4:00 PM ET, December 6, 2008
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
Toward the bottom of the Top 25 in late August, Alabama wasn't even expected to emerge from its season opener at the Georgia Dome with a win.
Three months later, the Crimson Tide still haven't lost.
Yet, upon returning to Atlanta for Saturday's SEC championship game, top-ranked Alabama will be a decided underdog against No. 2 Florida, with the winner claiming not only conference supremacy, but a likely spot in the BCS title game.
The Crimson Tide (12-0, 8-0 SEC) were ranked 24th in the preseason AP Top 25, an indication that improvement was expected from a team that went 7-6 and didn't receive a single poll vote at the end of Nick Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa. A five-point underdog to preseason ACC favorite Clemson on Aug. 30 in Atlanta, Alabama dominated the No. 9 Tigers, holding the ball for more than 41 minutes of a 34-10 victory.
Ball control and defense were the hallmarks of the Tide for their next 11 wins as well. Alabama ranks third in the Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense (11.5 ppg) and total defense (248.5 yards per game), and is eighth in time of possession (32:32).
So after 12 wins, including three road or neutral site victories over top-15 opponents, the Tide have 62 of the 65 first-place votes in the AP poll. However, the team receiving the other three opened the week as a 10-point favorite in this game.
"People have written us off as underdogs before and we've proven them wrong," Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer said. "It's nothing different."
While Alabama has won primarily by keeping opponents out of the end zone, Florida (11-1, 7-1) boasts the nation's third-highest scoring offense. The Gators average 46.3 points, and with Tim Tebow looking as sharp as ever, they've put up an average of 53.7 while winning each of their last seven games by at least four touchdowns.
With Saturday's winner almost certain to grab one of the spots in the BCS championship game Jan. 8 in Miami, Florida's offensive dominance has made it the popular pick -- and it's made a 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss in late September seem like ancient history.
"We're underdogs because they focus so much on the great athleticism that those guys consist of," Tide cornerback Javier Arenas said. "And they do have a lot of athleticism. Whoever is marking us as a 10-point underdog, I think that's what they're focusing on. ... We're just going to play our best ball and let it all unravel from there."
Florida receiver David Nelson, looking to win a second SEC title game in three years, definitely doesn't see his team as a prohibitive favorite over the Tide.
"They're 12-0 and from what we've seen on film, they're a really good team," Nelson said. "They do everything right. They have a great defense from what I've seen.
"Wow, I don't know how you can favor a No. 2 over a No. 1 team."
Tebow, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, has been the biggest reason for Florida's offensive explosion.
He only had eight passing and two rushing touchdowns through the Gators' first five games. Those were solid numbers, but paled in comparison to his statistics last season, when he combined for 55 touchdowns in 13 games while becoming the first sophomore to win college football's top individual honor.
Since Oct. 11, though, Tebow -- who nearly chose Alabama while being recruited -- has taken off. Starting with a 51-21 demolition of then-No. 4 LSU, Tebow has 17 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns in his last seven games. Florida has built leads so quickly that Tebow has spent much of his time after halftime either handing the ball off or on the sidelines holding his helmet.
He had three touchdowns through the air and another on the ground Saturday in the Gators' 45-15 win at Florida State, a performance that left Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden gushing.
"He deserves to be mentioned again for the Heisman," Bowden said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a better leader."
Tebow has had Percy Harvin alongside him ever since arriving in Gainesville in 2006, and Harvin has turned into one of the country's most dangerous all-purpose threats. Harvin hasn't topped the 1,600-plus total yards he had in 2007, but he's scored 16 touchdowns this season.
One of those touchdowns came less than five minutes into the win in Tallahassee, but Harvin missed the second half with a right ankle sprain and the injury has left him questionable for Saturday.
"He's as competitive a human being as I've ever been around," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's doing everything he can possibly do, and our training staff's the best in college football. That's all positive."
What Florida can rely on this season that it couldn't in 2007 is a strong defense. Though the Gators offense is the unit garnering national recognition, their defense -- like the Tide's -- is in the top 10 in the FBS in scoring defense (12.3 ppg) and total defense (275.7). Florida also has forced 32 turnovers, third-most in the country.
The Gators won't have an easy time forcing quarterback John Parker Wilson into making a mistake. Though he's only thrown nine touchdown passes, the senior has tossed just five interceptions after combining for 22 in his first two seasons as a starter.
With Wilson serving as a caretaker, the Tide's main source of offense comes on the ground. Alabama is second in the SEC -- behind Florida -- in rushing yards per game (201.5), led by junior Glen Coffee (6.2 yards per carry).
Coffee ran for 144 yards and a score Saturday in the Tide's 36-0 rout of bitter rival Auburn, helping snap a six-game losing streak to the Tigers. Auburn had allowed only four rushing touchdowns in its first 11 games before Alabama ran for three.
"We just pounded them up front, just changing the way they thought," Wilson said. "They just caved in."
Wilson ranks fifth in the SEC in passing yards, but he has one of the league's most explosive receivers on his side. Freshman Julio Jones is tied for fourth in the conference with 723 yards, yet he hasn't had a touchdown reception since scoring four times in his first five collegiate games.
Alabama leads the all-time series with Florida 21-13, and this marks the schools' first meeting since 2006. It's the sixth time they've played for the SEC championship, with the Gators leading 3-2.
Saturday will be the 40th time the AP's top two teams have met, with No. 1 holding a 23-15-1 edge. This is the first 1-2 matchup in a conference championship game.
Top 25 Overview
It's being billed as the greatest conference championship game of all time. It'll be a clash of styles at Georgia Dome: the power of Alabama vs. the speed of Florida. All that's on the line for the Tide and Gators is a trip to the BCS title game.
Gators have too much speed for Alabama
|Avg Points Allowed||13.0||12.8|