It's easy to forget now, in an era when only two college football conferences don't have a championship game, that the SEC was the first conference to establish divisions and have a title bout after the regular season. And the inaugural game ended up being a risky outing; Alabama narrowly beat Florida in 1992 to keep its undefeated season alive, and would go on to win its first national title in 13 years.
And here we are again. The drought has not been nearly as long for the Crimson Tide this time around, though the argument over whether the dynasty is over might make it seem that long for Alabama fans. And it's probably fair to say that this Florida team isn't as good as the one that played in Atlanta 23 years ago, and shouldn't (on paper) give the Tide too much of a game. But the stakes are still there, the trophy is still going to the winning team, and much of the college football world will again be watching.
Both of these programs come into this game in very different places. Alabama was almost expected to be here, or was at least one of the favorites to make it to the Georgia Dome. Nick Saban is now in his ninth season with the Tide, and this will be the sixth season in which his team either plays in the SEC title game, the national championship game, or both. Florida, meanwhile, was not really expected to make it to Atlanta, and is going there with a first-year head coach leading the way. If McElwain keeps it up, there could be several more sequels to college football's original championship game in the near future.
1How will Florida score? This could be the question on which the entire game hinges. Any scenario that ends with Florida winning this game begins with the Gators' defense keeping the score low -- more on that in a moment -- and then getting just enough points to win. The second part of the equation is going to be more difficult than the first. Florida is averaging 351.9 yards of total offense a game, but those numbers dropped off steeply in the final third of the season; the Gators averaged just 294.0 yards over their last four games, and cracked the 300-yard mark just once in that span, at South Carolina. The advanced statistics support the idea of a team that might rise to the level of mediocre, ranking 58th in the S&P+ offensive rankings. Meanwhile, Alabama is pretty much an all-world defense, both in terms of raw yardage (opponents average 264.6 yards a game) and in the S&P+, where the Tide rank first overall and are the top team in several categories. If Florida gains more than 350 yards in this game, it might be a minor miracle.
2But how about that defense? The question is whether that even matters. If the defense can't adequately hold back the Alabama offense, what Florida does when it takes the field on offense might not matter. And defense is the one area where the Gators might legitimately have some hope. They rank fifth in S&P+ and are allowing fewer than 283.6 yards per game. And Florida is ranked fourth against the run in S&P+, which will come in handy against Derrick Henry and Co. Only two teams all year gained more than five yards per carry against Florida -- New Mexico State(!) and Georgia -- and only one other opponent (East Carolina) averaged more than four yards an attempt. Henry will presumably get his yardage, but Florida could have at least a little bit of success neutralizing him, and that would make things that much harder for the Alabama offense, ranked 28th in the country according to S&P+.
3The teacher vs. the student. Nick Saban and Jim McElwain are about as familiar with each other as two coaches in this situation could be. McElwain was Nick Saban's offensive coordinator from 2008-11, making him a key part of the team during an era in which Alabama won two SEC West titles, anand two national championships. Saban knows McElwain's tendencies -- or at least what his tendencies were up until about four years ago -- and McElwain knows the same about his former head coach. With Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart also set to accept the coaching job at Georgia after this game is over, there are some intriguing match-ups to watch play out over the course of this game, and match-ups that could tell us as much about the future of the conference as it tells us about which of these two teams is the best right now.
John David Mercer -- USA Today Sports
4Win and you're in. At the same time, the stakes for both of these teams when it comes to this season are pretty big. For Alabama, it's pretty simple: Win, and the Tide is assured to return to thefor the second straight year; lose, and it's a disappointing trip to a New Year's Six bowl and another offseason of talk about whether the dynasty is still alive. Aside from the SEC championship, McElwain's team would also be in line for a New Year's Six bowl with a victory. Unlike Alabama, Florida would have to consider playing in one of those games a successful way to end the season. But a loss would send the Gators to the Citrus Bowl, which is still a fine bowl but isn't one of the big-money games.
5The favorite usually prevails. There have been some notable SEC Championship Game upsets -- LSU beating Tennessee in 2001 comes to mind -- but the betting favorites have traditionally won in Atlanta. In fact, the favorites are 18-5 in the history of the event. Right now, most books have Florida as a 17-point or 17.5-point underdog. (A few have journeyed up to 18, but most are a bit cagier than that.) If the Gators were to win this game, that would be the largest upset in the history of the series -- by a lot. The largest underdogs to win were getting seven points -- the previously mentioned LSU team, and Alabama in 1999 (against Florida). This blog is not in the business of giving out gambling advice, mostly because betting on the athletic performances of 18- to 22-year-old men is a very good way to lose money. And winning straight up is not the same as winning against the spread; favorites and underdogs are each 11-11-1 on that measure in title game history, so while Alabama can be expected to win the game, covering is another matter entirely.
FIVE TO WATCH
Ryan Anderson, LB, Alabama. A junior who didn't even record a tackle for a loss until the fifth game of the season, Anderson has emerged as a solid player for the Tide. He's the only Alabama defender to notch at least half a TFL in each of the last eight games, and all four of his sacks came in the second half of the season. It's easy to lose track of players in a roster as fall of defensive talent as Alabama's, but Anderson is a player to keep an eye on.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama. Heisman Trophy candidate, one of the best running backs in the country -- do we really need to go over all of this again? Okay. Henry has 1,797 yards and 22 touchdowns on 295 carries. Henry is tops in the NCAA in yardage (cfbstats.com) and touchdowns, though he slips a bit further down the board when it comes to averages. Only twice this year -- against Middle Tennessee and against Arkansas -- has Henry failed to break 100 yards if he had at least 15 carries.
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama. Ridley has developed into one of the most consistent targets for Alabama quarterbacks this season. The freshman has 67 catches for 791 yards and five touchdowns, and hasn't had fewer than four catches in a game since he debuted in the season opener against Wisconsin. Ridley is averaging 11.8 yards a reception. If Florida does success in bogging down Henry, this could be one of the players Alabama turns to.
Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida. You've no doubt heard of Vernon Hargreaves III, but Florida's got another cornerback you might want to keep in mind. Tabor has just as many interceptions as Hargreaves (four), is credited with far more broken-up passes (14, to two for VH3), and also has three tackles for loss, including a sack. Of course, some of that could be because quarterbacks would be wise to avoid throwing to Hargreaves, but Tabor has done a pretty good job of making sure that's not too attractive an alternative.
Kim Klement -- USA Today Sports
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida. The Gators have a pretty good back, too, in the form of Taylor. He needs just 23 yards to become the ninth player in program history to rush for 1,000 yards -- it would be the 11th such season, because Emmitt Smith and Errict Rhett each did it twice. Taylor would also be just the second Florida running back to break 1,000 yards in a season since 2004. On the season, he has 977 yards and 13 touchdowns on 241 carries.
It's hard not to keep coming back to that first point: How will Florida score? If the Gators offense were at least borderline competent, it might be one thing. But this is a team that has struggled against worse defenses than Alabama -- practically all of them are -- and is coming off one of its least inspired games of the year. At the same time, Nick Saban doesn't often lose these games; he's 5-1 in trips to Atlanta. That's not to say there's no chance that Florida gets the upset, because sports don't work like that. It's just that picking the Tide is clearly the percentage play. Alabama 32, Florida 13