GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Southeastern Conference championship game couldn’t get any bigger.
Unbeaten Florida (12-0) and undefeated Alabama (12-0). No. 1 vs. No. 2. High-profile coaches Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. Heisman Trophy hopefuls Tim Tebow and Mark Ingram vs. two of the nation’s best defenses with a spot in the national championship game on the line.
A rematch of a classic game to boot.
The Gators and Tide clinched spots in the league title game weeks ago, a precarious position for the stretch run. Meyer and Saban worried about complacency, but their teams remained perfect despite close calls and essentially turned Saturday’s SEC showdown in Atlanta into a national championship semifinal for the second straight season.
It’s college football’s most anticipated matchup since Florida and Oklahoma played in the Bowl Championship Series title game in January. It’s the game people started talking about in the preseason and have been pointing to ever since. And it’s finally here.
“I can’t think of a bigger football game that I’ve been a part of, that we’ve been a part of,” Meyer said Sunday. “College football wants this game. I’ve been hearing it for a long time and trying to ignore it and push it back. Our players have been, too.”
Now, they can embrace it.
The winner advances to the BCS title game in Pasadena, Calif. The loser still gets a BCS berth, almost certainly in the Sugar Bowl.
This game has been on both teams’ radar all season. Top-ranked Florida, the defending national champion, was the unanimous choice to win the Eastern Division, and No. 2 Alabama was a popular pick in the West. Getting back to Atlanta didn’t go as smoothly as some expected, though.
The Gators needed a last-second field goal to beat Arkansas and played close games against Mississippi State and South Carolina. They secured a spot in the SEC title game in late October, and Meyer said he was proud of his players’ focus down the stretch.
“To think that we clinched a berth in this four weeks ago and still took care of business when everybody kept talking about the SEC championship game,” Meyer said. “Just great admiration for our guys to stay focused.”
The Crimson Tide edged Tennessee on a blocked field goal in October, then clinched a spot in Atlanta with a controversial win against LSU two weeks later. The Tide eked out a 26-21 victory over rival Auburn on Friday thanks to a game-winning drive in the closing minutes.
“Great teams, great competitors are never satisfied,” Saban said. “They always want to accomplish more and achieve more and they are very committed to that standard of excellence. This team is going to have an opportunity again to do something that last year’s team didn’t get done. ... I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish this year.”
Ingram, the SEC’s leading rusher, bruised a hip against the Tigers and sat out most of the game-winning drive. But Saban said he expects him to be healthy against Florida.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Saban said. “We don’t think he has a significant problem. Those things are a little bit painful, especially when you first get them. It was late in the game when it happened and he never really had an opportunity to go back in. But we’ll see more (Monday) and how he moves around in practice. But we feel like he’ll be fine for the game.”
Ingram was held to 30 yards on 16 carries Friday. He probably will need a much better performance against the Gators to have a shot at winning the Heisman.
Tebow appears to be back in the hunt for college football’s most prestigious award, too.
He accounted for 311 yards and five touchdowns in Saturday’s 37-10 win against Florida State. He completed 17 of 21 passes for 221 yards and three TDs, and ran 15 times for 90 yards during a triumphant home finale.
So the SEC title game, in addition to national championship implications, could be a final Heisman showcase for both star players.
Nonetheless, Tebow said that even though there’s a lot at stake, the game won’t be an all-or-nothing affair.
“All these great memories, if something happened, they’re not just going to go away,” Tebow said. “We’re still going to have a lot of great memories from this year. Yes, that game means a lot and our goal is to win the SEC title every year, especially this year, but it’s not all or nothing.
“We still had a pretty special season.”
It certainly would be more memorable with a victory. The Gators dominated the fourth quarter against Alabama last year, scoring 14 unanswered points in a 31-20 victory that propelled them to the national title.
Florida, following Tebow’s lead, opened this season talking about wanting to repeat and putting together the school’s first perfect season.
Sky-high expectations followed all season. They will be there in Atlanta, too.
“The expectation level, it felt like it was on you the entire year,” Meyer said. “That’s where the biggest difference was. The players felt it and the coaches felt it.”