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December 5, 2008Alabama has proved skeptics wrong all season. To reach the BCS Championship Game, the Crimson Tide will have to do it one more time.
Alabama (12-0) just completed a perfect regular season and is the No. 1 team in the BCS standings and every major national poll, but that hasn't stopped oddsmakers from making the Crimson Tide a 9.5-point underdog to Florida in Saturday's SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
It seems the only people who aren't overlooking the Tide are the guys who have to face them.
"They're still the undefeated team," Florida cornerback Joe Haden said. "They still have not lost a game yet. If I was them, I would definitely use that as fuel."
The SEC title game pits the lone remaining undefeated team from a "Big Six" conference against arguably the nation's hottest team. Since losing 31-30 to Ole Miss on Sept. 27, Florida (11-1) has won eight consecutive games by at least 28 points. The Gators have scored at least 42 points in an SEC-record seven games in a row.
Alabama was picked to finish third in the SEC West, behind Auburn and LSU, which went on to post a combined record of 12-12. The last time the Tide played in the Georgia Dome, they were opening the season as heavy underdogs against Clemson. Alabama won 34-10. Four weeks later, Alabama was supposed to lose at Georgia, the preseason No. 1 team. The Tide instead grabbed a 31-0 halftime lead before coasting to a 41-30 victory.
"It's been like that kind of the entire season," Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson said. "It's always been that we haven't done enough. We're never pleased."
SEC officials frankly couldn't have dreamed up a more perfect scenario for their championship game. Saturday's showdown pits the top two teams in The Associated Press poll and arguably the conference's two most successful programs since the SEC split into two divisions. This marks the SEC Championship Game's first No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting and its sixth Florida-Alabama matchup.
This game also features a major contrast in styles.
Florida's offense centers on Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow, who has accounted for 37 touchdowns this season while throwing only two interceptions. Percy Harvin, Jeffrey Demps, Chris Rainey and Louis Murphy give Tebow a dizzying array of speedy skill-position players, though Harvin is questionable after spraining an ankle last week in a 45-15 victory over Florida State.
Alabama has such a blue-collar style that its best-known players are linemen: offensive tackle Andre Smith and nose guard Terrence Cody. The Tide have thrown just 10 touchdown passes all season, but they have won each week because of their running game and run defense.
"They're not really secretive about what they're trying to do," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "They're going to try to pound you, and they have the personnel to do it. It's not so much the running game, it's the personnel behind that run game. We've not faced anything like that this year."
Then again, Alabama hasn't faced a quarterback of Tebow's caliber all season.
The star power of Tebow and Harvin make it easy to understand why Florida is favored. Florida also boasts a vastly improved defense that has helped the Gators lead the nation in turnover margin and rank second in interceptions.
A look at the numbers offers further evidence for the wide point spread. Florida has dominated teams throughout its eight-game winning streak, while Alabama went to overtime before beating LSU 27-21 and beat two other teams (Ole Miss and Kentucky) by a combined seven points. While Florida lost to Ole Miss, the Gators beat LSU by 30 and Kentucky by 58.
That may explain why Alabama appears to be taking its unusual role as an undefeated underdog in stride. With a spot in the BCS Championship Game likely at stake for the winner, the Tide don't need to use a perceived lack of respect as additional incentive.
"I think we have enough motivation in terms of the opportunity that we have, what's out there for our team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "That's kind of how we always look at it."
Who gets the edge?
Alabama run offense vs. Florida run defense
Alabama pass offense vs. Florida pass defense
Florida run offense vs. Alabama run defense
Florida pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense
Alabama special teams vs. Florida special teams
Alabama coaches vs. Florida coaches
X-factor: Wilson. Alabama hasn't required Wilson to make many plays this season. The Tide simply have needed him to avoid mistakes. That could change Saturday. As good as Alabama's defense has been, it probably won't stop Tebow and Co. from putting at least 24 points on the board. Alabama may need a more balanced attack to keep up with Florida's high-powered offense. Wilson has thrown only nine touchdown passes all season. He might need to throw a couple more Saturday for Alabama to remain undefeated.
Alabama will win if: Alabama's biggest advantage is the matchup between its offensive line and Florida's defensive line. The Crimson Tide must make the most of that situation by controlling the clock with their running attack and keeping Tebow on the sideline. And it certainly would help if Arenas sets up at least one score with a big punt return.
Florida will win if: The Gators need to continue their recent trend of jumping on teams early. Florida has led by at least 11 points at the end of the first quarter in each of its past four games. If the Gators grab an early lead and get Alabama away from its run-oriented game plan, Florida should have a big day.
Olin Buchanan: Florida 31, Alabama 24
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.