Yesterday I watched the 2008 SEC Championship Game looking for things that could apply for this year's game. The squads are so similar to their former selves that the lessons from last year's game still apply to this year's. These are the top things that stuck out to me that might not easily come to mind when thinking about the events in 2008.
Watch Javier Arenas.
Arenas was a guy who kept coming up all over the place. He helped set up Alabama's first field goal with a great punt return. He also foolishly caught a kickoff and went out of bounds at his own four yard line, a field position nightmare that led to Florida's shortest scoring drive (a 57 yard TD series) after a punt.
He was also talking trash all game, nearly getting into fights on multiple occasions. If he's as hyped up this year as he was last, there will be plenty of times where his actions come to the forefront.
Field position is critical.
The two teams combined to get points every time they started a drive within 60 yards of the end zone except twice: Alabama started a fourth quarter drive at its own 41 and punted, while Florida ran out the clock at the end when starting at Alabama's 33. Every other punt came from a starting field position no better than a team's own 31.
Both of these coaches have been known to play for field position on occasion, and the two defenses are going to be fierce. The teams didn't take many chances when backed up a year ago, and while each was able to score on extended drives, they were money on shorter fields. Don't get antsy if your coach of choice plays conservatively for field position in this one. It will be even more critical than usual.
Can Alabama cover intermediate to long passes?
Three of Florida's five scores were set up by intermediate to long pass plays: a 51 yard pass to Riley Cooper on the field goal drive, a 22 yard strike to Aaron Hernandez on the second touchdown drive, and a 33 yard sideline pass to Louis Murphy on the final touchdown drive. None of these were screen passes where the guy got away either; in each case, the ball traveled at least 20 yards in the air. When Florida got close enough to miss a field goal on another occasion, the drive began with a 34 yard pass to Murphy.
A lot of focus on this game will be on Tim Tebow's rushing ability, and rightfully so. He often ends up with the most rushing attempts on the team each week. However, whether or not he will be able to hit on longer passing plays will be critical to Florida's offense. Florida's down a deep threat from last year's contest without Murphy, but Cooper is still there and Deonte Thompson has gotten loose on occasion. If Bama can cover long, Florida will be in great shape.
How will Greg McElroy handle the blitz?
Charlie Strong loves to blitz, and this weekend will be no exception. The experienced John Parker Wilson did a fairly good job of dealing with it for most of the night. When he couldn't find an open guy to throw to (which wasn't often), he still threw it away instead of taking bad losses. He didn't try to be a hero, and that was a big help to Bama throughout the game.
McElroy has not faced anything like Florida's blitzes yet, and for sure he'll see more corner blitzes on Saturday than on any day in his life. He was in the house for last year's SEC title game, but there's a big difference between standing on the sideline and starting. How McElroy handles things when some blitzer inevitably breaks through the protection will be a big factor in this year's game.
Who will win third down?
Florida converted on seven of 13 (54%) third downs, including all three Tebow touchdown passes. Alabama only converted on five of 12 (42%) third downs by comparison. I know between this and the field position argument I sound like a coachspeak spouting robot, but when the teams are this close, the essentials get magnified. The Gators were the better third down team, and that made a huge difference in the fourth quarter.
How will the officiating go?
I know the focus has been on bad calls by SEC refs this year, but we didn't have that last year, remember? Anyway, the tendency in the game was to let the teams play. There were borderline things on both sides that didn't end up in flags flying. In fact, only eight penalties were called in the entire game despite the teams combining to average 11 penalties a game last year.
How absurd will Gary Danielson be?
He's a great analyst, but Danielson can go off the rails sometimes. He made economy jokes. He referred to Alabama's head coach as just "Nick" all night. He talked about how he didn't play quarterback in the same style as Tebow does, even though that's been evident for years.
What will his new theme be for this year? Will he set himself up neatly for Verne to toss some zingers at him again? Will he feel the need to campaign for the SEC champ to go to the national title game even though it obviously will, or will he focus on making a Heisman campaign for either Tebow or Mark Ingram? There are few dull moments when Danielson's on the air.