Crimson Tide, Gators meet in SEC championship for second straight season
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
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Here we go again.
It’s take II for No. 1 vs. No. 2 under the big top in Atlanta.
Now that the buzz is reaching the apex of a yearlong crescendo, Alabama and Florida finally can resolve the debate about which Southeastern Conference team should represent the league in Pasadena.
Today’s 4 p.m. kickoff will put an end to the buildup that’s been considerably more stressful for the defending champions in Gainesville. As if the rumors of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s candidacy for the head coaching job at Louisville wasn’t enough, star defensive end Carlos Dunlap was arrested early Tuesday for a DUI and was suspended hours later.
Alabama, on the other hand, had much smaller hurdles to clear in its eight-day preparation cycle. Everyone, including running back Mark Ingram, appears to be healthy heading into the rematch of the game that nearly pushed the proud program back into the final stage of the rebuilding process.
That 14-point fourth quarter Florida (12-0) hung on the Tide (12-0) last December left a year to ponder what could have been.
“This is what we worked for in the offseason,” senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. “Everything we do is to get better for Florida because they are setting the bar right now, and we’re excited to get another chance at them.”
Revenge, however, was not the word used by Reamer or several teammates as the main motivating factor in spite of that 31-20 loss a year ago. The possible award on the other side of an SEC championship is plenty.
Today’s winner is assured of a ticket west to the Bowl Championship Series national title game played in the same Rose Bowl stadium where the Crimson Tide first gained national legitimacy in 1926 with an unlikely 20-19 win over Washington.
Today’s loser is likely headed to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama went for a disappointing end to the 2008 season in the form of a 31-17 loss to Utah.
The talk surrounding what’s considered one of the biggest SEC games ever deals with the two dominating defenses that stand atop all four major statistical categories in the league standings. The two offenses almost have been left out of the discussion, but Tide coach Nick Saban said Florida’s unit is scary in several ways.
It starts with the Gators’ complexity.
“We have 162 pages of formation hits,” Saban said of the preparation for Florida’s vast offense. “That’s a record. That’s the different formations they do — forget about the plays — that’s just the formations.”
Still leading that offense is quarterback Tim Tebow, who, in spite of the early-season concussion suffered at Kentucky, still leads Florida’s rushing attack with 796 yards while completing 66.4 percent of his passes. He does that in the Gators’ version of the spread offense that looks to run first and frustrate the Alabama defense like it did in the fourth quarter last season.
Most Tide defenders said they would rather see a team that runs more downhill instead of using misdirection. That doesn’t include speedy cornerback Javier Arenas, who has come up with several big open-field tackles this season.
“Yeah, I love it,” he said. “I love any type of challenge, even if it’s a spread offense and guys who throw the ball all game or if it’s guys that are going to run the ball and play-action you. When you’re a defensive back, you take on that challenge.”
It was a challenge that went without an answer last December in the Georgia Dome.
But unlike most, Alabama has a shot at redemption this afternoon on the same field of a previously missed opportunity.