster, and stronger in SEC country.
Each football season, the SEC becomes a war of some of college football's finest teams, leaving many of the nation's best on the outside looking in, come season's end.
Once the regular season ends, the two schools that have survived the brutality of their respective conference slates travel to the Georgia Dome for a chance to win the coveted SEC Championship.
This season, the No.2 Florida Gators and the No.1 Alabama Crimson Tide will meet in Atlanta with a SEC title and a BCS Championship Game berth on the line.
Although the two schools have faced each other five times before on this stage, Saturday's game will have much more intrigue.
The match-up between Florida and Alabama will mark the first time since the creation of the SEC Championship Game that the two participants are the top two schools in the AP Poll.
However, the rankings are only the beginning.
This game will feature two very different teams with contrasting styles.
The Crimson Tide are led by the one of the game's best coaches in Nick Saban and are the only remaining undefeated team in a BCS conference.
Alabama is enjoying a resurgence under Saban, making their first appearance in the SEC title game this decade.
Who would have thought that Saban could turn 'Bama around this quickly?
Only a year ago, Alabama was reeling after four straight losses, including a setback against Louisiana—Monroe and their sixth straight defeat to Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
However, following their 30-24 victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl, something clicked for the Tide.
Saban has the Crimson Tide playing old-fashioned football, using a hard-nosed running game and a monstrous offensive line to jam the ball down their opponents' throats.
Led by running backs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram, the Crimson Tide ground game is very dangerous, able to play both ball control, averaging 32:33 time of possession per game, and break the long runs for touchdowns.
However, the running game depends mightily upon one of Alabama's greatest strengths—its offensive line.
Anchored by 2008 Playboy All-American Andre Smith, this unit has only surrendered 16 sacks all season and paves the way for the Crimson Tide running backs every Saturday.
However, while Alabama possesses great talent on the offensive side of the ball, they are not a one-sided football team by any means.
Accompanying their stout ground game is a powerful defense that ranks third nationally in total defense, yielding a microscopic 73.6 rushing yards per game.
The Alabama defense has been a nightmare for opposing offenses, holding their opponents to two touchdowns or fewer in nine games this season.
And they just got even scarier as the Crimson Tide welcomed back All-American Terrence "Mount" Cody against Auburn last week.
Despite missing two games, Cody has managed to record 20 tackles, force two fumbles, and recover another while causing chaos in the opposing backfield.
Although they have been an immovable object 2008, Alabama's defense will face their biggest test in defending the Florida Gators—the closest thing to an unstoppable force in college football.
After an upset loss to Ole Miss in Gainesville, 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow made a promise to the Gator Nation.
"You will never see another player in the entire country play as hard as I will play for the rest of this season," Tebow said. "You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody for the rest of this season."
Up to this point, Tebow has proved to be a prophet.
There is no denying how explosive the Florida offense has been since their defeat at the hands of the Rebels.
With Tebow and Percy Harvin leading the way, the Gators have torched defenses in a fashion similar to Gen. William Sherman's March on Georgia during the Civil War.
And they don't look to be slowing down any time soon, eclipsing the 40-point mark in their seventh straight game last Saturday with a 45-15 blowout of rival Florida State.
On top of that, Tebow is quietly having another Heisman-worthy season, throwing 25 touchdown passes, running for 12 more touchdowns, and amassing 2,806 yards of total offense.
Yet, despite how phenomenal the Gators' spread offense has been, the Florida defense has made the difference for Urban Meyer's football team.
The Gator defense has taken great strides this season, becoming much more aggressive in both the pass rush and in the secondary than last season.
Ranking third in the nation with 32 takeaways, Florida will be hungry to add to that number against Alabama, their toughest opponent of the season.
Much of Florida's success on defense has resulted from the motivation derived from their shortcomings and failures of the 2007 season.
Led by All-American linebacker Brandon Spikes, the Gators have taken pride in their defense and continuing to improve as the season progresses.
With a defensive unit that ranks seventh nationally in total defense, the Gators are one win away from their second SEC title in three seasons and a trip to Miami.
While 'Bama and Florida seem pretty evenly matched, there is one area of the game where Florida has the clear advantage.
Whenever the Crimson Tide line up for a kick or a punt Saturday, get ready for a big play that could possibly be the difference in the football game.
The Gators have blocked eight kicks this season and they have one of the best kick returners in college football in speedster Brandon James.
James has often come through in the clutch for Florida and he is overdue for a big, game-changing return.
The SEC Championship Game would be a prime time for James to work his magic, especially considering that 'Bama ranks 72nd and 73rd in kickoff and punt return coverage, respectively.
To bring the SEC crown back to Tuscaloosa, Alabama needs to win the time of possession battle and keep Tebow and the Florida offense off the field where they can't score any touchdowns
In addition, the Crimson Tide need to keep a quarterback spy on Tebow at all times, leaving him little opportunity to break a big run or roll out of the pocket effectively.
In order for Florida to win, the Gators need to exploit the 'Bama's disadvantage on special teams by bringing the heat early and often on punts and field goal attempts.
A big play on special teams could set the tone for an entire half—maybe even the whole game.
Also, it is important that Gators shut down the Alabama rushing attack.
Easier said than done.
If Florida can contain Coffee and Ingram by crowding the line of scrimmage, then John Parker Wilson will be forced to win the game for Tide.
Granted, Wilson is a very good quarterback, but there is little chance that he will be able to lead Alabama to a win without the help of the ground game.
However, no matter what happens Saturday, SEC football fans are in for a great football game between two very competitive and physical football teams.
The pride and the pageantry of the Southeastern Conference will be on full display when the Tide and Gators square off at the Georgia Dome with the SEC championship and a berth in the BCS Championship Game at stake.
It will be a duel between Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, two of the best coaching minds in the game today
So, sit back and fasten your seatbelts.
It's gonna be a helmet-buster in Atlanta!
Prediction: Florida 35, Alabama 24
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