ATLANTA, Ga. – The Southeastern Conference Championship game is upon us. Spring practice, fall camp, and a grueling SEC schedule has finally come down to this.
Players from 14 teams gave their blood, sweat, and tears in hopes of making it to Atlanta, but at the end of the regular season, only two teams remain standing and able to fight for the mighty SEC.
Alabama vs. Florida.
Considering history, it just feels right.
These teams are not strangers, especially in Atlanta. 2016 will mark the ninth time the Tide and Gators have matched up in the conference title game. Both teams posting a 4-4 record in the previous eight match ups. Most of those battles will live in SEC lore forever.
Langham’s pick-six from Florida QB Shane Matthews in the inaugural championship game created an atmosphere that other conferences could only hope to recreate. Tebow’s dominant fourth quarter performance in 2008 propelled the Gators to their second national title in three seasons.
And let’s not forget 2009. The Tide finally made its way over the hump. Mark Ingram ran all the way to New York to grab his Heisman Trophy, and carried his team to its first national title since the Tide beat Miami in the 1993 sugar bowl on New Year’s Day.
Games between these two seem to always have national title implications, at least for one of the teams. Last season, Alabama defeated Florida 29-15 to secure a spot in second annual College Football Playoff.
But this year might be a little different.
The road to the third playoff may not run through Atlanta at all in 2016. No. 15 Florida (8-3) comes into this game with no realistic chance of making the playoff. The top ranked Tide (12-0) seems to stand so far above the rest of the competition that it has most likely secured one of the four playoff seeds. The Tide may be able to hold on the the number one ranking with a loss this weekend.
Don’t tell that to Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban. He was asked a question about affording a loss in one of his weekly press conferences and assured the media that is never okay to lose a game.
Alabama will come into this game heavily favored. The Vegas odds are in favor of the Tide by a large margin. A lot of that has to do with how dominant Saban’s team has been of late. But it is also amplified because of the amount of injuries that the Florida Gators are dealing with. Starting quarterback Luke Del Rio is listed as an emergency backup for the game, and there is a chance that multiple Florida starters will not be able to take the field.
For Florida to have a chance in this game it will have to play solid defense. That is something the Gators have been able to do all season. The Gators will roll into Atlanta with the second best total and scoring defense in the conference. Florida is giving up under 300 yards and 15 points per game. That is well under the 480 yards and nearly 40 points per game the Alabama offense is averaging over the course of the 2016 season.
The key for the Florida defense is shutting down Alabama’s true freshman, dual threat quarterback Jalen Hurts. He is the leading passer, and second leading rusher for the Tide. Hurts has accounted for 33 touchdowns this season; 21 passing and 12 rushing. With a solid performance in this game, Hurts could punch his ticket to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Florida will need to pressure Hurts early and often. He has shown the tendency to make freshman mistakes in the last few weeks as he is coming off of a two interception performance in the Iron Bowl. Florida will also need to contain the young QB when plays break down. Hurts has extended many plays this season with his legs, and has taken many quarterback scrambles to the end zone.
The reason the Gators need to play well on defense has less to do with Alabama and more to do with their own struggles on offense. The Gators simply cannot afford to let Bama get rolling early in this game, because they may not be able to keep up.
The Gators are 11th in the conference in scoring offense and 13th in yards per game. Even when starting QB Luke Del Rio was under center, this Florida offense frankly looked pedestrian at best in numerous games this season. Del Rio’s backup, Austin Appleby, is a serviceable quarterback. He has played in multiple games this season — but asking a backup to face this Alabama defense could spell trouble for the Gators, especially considering how good the Alabama defense has been.
The Alabama defense, led by Jonathon Allen and Reuben Foster, played ‘lights out’ to finish the regular season. The Crimson Tide gave up zero touchdowns in the month of November.
Zero. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Alabama also did not allow an opponent to cross the ten yard line during that time. The Tide leads the conference in every major defensive category besides pass defense, where it sits at second behind the Gators.
Coaching rumors could be a distraction for both teams in this game. Alabama Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has been rumored to be interested in the Houston vacancy that current Texas Head Coach Tom Herman left open. Some reports say Kiffin will interview for the job after the SEC title game. Florida Head Coach Jim McElwain’s name has been linked to the Oregon head coaching vacancy.
Other than distractions, how can Florida knock off the Tide?
It sounds very cliche, but the Gators will have to force turnovers.
Alabama will have to make key mistakes in many aspects of the game. Florida will need a few long runs, and Appleby must be able to exploit any type of blown coverage that a reconstructed Alabama defensive backfield might give him and the gator offense. Also, it is not too far-fetched to think Alabama will leave a few points on the field with its special teams. If Alabama plays to its capability, this game should not be close.
When looking at the numbers, it is hard to find any stat that will justify anyone in picking Alabama to lose this game. Another stat that is daunting for Florida is Saban’s record against his former assistant coaches. As many know, McElwain coached under Saban at Alabama from 2008 until 2011. Unfortunately for the Gators, Saban has posted a 9-0 record against former assistants he has gone head to head with as head coaches.
On paper this looks like it could be most lopsided affair ever in a SEC title game. Considering the star power on the field for ‘Bama, and the lack-there-of for the Gators due to injury, things are just not adding up for an upset.
But upsets usually do not add up. They just happen, and as long as the Gators have two fists they may have a fighting chance. If the Gators do upset the Tide, the University will claim its 10th conference title and will most likely end up in the Sugar Bowl against a very good Oklahoma Sooner team. If Bama takes care of business the Tide will take home its 26th SEC title, and be back in Atlanta for the college football playoff.
The 25th edition off the Southeastern Conference championship game will kick off at 3:00 P.M. CST Dec. 3 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The final College Football Playoff rankings will be released Sunday, Dec. 4 at 11:00 a.m.
Jeremy Law for SylacaugaNews.com | © 2016, SylacaugaNews.com/Marble City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.