5 storylines for Alabama vs. Florida rematch in SEC Championship Game
Alabama-Florida regular-season games are remembered about as much as the two times the Celtics and Lakers would tangle during the regular season in the 1980s.
The real memories were made during their three NBA Finals clashes, and when the rivalry books are written about the Gators and Crimson Tide in the years ahead, they will center on the nine (and counting) SEC Championship Game meetings between the two powerhouses. The ninth installment of the UF-Bama championship documentary arrives with full force Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
At this point, it’s almost a rite of early December to have thousands of fans from the towns of Tuscaloosa and Gainesville journeying to north Georgia to decide the SEC’s latest king. The programs played in the first three title games from 1992-94, so they got a head start on everybody, and the 25th edition of the SEC’s grand show on Saturday will again feature the duo of behemoths. No other two programs have met more than three times.
Bama comes in unbeaten (again) and while a perfect season is at stake, the Tide can likely lose Saturday and still be in the four-team College Football Playoff. Florida, on the other hand, is offensively challenged (again) and is a three-loss team coming off a bitter 31-13 defeat at the hands of Florida State.
The Gators can’t be national champions anymore, but they can still be SEC champions, and in the spirit of that unique scenario we give you the five biggest storylines of Saturday’s SEC Championship Game.
1. Florida is still Florida, despite all its faults and warts, especially on offense. The Gators are here for a reason. They won the SEC East, yet again. But can a team that’s had so much difficulty scoring over the course of the season, as it did last year, have the true inner belief that it can hang with Nick Saban’s multi-faceted juggernaut for 60 minutes, on a fast track in the dome?
The Gators haven’t scored more than 20 points in any of their past four games, using defense, grit and mental toughness to find its way to Atlanta. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alabama has scored at least 30 points in all but one of its games this season. Only LSU kept Bama down in that 10-0 grinder in Death Valley.
And Alabama hasn’t allowed a touchdown since October.
So Florida is going to have to summon its strong belief one last time to make this a competitive game, which it managed to do last year in a respectable 29-15 loss.
If Jim McElwain’s strong-willed, stubborn and, yes, injury-ravaged team can win the mental battle with itself Saturday, it has a shot to hang around, like last year. If the mental part gets away from them early, then the dam will burst and Bama will be off to the races.
2. The Gators must lean on their resolve. The Gators’ goal-line stand at LSU a few weeks ago was the perfect illustration of their savvy, winning a division-clinching game that was supposed to be at home and instead was in possibly the most hostile stadium in the country. Florida pulled it off with multiple players out on both sides of the ball. And on Saturday the Gators will need to stage a sequel to pull another stunner.
UF will be without starting defensive end Jordan Sherit against the Tide, and that’s just the start of the injury list. McElwain admitted to reporters that “we took some significant hits again” in the loss at FSU. Sherit injured his right knee in that game, and nickel cornerback Duke Dawson (ankle) and left guard Martez Ivey (leg) also left the game.
The Gators were already without starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, center Cam Dillard, safety Marcus Maye, safety Nick Washington and linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. UF could get a few players back Saturday and still be considered a banged-up team, and a banged-up team that struggles to score isn’t exactly the recipe for success against brick walls like Bama. The odds are so heavily stacked against UF, which of course should make this particular Gators team feel very much in its element.
3. No freshman QB has won the SEC Championship Game. Jalen Hurts has been so phenomenal this season for Saban, it’s hard to believe or remember that he’s still only a true freshman. But he is. And even though Hurts has engineered an undefeated regular season, rolling up big stats in big games against big-time opponents, this will be his first taste of the Georgia Dome on the first Saturday of December. And there is something different about the SEC title game.
So how will Hurts react in his first conference title clash? Will the stage get to him even a little, against a quality defense like Florida’s? Probably not. He has so much talent and experience around him, to boost him and complement him, and it again appears all but settled that Bama is headed to the four-team College Football Playoff even if it should stumble Saturday, so it’s not like it’s win or go home for Hurts.
This is a chance to observe and evaluate the next chapter of Hurts’ evolution as a quarterback in the SEC, which makes it exciting and interesting. Freshman quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be at the helm of perfect seasons and SEC title teams, so Hurts is a curiosity on Saturday as much as he is a phenom.
4. How motivated will Alabama be? Bama fans might snicker at this one, and they wouldn’t be wrong to, after all the big games this program has played in since this astounding run began in 2009. But because the Tide is pretty much locked into the College Football Playoff no matter what happens Saturday, human nature can sometimes creep into a collective psyche, even one as strong and stable as Alabama’s.
So is there a chance that the Tide plays this game as if it’s killing time before the playoffs start? Again, like Hurts being affected by the stage, you would tend to think Bama will come out and do what Bama does, with no side effects. But this is a unique position for a team to be in, playing in its conference title game, against a team it whipped the previous year, with a seemingly strong safety net if it happens to fall.
If the Tide plays with that safety net in mind against a Florida team that knows nobody is giving it a shot, then we could be in for a closer-than-expected ending in Atlanta. Of course, this is where Saban is at his best, keeping his players in the moment without looking ahead. Bama wants to lift up two team trophies this year, not just the one at the very end, so complacency will probably be defeated just like every one of the Tide’s opponents.
5. Gators must play mistake-free football. McElwain told ESPN the obvious truth. He said Alabama doesn’t have a weakness and gave this blueprint to slay the Crimson Tide: “The biggest thing is you can’t hurt yourself. Whatever they get, you’ve got to make them earn it.”
So if Bama doesn’t have a true weakness, what and where can the Gators possibly attack to make the fourth quarter matter Saturday? The one tiny chink in Alabama’s armor has been the Tide’s penchant for slow starts this season. Not every week, of course, but here and there, like against Ole Miss, Kentucky, even tiny Chattanooga (Bama trailed 3-0 after the first quarter) and just last week against Auburn, when Bama led by only 13-9 at halftime.
The hope for Florida is that it comes out breathing its nobody-is-giving-us-a-chance fire and that Alabama again is slow out of the gate. The Tide started slow against UF last year under the dome and it never quite took off, leading only 12-7 at the half in the sluggish 29-15 win. The gritty Gators need to make this happen again to keep the game on their own ugly terms — or else.