SEC Championship Game: The Prediction

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It's almost time for the most anticipated game of the decade. We can say that now, with the decade about to change either on Jan. 1 or a year later, depending on how you define "decade." Sure, there was a lot of hype about the Ohio State-Michigan game back in 2006. Then, everything was also on the line in a nationally televised rivalry game to determine a conference championship and the right to play for the national title. But this is about as good a clash as you can get, something that resonates in some ways a bit more than the battle between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines three years ago.

This is new money vs. old wealth, a battle between the SEC dynasty that defined the 1990s and the last half of this decade and the one that defined most of the 60 or so years of the league's history that came before that. It features one of the greatest players the game has ever seen against one of the greatest programs in college football lore. A team that has twice redefined the SEC on offense against one that has always prided itself on the defensive strength that the league's fans point to as its strong suit.

In some ways, it's even a more significant game than last year's showdown between the same teams with similar stakes. Florida's chances at its first complete undefeated season will live or die this afternoon in the Georgia Dome. Alabama carries its second perfect regular season in a row into Atlanta; how many times does one team have to win every game on its schedule to finally become the champion?

FedEx BCS National Championship Game - Oklahoma v Florida
Urban Meyer
Record 95-17
Record at Florida 56-9
Record vs. SEC 26-8
SEC titles 2
National championships 2
When the season was about to begin, the question was not whether Florida would win the SEC title but how easily they would do it. Some people were already delivering the crystal football to the Gators before the first game of the season kicked off. They were exactly that good, we were assured.

Assured by none other than your humble correspondent.

The only question, really, is whether Florida can go undefeated. Sure, some contrarian streaks are going to emerge here and there, telling you that Florida is not a lock for Atlanta nonsense and that the Gators aren't the prohibitive favorites to make the national title game. These are the same people that do this sort of thing all the time, because no one will remember if you got it wrong, but you get to hold it over everyone's head forever if you get it right. ... Right now, I'd say you have to give Florida the edge to win that game and go 14-0 for its first perfect season.

Ahem.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with pundits and bloggers believing that a team should go undefeated. There is something wrong with a team believing it should go undefeated, or at least believing it to the extent that it seems to show up at the stadium not just expecting a win, but expecting to win without really trying.

Too often, Florida seemed to do just that this season. Against Arkansas, where timely (and controversial) penalties aided a 23-20 win. At Mississippi State, where only a great defensive play and more officiating controversy saved a 29-19 victory. At South Carolina, where Stephen Garcia's throw was six feet from a first down that would have set up the Gamecocks to potentially take a 21-17 lead but instead teed things up for the Gators to win 24-14 off an interception. Remember that these are not games against the league's best teams that we're talking about here.

By then, though, the aura of inevitability surrounding Florida had already collapsed. That had happened back in the rivalry showdown against Tennessee, where Meyer and Co. were supposed to annihilate the Vols to shut up Lane Kiffin. They won by 10 points. The trend was only furthered when Tim Tebow ended up with a concussion during the Kentucky game. Florida was not, the team seemed to learn as much as the fans, going to win the national championship without first making sure to win its games.

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AllState Sugar Bowl - Utah v Alabama
Nick Saban
Record 122-50-1
Record at Alabama 31-8
Record vs. SEC (at Alabama) 20-5
SEC titles (total) 1
National championships (total) 1
Not that Alabama was always waxing its opponents. The season started of strong on that front but quickly turned out to be anything but. The 20-6 win against South Carolina was not quite as easy as the score suggested. The 24-15 victory against LSU was once again the subject of kvetching over the referees. And no one who watched the 12-10 showdown with Tennessee came away with any conclusion other than that Alabama was enormously lucky to win that game.

Then again, that's how Alabama was supposed to play the game. The defense would keep the other team off the board while the offense was effective but not overwhelming. Nick Saban football -- Alabama football.

The Crimson Tide also had the advantage of coming into the season with expectations that were not quite as lofty. They were still seen as a Top 10 team, but the likelihood of another run at the crystal football seemed smaller than Florida's chances. The Alabama offense was less than stellar in 2008, and only four starters were returning on that side of the ball. Alabama could prevent its opponents from scoring, but could it score itself? Might the tide find itself on the wrong end of a series of 14-10, 10-3 games that would once again prove that Saban never has two good seasons in a row?

In that respect, Greg McElroy and Mark Ingram were revelations. With defenses figuring out how to largely contain Julio Jones, the quarterback and running back play had to be sound. The running game was fine. The air attack ...

McElory was talented but inconsistent. His only game in October with a passer rating of better than 100 was at Kentucky. But the midseason slump went away during the victories against LSU, at Mississippi State and at Auburn to end the season. (No, I'm not going to even mention the other game the Tide played during that stretch.) Helping out in the win against Auburn was Jones, who emerged as a key factor in the fourth-quarter drive that won the game. Jones' nine-catch, 83-yard day marked just the second time he had either more than five receptions or more than 75 yards in a game. Alabama's offense appears to be coming back around just at the right time.

- - -

Of course, they have to score against the Florida defense, which has been no easy task this year. In fact, both defenses in this game are strong enough to give the offensive coordinators nightmares. (Florida fans might argue that any defense gives Steve Addazio nightmares, but I digress.)

There's no need to recap how the defenses are almost NFL-caliber in both their talent and execution; you know that. And you know that some of the most interesting moves of the game are likely to come when Charlie Strong is calling the shots for Florida and Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are calling the plays for Alabama. No matter what the hype is about Tebow and Ingram and all the rest of the players on offense, this is one championship that will be won by defense.

- - -

But there is the matter of Tim Tebow. I guess the backlash against him shouldn't be a surprise; any player that gets as much attention as he does is bound to draw the ire of opposing fans. That said, the guy seems pretty likable and is no doubt talented. And he is playing the final SEC game of a storied career, one that could make or break his self-proclaimed goal of an undefeated championship season. What might Tebow have in store for the last time he'll play against a league opponent?

It's unclear. Tim Tebow has made some nice plays in championship games, but -- and we should clarify here that the sample size is very small -- he hasn't necessarily outperformed his regular season feats in those games. If anything, he's underperformed when the stakes are highest.

Tim Tebow, Championship Games vs. Regular Season
Game Passer rating (Stats) Rush avg Total TDs
Arkansas (2006 SEC Championship Game) 0.00 (0 pass attempts) 3.9 0
Ohio State (BCS Natl Championship Game) 118.80 (1-1, 1 yd, 1 TD) 3.9 2
2006 Season 201.73 (22-33, 358 yd, 5 TD, 1 INT) 5.3 13
Alabama (2008 SEC Championship Game) 135.6 (14-22, 216 yd, 3 TD, 0 INT) 3.4 3
Oklahoma (BCS Natl Championship Game) 78.6 (18-30, 231 yd, 2 TD, 2 INT) 5.0 2
2008 Season 172.37 (192-298, 2,746 yd, 30 TD, 4 INT) 3.8 42

His team has won all of those games, part of what gives Tebow the aura of being a "winner." But acting like he's been at his best when championships are there for the taking isn't exactly accurate. Of course, we should also keep in mind that these are games against some of the better defenses in the conference and the nation.

Not that Alabama has one of those or anything.

- - -

All of that to say something else you probably already know: There's really not a dime's worth of difference that I can see between these teams. Sure, there is this area where Florida is slightly better or that one where Alabama has a small edge. But nothing that will define this game or give one team the clear advantage when the game kicks off.

What might very well decide this game comes down to something as unquantifiable and vague as whose luck runs out. Both of these teams have been living on borrowed time since the end of September, looking like any game could be their last with a "0" in the loss column. At some point, anyone making a prediction on a game like this just has to go with their gut.

Florida's luck runs out.

Alabama 17, Florida 14

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