SEC offers biggest game of season
It could be the level of talent. When No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama run onto the Georgia Dome turf Saturday, there will be "10 [NFL draft] first-day picks on defense alone," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said.
It could be the spectacle. The asking price on StubHub for a seat in the upper deck of the end zone starts at $390 apiece.
It could be the rematch. Last year, No. 3 Florida defeated No. 1 Alabama, 31-20 in a game that delivered the competitiveness and excitement those rungs on the BCS ladder promise. A year later, the rungs are the highest they can get.
It could be the coaching matchup. Given that Florida and Alabama return to each other's regular-season schedules in 2010 and 2011, the Crimson Tide's Nick Saban and the Gators' Urban Meyer, winners of three of the past six national championships, could face each other six times in a four-year period. Woody and Bo never did that.
"I can't think of a bigger football game that I've been a part of," said Meyer, 2-0 in BCS Championship Games. Some people like the Saturday of Final Four weekend more than Monday night. This is, if nothing else, a BCS semifinal.
So this game is big. How big? SEC commissioner Mike Slive's rabbi is driving over from Birmingham -- after Saturday services, of course -- to see it.
"He has to leave late, so I got him a good parking space," Slive said with a twinkle.
When the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, this is exactly what the league hoped would happen, if anyone had the moxie to think this big. For all the league's bluster about playing the best football in the nation, this game is evidence to bolster the argument. In the 18 seasons of FBS conference championship games, this is the first time the national No. 1 and No. 2 will meet.
The Florida-Alabama matchup has come to define the SEC championship game. This is the seventh time the teams will play for the SEC title. No other pair of teams has played more than twice. In fact, the Crimson Tide has never played another SEC team for the league championship.
The matchups on the field live up to those on the sidelines. There is Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, making a late-season rush to win his second Heisman, and Alabama tailback Mark Ingram, trying to regain the momentum that a week ago had him in position to win his first.
The debate over the best player in the SEC might be answered. Is it Tebow, who has led Florida to 22 consecutive victories and a 25-1 record over the past two seasons? Or is it middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who has led Alabama to a 24-2 record over the past two seasons?
There is the matchup of All-Americans. Ingram, McClain, guard Mike Johnson and defensive back Javier Arenas of Alabama all made the American Football Coaches Association team announced Thursday. The coaches also honored the best cover corner in the nation, the Gators' Joe Haden, from the best secondary in the nation.
Haden almost surely will shadow Alabama sophomore Julio Jones, the preseason All-American slowed by injury and double-teams early in the season. Against Auburn, however, Jones looked like a player who can control a defense from the wideout position. Why that matchup won't be shown on pay-per-view is a mystery. It stands as the rare revenue stream missed by the SEC.
"He's a really big, strong guy," Haden said of Jones during a teleconference call this week. "Pretty fast. What I'm going to do is try to get my hands on him, throw off the timing."
The Gators have allowed only four punts to be returned all season for a total of 13 yards. That's nearly 4 fewer yards than the average return by Arenas, who set a conference record this season with the seventh punt return touchdown of his career.
For all the speed that will fly around the Georgia Dome turf, NFL personnel men say what separates the SEC from the rest of the nation is the athleticism at the line of scrimmage. To see how Florida's Pouncey twins, center Maurkice and right guard Mike, and left guard James Wilson handle Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody will be worth taking your eye off following the ball for a couple of plays.
There is also the matchup that can't be measured by statistics or a scout's stopwatch.
"When you watch Alabama play, it looks like they're playing for each other, too, like the way we play for each other," Haden said. "We don't just play for individual stats. We don't just play for ourselves. We play for our teammates because you could tell that if you really care about your teammates, it makes you go that much harder for them. I don't know how Alabama is doing it, but it looks like they really care about each other, too."
In July, the media predicted a showdown between Florida and Alabama. The fans have been clamoring for it all season. Now, thank goodness, the hype will end and the game will kick off.
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.
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