Take two of the more devastating defenses in the country and pair them with two offenses that have issues in the red zone.
Add that and several other factors into Saturday’s SEC Championship Game and special teams take on an added level of significance.
No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama have explosive returners and reliable punters and kickers. A breakdown on any special teams play could swing the game one way or the other.
“I think special teams is always a critical and vertical field position,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “And I think that Florida has very good specialists and very good special teams, and it’s going to be important for us to do a great job so that we have an opportunity to win that part of the game and win the vertical field position battle. I think it will contribute significantly to the outcome of the game.”
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For Florida coach Urban Meyer, the third phase of the game was first in the film room. He looked at Crimson Tide return specialist Javier Arenas on video Sunday afternoon before getting to offense and defense.
“I just got done watching the Auburn special teams with our guys, and he nailed a (56) yarder, came right through and has great speed,” Meyer said on a Sunday afternoon teleconference. “He’s tough — 200 pounds, low center of gravity and he’s aggressive.”
Arenas leads the SEC in kickoff return average (29.5 yards per run) and is second in punt return average (16.6). After his 56-yard return of an Auburn punt last week, he broke the conference’s all-time punt return yardage record and sits just 37 away from the NCAA record.
Against Florida in last season’s SEC title bout, Arenas was a mixed bag. His 41-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter was impressive, but it didn’t lead to points and was overshadowed by an earlier miscue.
Late in the second quarter, Arenas caught a kickoff too close to the sideline after Florida tied the game at 10-10 and stepped out of bounds at the 4-yard line. After three unproductive plays, the Tide punted back to Florida, which turned the field position advantage into a 9-play, 57-yard drive that put the Gators ahead 17-10 going into halftime.
“It happened. All right? And I learned from it,” Arenas said. “I haven’t done it again since. God forbid I do it again sometime soon. You learn from it. It’s just something that happened. I don’t like that that play happened, but I’m not going to sit here and beat myself across the head for a whole year until I get the opportunity to make up for it in the same game.”
Brandon James — Arenas’ counterpart in blue and orange — is doing plenty of damage of his own, although he isn’t as well known. His kickoff returns average 26.1 yards, helped by an 85-yarder for a touchdown that certainly concerns Alabama.
Defending kickoffs has been a weakness dating back to the season-opener on the same Georgia Dome turf, where Virginia Tech returned a kick for a touchdown.
Overall, Alabama is 10th in the SEC in defending kickoffs by netting an average 39.2 yards per kick. Florida is second in the same category but 10th in defending punts, where Arenas typically does the most damage.
Both teams have sputtered in the red zone offensively this season and have benefited from solid kickers. Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin makes more field goals than any kicker in the nation (2.25 per game) while connecting on 27-of-31 (87.1 percent).
He was huge midseason, when the offense failed to find the end zone for eight quarters. Overall, the Tide converted with touchdowns on just 43 percent of its red zone appearances, but Tiffin’s right leg bailed out the offense by connecting on 21-of-22 attempts after crossing the opponents’ 20. His only miss was in that first game against Virginia Tech.
Florida’s issues in the same category are more pronounced.
The Gators’ 78.6 percent rate of conversion ranks 10th in the SEC although it scores touchdowns 50 percent of the time. Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis is 12-for-15 in the red zone, including a successful 27-yarder that beat Arkansas.