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December 1, 2009Five reasons why Alabama is in the SEC Championship Game:
1. The defense
After playing Chattanooga on Nov. 21, when Alabama only yielded 84 yards, the Crimson Tide led the nation in total defense by giving up an average of 225.18 yards per game and heads into the Florida game ranked third. It's also second in scoring (10.83 points) and rushing defense (77.08), and fifth in pass defense (156.83).
Although most of the starters returned from last year, including junior linebacker Rolando McClain, the biggest difference from 2008 can be seen in the pass-rush. Alabama has already tallied 31 sacks, five more than last year, and leads the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin at plus-15 thanks in part to 19 interceptions.
2. The offensive line
The biggest question heading into the season was how Alabama would try to replace three starters on the offensive line including Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith and All-American center and co-captain Antoine Caldwell. Not only have James Carpenter, Barrett Jones and William Vlachos stepped up while established left guard Mike Johnson had some ankle trouble, most Alabama's offensive statistics have improved.
Not only has the Crimson Tide run more than last year's shove-it-down-your-throat team, but the passing game has been better except for sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones, who sustained a nasty knee bruise from a direct helmet hit early in the season. Whereas the 2008 team seldom had big plays this team thrives on them, while the line has given up just 1.17 sack per game which ranks 17th nationally.
3. Mark Ingram
His low, driving style makes him extremely difficult to tackle, and even when defenders do get a piece of him the sophomore usually still gets more yards. He has 1,429 rushing yards, 42 shy of breaking Bobby Humphrey's single-season school record of 1,471 set in 1986, and 225 receiving, and through the Chattanooga had 885 yards were after the initial contact (54.5 percent).
Ingram's also put up his best numbers in the biggest games, gaining 246 rushing yards against No. 22 South Carolina, 172 at No. 20 Ole Miss, 150 against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome, and 144 vs. No. 9 LSU. Meanwhile, before Auburn, which limited him to 30 rushing yards, Ingram's worst statistical performances were against teams Alabama crushed and he was used sparingly, including 56 yards against Florida International and 91 against North Texas. He's had 52 plays of 10-or-more yards this season and just one career lost fumble.
4. The Tide survived Tennessee
It was the fifth straight Saturday the Tide faced an SEC opponent and tired team was looking forward to its bye week. After essentially dominating the Volunteers through the first three quarters, but unable to reach the end zone, Alabama was up 12-3 in the final minutes when a lost turnover led to the only touchdown of the day and Tennessee subsequently recovered the onside kick for first-and-10 at the UT 41 with 1:19 remaining.
Yet the Volunteers didn't score. Once Tennessee got into field-goal range, Lane Kiffin decided not to risk getting closer and went for the win. With 4 seconds remaining senior nose tackle Terrence Cody burst through the line for his second field-goal block of the game to preserve the 12-10 victory.
5. Mark Barron
Although three of last year's starters in the secondary returned, no one knew how well sophomore Mark Barron would fit in as All-American safety Rashad Johnson's replacement. Despite Barron being more physically imposing at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, the co-captain Johnson was considered the Tide's defensive quarterback who understood Nick Saban's scheme as well as anyone and regularly made the pre-snap calls and adjustments.
He finished the regular season with seven interceptions, which led the SEC and was tied for fourth nationally, and his 17 passes defended topped the conference and tied for second nationally. He's a big reason why the Tide leads the country in pass-efficiency defense (85.88) and is fifth in pass defense (156.84).