The last game of the 2008 SEC season comes with one team that was one of the clear favorites from the beginning -- the Florida Gators -- and another that no one saw coming -- the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Call it a semifinal for the national championship -- because it is -- or simply call it the SEC Championship Game, its official name. This, and not the Big XII showdown, is the marquee event of the day. That is not to belittle the Big XII Championship, which should be a good game and could cause far more havoc than the contest in the Georgia Dome. But No. 1 vs. No. 2 is No. 1 vs. No. 2 -- even if the rest of the SEC now seems more suspect than Bobby Petrino's intentions.
It could not be a clearer contrast in styles: Alabama, the team that wins unimpressively, but constantly wins, and Florida, the flashy team with the jaw-dropping offensive statistics and sole upset loss.
But hold on a minute. That contrast in styles -- take another look at it. Sure, Florida is the highest-scoring offense in the SEC, scoring 46.3 points a game. The second place team in that category? Alabama, 32.1 ppg. Alabama is first in the SEC in total defese, at 248.5 ypg. Scroll down to the No. 3 spot in the league and you'll see Florida, 275.7 ypg.
Teams tend to crystallize in our minds based on this game or that game, and we don't go back and actually revisit things too often. Go back and look at the time period where Alabama got labeled "steady." The 41-30 annihilation of Georgia was made to look closer by a generous prevent defense that started sometime in the third quarter; the 24-20 victory over Ole Miss looks far more impressive now than it did; the 17-14 win over Kentucky is still questionable, but the only one that remains that way. Yes, the win over LSU isn't quite what you would like, but that was a rivalry game in Baton Rouge -- we can give the Tide a pass on that one.
And lost in all the "oohs" and "aahs" over the TebowDempsRaineyHarvin Creature from the Swamp, here are the point totals for the Gators' hapless opponents this year: 10, 3, 6, 31, 7, 21, 5, 10, 14, 6, 19, 15. The 31 looks out of place, and it should. That's the point total for Mississippi, the only team all year to come within 20 points of the Gators -- and the only team to beat Florida. But the Ole Miss loss still clouds our outlook on Florida, even though what looked a monumental upset at the time now appears to be a case of the third-best team in the SEC defeating the best team in the league.
So, yes, Alabama will score in this game, but Florida will be able to stop them.
That said, this Alabama team, which has gone undefeated behind a tough defense and quarterback/game manager John Parker Wilson, does resemble the 1992 national championship squad, which went undefeated behind a tough defense and quarterback/game manager Jay Barker. And, Alabama fans will not tire of reminding you, that team also defeated Florida in the SEC Championship Game. That Florida team, though, was nowhere near as explosive as this one -- even with offensive genius Steve Spurrier at the helm.
Of course, the first job for Alabama is to stop Tim Tebow and simply try to slow down Florida's speed triangle of death (Demps-Rainey-Harvin). If two thirds of that trio is even a bit less than 100 percent, the job becomes easier. The key is to tackle whichever runner soundly; a missed tackle is as good as a touchdown for Florida.
Florida, meanwhile, must force John Parker Wilson to win the game. That might or might not work; while Wilson has been no hero this year, he has 14 total TDs (5 rushing) and just five interceptions to go with a solid passer rating (125.77). Even if that strategy doesn't work, though, it gives the Gators a better chance than allowing Glen Coffee and the rest of the Alabama backs to run free.
Alabama's had a great run -- 12 wins is about the best way for the Nick Saban Era to truly begin. But the run ends here.
Florida 28, Alabama 24