Thursday, December 4, 2008

SEC Championship Game Preview

(#1, #1)Alabama (12-0, 8-0) vs. (#2, #3)Florida (11-1, 7-1)
SEC Championship Game
3:00 PM CST, CBS
All-Time Series: Alabama 21-13
Thursday’s Line: Florida -10

While there’s no doubt the SEC is not as strong as a whole this year as in 2007, it’s hard not appreciate the significance of this weekend’s SEC Championship game. Florida was expected by most to make it. Alabama was expected by most to be a year or two away. And now the two clash in Atlanta for the right to call themselves SEC Champions.

These two schools are no strangers to each other in this environment. This is the 6th time in the 17 years of the SEC Championship game that these programs have faced off. Alabama won the inaugural SEC title game in 1992, followed by the Gators winning the next two in 1993 and 1994. The Gators also beat Alabama in 1996 before the Tide rolled in 1999. Alabama has never played another opponent besides the Gators in the title game. Meanwhile, the Gators are back in Atlanta for the 9th time and sport a 6-2 record there.

While statistics certainly don’t always tell the whole story, you can get a feel for how a team operates. When you run down the numbers on both sides of the ball for these two schools, it’s easy to see why they’re here. See the chart below. (conference ranks in parentheses)
We all knew the Gators would be close to unstoppable offensively. Tebow has played himself back into Heisman contention and even with a (perpetually) gimpy Percy Harvin, there are few offense in the country that put up yards and points like the Gators. And while the general consensus was that the Gators would be better on D, I don’t know that many saw this sort of a turnaround. Sure they’ve inflated some numbers playing in a weakened SEC, but the turnaround is remarkable.

The same could be said for Alabama’s offense. Last year, the Tide struggled to put points up consistently. This year, the Tide generated as many points per game as a Georgia offense led by future NFLers at QB and RB. Saban is known for his defensive scheming, so it’s not surprise to see gaudy numbers there, but the importance of a consistent offense cannot be understated.

As for the game itself, Alabama actually matches up as well as a team can with the Gator offense. In the lone Florida loss this year, the Gators struggled against an aggressive and dominant Ole Miss front four. The Rebels held the Gators to 124 rushing yards. Only Miami(FL) did better against the UF ground game, but offensive inconsistencies took the ‘Canes out of that game early. The Tide will stack the box with 8-9 guys and force Tebow to beat them with his arm.

Offensively, the Tide will pound the ball on the ground with a slew of hard-hitting backs and take their shots downfield when the opportunities are there. Other than freshmen WR Julio Jones, no one really stands out on this offensive unit, and Jones hasn’t scored a TD since September. That said, as evidenced by the season-long production, while they may now “wow”, they’ll certainly rear back and knock you over if you’re not ready.

The Tide enters this game with a very solid +9 turnover margin. The Gators are at ridiculous +21. Only twice have they lost the turnover margin in a game – Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. If the Tide want to win this one, they’ll need to turn the Gators over and give themselves short fields to work with.

When it’s all said and done, the Gators will win this game. And they will cover the 10 points. What they won’t do is run Alabama out of the Georgia Dome like they’ve done their last 8 opponents. The Tide is too tough defensively, particularly up front to let that happen. Florida wins 38-24.

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