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Tide exact revenge on Gators, send frightening warning to Texas

ATLANTA -- As Alabama's trophy ceremony broke up and its players began exiting the field with roses in hand, the familiar refrain of Sweet Home Alabama poured out of the Georgia Dome's PA speakers. At about that same moment, a line of dejected Florida band members streamed out a nearby stadium exit.

There would be no mistaking which state owned this stadium Saturday.

"From the day we walked off the field [a year ago]," said Alabama running back Mark Ingram, "everything we did was to come back and beat Florida."

There would be no fourth-quarter rally this time, either.

No muscle flexes, sideline dashes or screaming fits could save the Gators' 22-game winning streak. The second-ranked Crimson Tide turned their long-anticipated SEC Championship Game rematch with No. 1 Florida into a three-and-a-half hour bludgeoning, punching their ticket to the BCS title game with a stunning 32-13 rout.

With a remarkably dominant performance that included 490 total yards against the nation's top-ranked defense, an MVP performance from their previously discounted quarterback and a 189-yard, three-touchdown night from their potential Heisman Trophy running back, the Tide obliterated two years' worth of aura that reigned over the Tim Tebow/Brandon Spikes-era Gators. And in so doing, they sent a frightening warning sign to Texas, which squeaked by Nebraska 13-12.

"If we come out and play physical football like we're supposed to," said 'Bama defensive tackle Terrence Cody, "we're more physical than any other team."

The Tide imposed their will first and foremost with their offensive line, which held the Gators' normally disruptive defensive front almost completely at bay.

"Florida's a great team," said Alabama guard Barrett Jones, "but if you hit them in the mouth enough times, just like any other team, you're going to have success."

Faced with ample protection (think Florida could have used suspended defensive end Carlos Dunlap?), 'Bama quarterback Greg McElroy came out throwing in the first half, completing nine of his first 13 throws for 184 yards. The Tide opened up a 12-3 second-quarter lead on an 11-play field goal drive that included a nifty third-down conversion run by McElroy in which he tiptoed his way along the sideline.

Facing his biggest deficit of the season, Tebow, held to two three-and-outs on Florida's first three possessions, produced a more typical drive, marching his team 70 yards in four plays to cut the score to 12-10 with 4:31 left in the half.

But any notion that Alabama would cave like it did in the fourth quarter of this same game a year ago immediately went out the window when, on its first offensive play of the next possession, Ingram caught a screen pass, shook off a tackle and raced 69 yards down the right sideline to set up his own three-yard touchdown run a play later.

Florida cut it to 19-13 before halftime, but Ingram (who ran 28 times for 113 yards and three TDs) and the Alabama defense owned the second half. With 9:53 left in the third quarter, McElroy executed a brilliant play fake to motion receiver Julio Jones, then threw back across the field to tight end Colin Peek for a 17-yard touchdown. Later, Ingram bulldozed his way to consecutive 10-yard runs to get in the red zone, then McElroy pulled off a nifty, spinning eight-yard gain of his own to set up another Ingram score that made it 32-13 with 13:49 left.

Toward the end of that second scoring drive, during the break between the third and fourth quarters, Tebow delivered one of his signature "pep talks," gathering the Florida defense around him in a circle and screaming his head off. On Florida's next possession, however, any realistic shot of a comeback ended when Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas picked Tebow in the end zone.

"We knew when he's pressured, he doesn't make good decisions," said Cody. "We pushed the pocket all night, collapsed on him. That was big."

The beloved Gators star ran 10 times for 63 yards and completed 20-of-35 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, but with his defense deserting him, it wasn't enough. In the night's most unanticipated reversal, Alabama's McElroy hoisted the game MVP trophy while the sullen former Heisman winner and two-time national champion quarterback came to grips with a title-less senior season.

"It was frustrating. To say it wasn't would be a lie," said Tebow. "This is not how we wanted to finish our season in the SEC, and there were a lot of goals we won't be able to accomplish."

Though they tried to play it down in the days and weeks leading up to Saturday's showdown, the Tide's overriding goal for 52 weeks was to avenge last year's 31-20 loss to the Gators, in which Tebow rallied his team to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Last year, Alabama was one of the biggest surprise teams of the year, its 12-0 regular season a remarkable enough accomplishment. This year's edition set its sights much higher.

"We didn't come here looking for a moral victory," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "We had a team meeting right before we started the offseason program back in February that we showed a picture to the players of [last year's] SEC Championship. We said we would have some difficult times, but that we had to work to beat the best team in our league. And right now, the best team in our league is [Florida]."

Or at least, it was.

Now, that title belongs to the Tide, who will turn their attention to an even bigger prize, one the three previous SEC champions (Florida in 2006 and 2008, LSU in 2007) all achieved: the BCS championship. After Saturday's performance, they'll assuredly enter the game as prohibitive favorites.

Just eight days after Auburn shut down Ingram and McElroy led a last-minute touchdown drive to fend off the 7-5 Tigers, Saban's team produced its most complete performance of the season against its toughest opponent. Rarely had McElroy (12-of-18, 239 yards, one TD) looked so smooth against an elite SEC defense. Ingram (189 total yards) and freshman Trent Richardson (11 carries, 80 yards) had never produced that many yards in the same game. And the defense ... well, the defense did what it always does, holding the Gators to 335 total yards and just 88 rushing yards.

Clearly, the Alabama team that will take the Rose Bowl field Jan. 7 is a far different animal than the one that melted down in last year's Sugar Bowl.

"Last year's team wanted to prove they could be a good team," said Saban. "This year's team wanted to prove they could do something special."

Ending Florida's 22-game win streak certainly qualifies the Tide as such.

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