Respectful of Florida, Alabama arrives at crucial juncture of schedule
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The summer heat still lingers and the expected weekend invasion of fans hasn’t really begun yet, but there’s a different feeling in Tuscaloosa.
The University of Alabama isn’t just hosting a game on Saturday, but a big one. That it’s the Crimson Tide’s Southeastern Conference opener and will be shown nationally on CBS adds to the build up, only it’s more than that.
It’s against Florida … and Florida is always something special.
While college football is all about rivalries and high-profile matchups one would be hard pressed to find a series that’s been more important over the past 25 years.
Seven times these teams have met in the SEC Championship Game since it was created in 1992, and during that time period the two programs have combined to win seven national titles.
“The ’90 game we won a real close one in Tuscaloosa and then we got them pretty good in the Swamp in ’91,” said Steve Spurrier, now the head coach at South Carolina. “I think those were the only games they lost in two years, or something like that.”
(To clarify: During the 1991-92 seasons, Alabama’s only loss was to Florida).
“It was a good rivalry. They beat us real good in ’99, I remember that one also, in the SEC Championship Game,” the Ol’ Ball Coach continued. “But those victories early, ‘90, ’91, rally got us started there at Florida and I think convinced the players during that time: ‘Hey, we’re good enough to beat almost anybody if we prepare and get ready to play.’ So yeah, those were huge wins in the early ’90s there.”
Since then, every Alabama-Florida game has been marquee quality, even the last meeting in 2011 when the Crimson Tide dominated the No. 12 Gators 38-10 and demonstrated that it was ready to challenge for another national title (which it eventually won).
The previous season Alabama pulled of a 31-6 victory against the 7th-ranked visitors, snapping the Gators’ streak of 24-consecutive regular-season wins. It might have marked the beginning of the end for Urban Meyer in Gainesville.
Imagine how different college football might be today with different results.
There have also been scores of unforgettable moments, like Antonio Langham’s 27-yard interception return for a touchdown in 1992 and Shaun Alexander’s 25-yard touchdown in overtime at No. 3 Florida in 1999.
“I didn’t come back to win the Heisman Trophy,” Alexander said after the 34-7 victory in the SEC Championship Game rematch. “I came back to play in games like this. The guys on this team wanted this championship so badly.”
Even though it was before the end zone expansions some believe that the 2005 meeting was the loudest game ever played at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mike Shula’s biggest win as a coach got off to a raucous start when Tyrone Prothro caught quarterback Brodie Croyle’s pass in stride for an 87-yard touchdown, only to be silenced by the wide receiver’s career-ending injury near the end of the 31-3 beat-down of the No. 5 Gators.
In 2009, Tim Tebow was left in tears on the sideline while running back Mark Ingram essentially secured Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy. Similarly, Florida pursuit of a dynasty was ripped away and subsequently claimed by the Crimson Tide.
Now the Gators have returned, having circled this Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) as potentially being a make-or-break game. Alabama fans need to disregard that Florida isn’t ranked, ignore last week’s triple-overtime victory over Kentucky, and forget that UF is coming off fits first losing season since 1979.
That team fell apart after 17 players sustained season-ending injuries. This one has yet to experience a significant setback and not only has talent, but key players at crucial spots opposite where Alabama has concerns: Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson vs. the Crimson Tide’s cornerbacks, and junior defensive ends Dante Fowler and Jonathan facing a freshman left tackle.
“Florida has an outstanding team, WAY better than anybody here thinks, in terms of the players that they have,” Coach Nick Saban said. “They lost a lot of players due to injury last year. They’ve got a lot of players back that are very, very good players. Regardless of what anybody thinks, they’ll be as talented probably as anybody that we play this year.”
With Alabama still putting things together this and the subsequent game at Ole Miss on Oct. 4 will tell a lot about the 2014 Crimson Tide.
Is the secondary ready to hold up against a potent spread attack?
Can the offense establish the run against a top-notch defense?
Will quarterback Blake Sims continue to play well against a quality SEC opponent?
It’s absolutely nothing short of being huge game.
“I think the team as a whole has been really focused this week,” senior tight end Brian Vogler said. “Not that we haven’t been focused the other weeks, but I think we all know what’s in front of us, and going into SEC play we have to have the right mindset for everything.
“I think they’re a lot better than people think they are.”