Unbeaten 'Bama looks to stay perfect in SEC title game

The Southeastern Conference is down to one playoff contender.

Defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama is a lock for its third straight berth if the Crimson Tide can beat No. 15 Florida in the SEC championship game Saturday in Atlanta, and may not even need to win.

`Bama much prefers the first scenario.

''Winning the SEC championship is something that's really important to us and we think a very, very significant accomplishment,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday. ''That's kind of one of the goals that we have. Whatever comes beyond that, comes beyond that but our focus needs to be on this game.''

The Gators (8-3) were playoff longshots even before Saturday night's 31-13 loss to rival Florida State but could have made a case with two huge closing wins. They emerged from a topsy-turvy SEC East to earn a title game rematch.

''I gave them until 3:45 in the morning, which is when we unloaded the bus, to think about it and then erase it and learn from it,'' said Florida's Jim McElwain, the first coach to lead a team to SEC championship games in each of his first two seasons.

He wanted them to start preparation ''realizing that there's a whole bunch of people that wish they were playing on this championship weekend.''

Nobody's surprised that the Tide (12-0), the last unbeaten team from a Power 5 conference, is back in the Georgia Dome. `Bama players weren't particularly interested in talking about their playoff prospects after Saturday's 30-12 win over rival Auburn.

''We just worry about the next game,'' linebacker Ryan Anderson said. ''Teams that start worrying about the Final Four and all that, they get beat.''

The SEC championship winner has played for a national title or made the playoffs in eight straight seasons.

Here are some story lines to watch in the SEC championship game:

FAMILIAR FOES: The winner will take the lead in this frequent SEC championship matchup. Florida and Alabama have split the previous eight meetings dating back to the game's debut in 1992. Five times the winner has gone on to win a national title, three for the Tide and two for the Gators.

Alabama won 29-15 last season en route to a national title.

''It's two storied programs and two programs that year in and year out expect to be in Atlanta,'' McElwain, a former Tide offensive coordinator, said.

TOUGH DEFENSES: The two best defenses in the league will take on offenses that have been less consistent. The Tide leads the nation in run defense, scoring defense and total defense The Gators rank third in pass efficiency defense and fifth in both points and yards allowed.

The Tide hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last 267 minutes, 54 seconds of game time, dating back to the third quarter of the Texas A&M game on Oct. 22.

OFFENSIVE ISSUES: Alabama's offense has been prone to stopping itself at times, including two Jalen Hurts interceptions in the first half against Auburn. The Tide also fumbled four times in the half but recovered all of them. Those kinds of things could come back to haunt them in their bid for titles. Florida has perhaps more serious offensive concerns after gaining just 207 yards against FSU, including 58 on the ground.

SHERIT OUT: McElwain said starting defensive end Jordan Sherit won't play in the game. He sustained an apparent right leg injury against FSU.

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