Commentary

Crimson Tide have the ingredients to beat the Gators

Originally Published: November 29, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Florida might be the fastest team in the history of college football.

With receiver Percy Harvin and tailbacks Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey, the Gators might have more speed than the Jamaican sprint team that ran away with the Beijing Olympics.

Florida also has quarterback Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and one of the country's most improved defenses.

The No. 4 Gators walloped rival Florida State 45-15 at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday, marking the seventh consecutive game in which they scored 40 points or more.

In fact, since losing to Ole Miss 31-30 in The Swamp on Sept. 27, the Gators have outscored their eight opponents 414-97, and won each game by at least four touchdowns.

But the Gators won't beat Alabama in Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

The No. 1 Crimson Tide almost quietly completed a perfect 12-0 regular season on Saturday night, blasting rival Auburn 36-0 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was Alabama's first victory in its past seven tries in the game known as the Iron Bowl, and none of its previous 11 wins this season was any more pleasing.

"Our biggest goal this year was to make sure we won this game," Alabama safety Rashad Johnson said. "Being 11-0 made it that much bigger. It was one thing just to win, but to come in and dominate and shut them out makes it that much sweeter."

Nothing will be more gratifying for Alabama than beating the Gators on Saturday night. The winner of the SEC championship game is all but guaranteed a spot in the Jan. 8 BCS Championship Game in South Florida, where it probably will play a Big 12 team for the national title.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban knows the way to No. 1, and it goes through Florida in the Georgia Dome.

Even though the Crimson Tide have been ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings for more than a month, the Gators have been the league's "hot" team since the calendar turned to October. Florida beat defending national champion LSU by 30 points. The Gators beat preseason No. 1 Georgia by 39. They beat South Carolina and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier by 50.

But Alabama has the necessary ingredients -- a stifling, physical defense and a punishing, ball-control offense -- to slow the Gators down.

And the Crimson Tide have coach Nick Saban, who was paid a whopping $4 million per season to return Alabama to its previous glory.

So far, at least, Saban is at least two years ahead of schedule. And whether you love or hate him, it's hard to find many coaches who are better than Saban at preparing a game plan.

"I think they're playing extremely well and they've dominated a lot of their opponents," Saban said. "They're certainly going to be a challenge for us. They're playing well, and we're playing pretty well. I think we've got two contrasting styles, and I think it will be interesting to see how those styles affect the outcome of the game."

It's almost as if the SEC's old guard will battle its new regime in Atlanta. Coach Urban Meyer was lured to Florida from Utah and used his dynamic spread offense to lead the Gators to a national championship in his second season in 2006. Saban is coaching at his second SEC school after leading LSU to the 2003 BCS national title, then leaving for the NFL's Miami Dolphins.

Saban's method is almost methodical. The Crimson Tide ran 68 offensive plays against Auburn, and, predictably, 50 of them were on the ground. Alabama ran for 234 yards, led by junior Glen Coffee's 144 yards on 20 carries.

Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson attempted only 16 passes, completing eight throws for 134 yards with one touchdown.

I think they're playing extremely well and they've dominated a lot of their opponents. They're certainly going to be a challenge for us. They're playing well, and we're playing pretty well.

-- Nick Saban on Florida

Florida gashes opponents from everywhere. Whether it's Tebow running and throwing or handing off to Harvin, or Demps and Rainey sprinting out of the backfield in a hurry, defenses are never sure where the Gators will attack them next.

Alabama's plan is much simpler. Odds are the Crimson Tide will run behind their mammoth offensive line -- led by left tackle Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell -- on nearly every down.

That's exactly what the Crimson Tide did against Auburn, and it worked to near perfection.

"I think the biggest thing was we were able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball a little bit," Saban said. "Glen had a good game, and that was probably the difference. They couldn't run it on us, and that put them in a situation where their quarterback had to try to beat us a different way."

Alabama doesn't have to be as explosive on offense because its defense won't surrender many points. Auburn ran 30 times for only 57 yards.

Tigers quarterback Kodi Burns seemed confused from the start, completing only 9 of 23 passes for 113 yards. He was sacked twice and ran 12 times for 6 yards.

"As soon as we got a little pressure on him, he quit going through his reads and started scrambling," Johnson said.

Tebow is much better than Burns, who struggled all season directing Auburn's failed spread offense. But if the Crimson Tide's defense flexes its muscle again, Tebow might have to beat Alabama with his arm instead of his legs.

"It's going to be a good game," said Terrence Cody, the Tide's 365-pound nose guard. "We're both very good teams. Florida is flashier and all that stuff. But we're hard-nosed, and we'll go out there and give them everything we've got."

[+] EnlargeGlen Coffee
AP Photo/Dave MartinGlen Coffee leads a potent Alabama rushing attack.
With Cody healthy again, Alabama's defense should have more than enough to slow the Gators down. Cody played much better against Auburn, after returning from a knee injury two weeks ago. The Tide's open date last week couldn't have come at a better time for him.

"It helps us tremendously because he's hard to single block," Saban said. "He practiced a lot better and had his quickness and mobility back. I don't think he was that way prior to the off week. I think it helped his conditioning."

The Crimson Tide have back one of their best players. Harvin, who might be Florida's most dangerous weapon, left Saturday's game against Florida State with a sprained ankle.

Whether Harvin is back or not, the Crimson Tide can't turn the SEC championship game into a track meet. Alabama won't win.

But the Crimson Tide will win by doing what they've done all along: playing great defense and controlling the clock with their running game.

"I think we are who we are," Saban said. "The way we play is who we are. They're going to have to match our style of play, and we're going to have to match their speed. Their style of offense is entirely different from what we've seen so far this season."

And the Gators haven't seen a team as strong or menacing as the Crimson Tide.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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