Coaches: Tebow is the difference
The four Southeastern Conference coaches ESPN.com surveyed to analyze the league championship game Saturday between No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama have one thing in common: All four went 0-2 against the Gators and the Crimson Tide this season.
They have one other thing in common, that is, with the fans and the media: They didn't stop talking about Gators senior quarterback Tim Tebow. But on that topic, the coaches' mileage did vary.
There was the conventional stance of Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, who said, "If it wasn't for Tebow, it's easy. Alabama wins the game."
There lies the conundrum of defending against Florida. The coaches also said the key to stopping the Gators' offense is to put the ball in Tebow's hands. Well, not in so many words. Let them explain.
Tebow will make plays, as the saying goes. But he doesn't make big plays.
"They don't have the quick-strike capability they had with [Percy] Harvin and [Louis] Murphy," South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said, referring to the star wideouts of the 2008 team. "The teams that played them early didn't realize it. They've got real good receivers, but not like Harvin and Murphy. They are a little more blue-collar."
Mississippi State tried to make Tebow and the Gators' offense execute long drives. The strategy of head coach Dan Mullen, Tebow's offensive coordinator for the quarterback's first three seasons, worked well. Florida scored only two offensive touchdowns, only one of which came on a drive that began in Florida territory.
"We really encouraged them to run Tim Tebow," Mullen said. "One thing with Tim is he will wear you down but he will not beat you with the big play. They moved the ball on us, but we stopped them in the red zone."
How They Fared ...
Tebow has rushed for 796 yards on 193 carries this season. But he has only six rushes of more than 20 yards. His rushing totals are skewed by sacks, which is another issue. Florida has allowed 28 sacks, 10th in the SEC.
Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks thinks Tebow took a step back after the Wildcats' 41-7 loss to the Gators on Sept. 26. Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham's full-speed sack of Tebow ended in a concussion for the quarterback.
"He isn't doing it like he was doing it earlier," Brooks said. "He's been sacked a whole bunch of times. They are one of the worst teams in terms of protecting. He looks a little indecisive in the passing game. ... He goes away from the first read and gets indecisive and starts running around and gets sacked."
Unless he doesn't. The problem with putting the ball in Tebow's hands is that you're putting the ball in Tebow's hands. No one is better at converting third downs. Kiffin summed up a defense's dilemma well.
"People are coming free versus Florida," Kiffin said. "But Tebow is so hard to tackle."
If stopping the Florida offense means taking away the big play, stopping Alabama is the polar opposite.
"With Florida, let's see you execute 14 plays," Mullen said. "That's what Alabama wants to do. You want to force Alabama to take shots."
Alas, the Crimson Tide cruised to a 31-3 victory over the Bulldogs.
"We wanted to force them into making big plays," Mullen said. "They made four of them."
Greg McElroy threw touchdown passes of 45 and 48 yards in that game, while tailback Mark Ingram ran 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Ingram took over the fourth quarter against South Carolina as well, getting all 68 rushing yards on the final touchdown drive to finish with a career-high 246 yards in a 20-6 victory.
"A lot of our game plan was predicated on getting to the quarterback," Johnson said. "I got greedy and allowed Ingram to break out of the box. ... The quarterback is a very limited kid. He's had some good drives. You can't rattle him mentally. Our pressure package was totally focusing on making that quarterback make mistakes."
Johnson put it simply: "If Alabama can run the ball, they'll beat Florida."
That is not easy to do. The Gators allow 89.9 rushing yards per game, second in the SEC to Alabama (77.1). The coaches admire both defenses. To a man, they raved about the speed and athleticism of the Gators, especially in the secondary. None would venture a guess at the effect of the suspension of defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Brooks said it's hard to gauge the inner dynamics of a team.
"They could rally and say, 'We're not a one-man team,'" Brooks said. "Or it could be a major distraction, this close to the biggest game of the year."
The Alabama defense drew admiration for head coach Nick Saban's ability to take very talented players and concoct a scheme to confound the opposing quarterback.
"They are so schematically sound," Kiffin said. "If you do start to beat them, Nick and Kirby [Smart, the defensive coordinator] are so good. They adjust. They are an NFL staff. NFL offenses will expose you, but can you adjust?"
Kiffin called Saban's Crimson Tide "the best-coached team in the country. They have few penalties. They allow few sacks. They're very disciplined. They don't give up big plays."
And yet, the Crimson Tide don't have a quarterback who has started 22 consecutive victories, has won a national championship and a Heisman, and is 34-5 overall as a starter. Alabama doesn't have Tebow.
"The biggest difference, when Florida has the ball, when you get to the big game, is experience at the quarterback position when the game is on the line," Mullen said. "Not that Alabama can't do it. The guy did it last week. It's the experience. Maybe he'll do it in the big game. Tebow plays his best in the biggest games."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.