The common perception is that the Big 12 has stolen the SEC's spotlight as the premier conference this season, what with its bevy of top-10 showdowns and collection of Heisman candidate quarterbacks. But it's the SEC that has the two top teams facing off in Atlanta for a spot in the national title game. This may be the Big 12's season, but all eyes will be on the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon, when new school and old school clash for the SEC title.
1. For all those clamoring for a playoff, this one's for you. The SEC title game will be as close as we can get at this point, with No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the AP poll (and No. 1 and No. 4 in the BCS standings) playing in what amounts to a national semifinal. The winner almost certainly goes to Miami to play for the national title on Jan. 8, while the loser is likely headed to the Sugar Bowl.
Since the matchup has been settled for weeks, there has been so much anticipation that this feels more like a national title game than a conference championship. Everyone clearly knows what's at stake.
"There's stuff going around that we can go to some big-time bowl I guess, a big-time game," Florida receiver David Nelson said jokingly, earlier this week. "But this is our goal. During the offseason, there's no talk of Miami, there's no talk of Louisiana, it's all talk of Atlanta. Everything we did was to get here. We're here now and we're not just satisfied being here."
The location adds another bit of flavor to the proceedings. Both teams have delivered wins in the Georgia Dome that, in retrospect, have signaled their resurgences. In 2006, Florida beat Arkansas for the SEC title en route to their first national championship in 10 years, while earlier this season, the Crimson Tide thrashed then-No. 9 Clemson in their opener. Of course, it's been a while since 'Bama has played on this stage having last made an appearance in the SEC title game in 1999.
2. Alabama surely feels disrespected. The Tide are 12-0 and are in their fifth week atop the AP poll, yet Florida is a 10-point favorite. The slight is par for the course when it comes to the Tide, whose rise from preseason No. 22 has stunningly been under the radar.
"It's been like that kind of the entire season. It's always been that we haven't done enough," Rashad Johnson said.
'Bama's biggest wins are against three teams (Clemson, Georgia and LSU) which have all had disappointing seasons and three of their victories have been by six points or fewer. But it's not so much what Alabama has or hasn't done, it's how the Tide have accomplished it.
Alabama is as old school as a Hank Williams record. It wins by dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, thanks in large part to two of the game's most impressive linemen.
Hulking nose guard Terrence Cody, all 6-foot-5, 365 pounds of him, is the anchor of a 3-4 defense that ranks third nationally in total defense (248.5 yards per game) and second against the run (73.5 ypg). "He's just a mass," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a guy that's going to eat up two gaps, and he just controls the defense."
The 53rd-ranked offense has a few "name" players, like quarterback John Parker Wilson and freshman phenom Julio Jones at receiver, but it succeeds in running the ball and eating up clock. 'Bama averages 201.5 yards per game on the ground with Glen Coffee (102.9 yards per game, nine TDs) and Mark Ingram (56.7, 11 TDs) running behind a line anchored by massive left tackle Andre Smith, a future first-round draft pick. The steady ground attack has allowed the Crimson Tide to hold the ball an average of 32:33 (eighth nationally).
This blue-collar approach vastly differs from that of the Gators. In winning eight straight games by at least 28 points, Florida has captured the nation's attention with its new-age offense and a defense that thrives on making big plays (32 turnovers, including 23 picks).
3. The Percy Harvin factor. Florida's dynamic speedster is questionable after spraining his right ankle last week at Florida State. Meyer says the Gators have devised game plans with and without Harvin in the lineup. Meyer may just be trying to keep Nick Saban guessing, but it's hard to imagine Harvin not playing in some capacity.
For the second straight season, the offense is best known as the Tebow & Harvin Show, with Tebow accounting for 37 touchdowns and Harvin averaging 103 yards per game and totaling 16 scores. But this year the Gators have also shown depth in the backfield, as Chris Rainey (654 yards, four TDs), Jeff Demps (529 yards, six scores), Emmanuel Moody (7.4 yards per carry), Brandon James and Kestahn Moore have all had their moments.
At the end of the day, though, it's Harvin who is the Gators' most dangerous runner roster. If he does play, it's hard to imagine him not being limited, especially when you consider the way Harvin makes cuts. But having him on the field, limited or not, means he has to be accounted for. Not having him means the Gators will likely lean on Demps, who averages 9.6 yards per carry, to duplicate Harvin's home-run capabilities. The Gators have more than enough weapons, but replicating the nervousness a fully healthy Harvin instills in a defensive coordinator will be difficult.
Alabama's vanilla offense may not be as highlight-worthy as Florida's, but it's been effective. What problems does it cause for defenses? I spoke to a defensive coach of one of the Tide's prior opponents. Here's what he had to say:
"As defensive coaches you want to stop the run. You don't want people to be able to run the ball against you, and that's a tall order against Alabama. They're very good and [offensive coordinator] Jim McElwain does a very good job with that offense. It's not real complicated, but they're very good at running the football.
"The quarterback [Wilson] is just so steady. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, doesn't put them in bad situations. He's a little more athletic than you think he is; he's able to get out of some trouble.
"Their strong suit is running the football. Those offensive linemen are very good run blockers. They're a lot less effective at pass protection. That's why a lot of the time you'll see them move the pocket a little bit, and throw the football off of play action. So they have to establish that running game to be successful throwing the football. Just the way that offensive line is built, they're not a team that can just drop back, stand tall in the pocket and throw the football."
Florida 24, Alabama 20. The Crimson Tide are the more physical team and while they will be typically strong up front, they just don't have the speed to match the Gators on either side of the ball. New school trumps old school as Florida punches its ticket to Miami.