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December 5, 2008

No. 1 Alabama still has something to prove

Alabama 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
This may be the most critical matchup. If Alabama can't run, the Tide can't win. But the Tide have a reasonable chance of winning if they can control the clock by handing the ball to Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram. Alabama ranked second in the SEC in rushing behind only Florida at 201.5 yards per game. Coffee and Ingram have combined to rush for 1,916 yards and 20 touchdowns while running behind one of the best lines in the nation. Coffee has averaged a league-high 117.1 rushing yards per game in SEC competition and is coming off a 154-yard effort against Auburn. Ingram has rushed for 11 touchdowns this season, including three in his past two games. All-America candidate Andre Smith leads a line that faces a Florida front four struggling with depth issues after season-ending injuries to tackles Brandon Antwine and Matt Patchan.
Edge: Alabama.

Alabama pass offense vs. Florida pass defense
Quarterback John Parker Wilson, who owns most of Alabama's career passing records, has done an exceptional job of avoiding mistakes. But he also hasn't been asked to do all that much. He has nine touchdown passes to go along with five interceptions this season and has thrown for at least 200 yards only four times this season. When Wilson does throw, it often goes to Julio Jones. The true freshman has 46 catches, 20 more than anyone else on the roster. If Alabama falls behind early and has to rely on its passing game, the Tide could have a tough day. Florida ranks second in the nation in pass efficiency defense. The Gators also rank second in the nation with 23 interceptions. Strong safety Ahmad Black and linebacker Brandon Spikes have each scored two touchdowns on interception returns.
Edge: Florida.

Florida run offense vs. Alabama run defense
This is a classic matchup of strength vs. strength. Alabama ranks second in the nation in run defense and has allowed just 73.6 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Florida leads the SEC in rushing and has gained 6.2 yards per attempt. The mammoth presence of Terrence Cody has prevented any Alabama opponents from running up the middle, but he might not be as much of a factor Saturday because the Gators prefer running outside of the guards to utilize the speed of their skill-position players. Alabama can't key on just one guy because Florida uses so many ball carriers. Chris Rainey, Percy Harvin, Jeff Demps and Tim Tebow have each rushed for at least 500 yards. Rainey, Harvin and Demps are averaging at least 8 yards per carry. This matchup could come down to Harvin's health status as he recovers from a sprained ankle. If Harvin were at full strength, this matchup would be even. Harvin's uncertainty gives Alabama the slightest of advantages.
Edge: Alabama.

Florida pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense
Tebow has been virtually unstoppable the last month. He has completed 68 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past five games. He has a 25-2 touchdown-interception ratio this season. Although Harvin is the Gators' best receiver, Florida's passing attack can thrive without him. Louis Murphy has caught six touchdown passes, while tight end Aaron Hernandez scored twice last week in a 45-15 triumph over Florida State. Alabama ranks fifth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and has forced its past four opponents to complete less than half their pass attempts. But the Tide have spent the past month feasting on such lackluster passers as LSU's Jarrett Lee and Auburn's Kodi Burns. Tebow obviously presents a much tougher challenge.
Edge: Florida.

Alabama special teams vs. Florida special teams
This game pits two of the nation's most dangerous punt returners in Alabama's Javier Arenas and Florida's Brandon James. Each has returned two punts for touchdowns this season. James may be more likely to break a long return Saturday, as Florida ranks fourth and Alabama 73rd in punt coverage. Florida has had problems covering kickoffs, but the Tide are 107th in kickoff returns. Alabama's Leigh Tiffin is 17-of-24 on field-goal attempts, but he is only 3-for-7 from at least 40 yards. Florida's Jonathan Phillips is 10-of-10 on field-goal tries, but he hasn't attempted a kick from beyond 40 yards and has had just one attempt in the past six games. Alabama's P.J. Fitzgerald averages 41.1 yards per punt, while Florida's Chas Henry averages 42.4 yards per attempt. Alabama must make sure to protect Tiffin and Fitzgerald. Florida blocked three kicks against Kentucky and two punts against Vanderbilt and has eight blocks overall.
Edge: Florida.

Alabama coaches vs. Florida coaches
The two coaches in this game Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Urban Meyer rank alongside USC's Pete Carroll as the best in the game. Meyer and Saban have won national championships, and Meyer also delivered a perfect season at Utah before arriving at Florida. These schools also have exceptional staffs. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain deserves much of the credit for Wilson's improvement this season, while Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has built one of the nation's top defenses with a unit that doesn't include a single senior on the two-deep.
Edge: Even.

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.

Expert Picks

Olin Buchanan: Florida 31, Alabama 24
Tom Dienhart: Alabama 27, Florida 26
David Fox: Florida 27, Alabama 24
Mike Huguenin: Florida 28, Alabama 17
Steve Megargee: Florida 28, Alabama 17

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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