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It seems as though everyone is saying, for all intents and purposes, that the SEC Championship game this year is a National Championship semi-final. Alabama is ranked #1, Florida #2, and the winner will undoubtedly advance to play in Miami for the title. They’re also ready to hand Florida the crown before the game is even played.

Florida is the sexy pick
Despite Alabama’s unblemished string of W’s this season, Florida is the near-unanimous pick to win the game, but I’d like to remind everyone of a few things. First: A spread (in which a certain team is favored over another team by a “spread” of points) is dictated by the gambling public. If Vegas sees heavy betting one way or another, they adjust the spread to even out according to what the gambling public believes will happen. So, is it disrespect that Alabama’s a ten point dog? No, they were a 14 point dog last week, and frankly, who cares? The gambling public is not an entirely reliable source. Maybe it is to you, but I still say they fail to consider many key factors when it comes to football.

As it is every year, the gambling public is dazzled by high-powered offenses and for some reason think they’re unbeatable, despite having been proved wrong time and time again since the beginning of football time. Remember what the Bear once said, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” So you’ll forgive me if I ignore the gambling public’s opinion and break the game down in a way that a lot of us commoners don’t immediately consider.

The history of the matchup
Alabama leads the all-time series with 21 wins to Florida’s 13. They first played in 1904 (Alabama won 29-0), and last played in ’06 (Florida won 28-13). In their last 20 meetings, Alabama is 13-7 against the Gators, and beat them twice in ’99, once in the regular season and again for the SEC championship. In their last 5 meetings, Alabama still holds the edge, 3-2. That’s the history, of course, and has very little bearing on this weekend’s matchup. Some people might like to predict the outcome based on a trend, but I believe trends are just another record meant to be broken.

The unimportant matchup everyone considers
Both Florida and Alabama have good defenses, and Florida obviously has the more potent offense. With most people, this is as far as a matchup needs to be considered. And this is exactly the reason why everyone under the sun is picking Florida to win.

I hear people asking the question: “How many points will Alabama have to score to keep up with Florida?” or “How many points can Alabama afford to let Florida score in order to have a chance?” The fact is, if the game can be kept close, Alabama can win. If Alabama can score at all, they can win. Alabama’s front seven is as good as any in the country, and their O-line is heralded as the best in the SEC. Games are won in the trenches, folks.

The gambling public, as well as many “experts,” are trying to predict the outcome of this game by looking at unimportant matchups. Florida has the better QB, Florida has the better offense, Alabama gets the slight edge in defense, and look! Florida has slightly better rushing statistics than Alabama. Running the ball is Alabama’s bread and butter, right? So if Florida does that better than Alabama, then it’s a wash, obviously, Florida will win.

They’ll compare defensive secondaries, linebacking corps, running backs and wide receivers. What’s interesting to me is that they rarely compare a receiving corps versus a secondary. I’d rather know how Florida’s O-line will handle Terrence Cody and the Alabama defensive front, than to compare one defensive front to the other, which tells us nothing of how the game will play out.

Matchups–Breaking down the game
The matchups you should be considering are these:

  • Can Florida penetrate Alabama’s defensive line, and if so, can they get past the linebacking corps?
  • Can Alabama’s O-line move Florida’s front 4?

Florida will move the ball, there’s no disputing that. But Alabama will move the ball as well, you can take that to the bank. The big difference here is that Alabama’s middle line will slow down the Florida rushing attack, and with the line clogged Tebow will have to go to the air or run it himself. 

Dictating tempo
Alabama’s main success will be in running the ball behind the best offensive line in the SEC. And what does that mean, really? It means that Florida will have to adjust to Alabama’s style of play, something Alabama has dictated to their opponents all season long. There hasn’t been a single game this season that Alabama hasn’t dictated the tempo and controlled the clock. And when Alabama forces their opponent to adjust, the scales just tipped into Alabama’s favor. That’s a huge advantage, and people who know football will understand that dictating the tempo and controlling the clock will reap dividends in field position and give more opportunities to get turnovers.

Penalties
Another interesting statistic to look at is penalties. Georgia is the most-penalized SEC team with 105 penalties this season for nearly 900 yards. Florida is second with 88 penalties for 713 yards. Alabama is giving away the least free yardage in the SEC, with 48 penalties for 422 yards. So, Florida is giving away 60 yards per game, while Alabama is giving away only 35.

What it boils down to
So the real matchup in this game, the biggest question mark left, is this: Can the Alabama secondary manage Florida’s passing attack. And the answer to that question is, undeniably, yes. Because Alabama will have already dictated what they’ll allow Florida to do by clogging the line and controlling the clock.

And the biggest statistic of all
The statistic everyone sees floating right before their eyes but fails to consider in context is this: Florida has not been challenged by any single team this season except the one that beat them. Sometimes it’s good to have to scrap and fight and claw to win a game. So, while some people compare the margins of victory of both teams against LSU, Kentucky and Georgia and see it as a benefit to Florida, it is actually more of a benefit to Alabama. Having had to scrap out some wins means Alabama knows how to do it. Florida’s breezed through their schedule, scoring at will, and the one time they were faced with an opposition who gave them a fight they lost.  

Why is everyone ignoring Arkansas?
When comparing margins of victory, everyone keeps bringing up Kentucky, Georgia and LSU. No one considers the Arkansas game. A team Alabama beat 49-14 and Florida beat 38-7. They see broader margins of victory over Kentucky and LSU for Florida and try to predict the outcome of the SEC championship based on those scores. Well, if you’re going to consider those games, shouldn’t you consider Arkansas, too? The fact is that none of those margins of victory mean a thing. That’s the way that team played on that day, and the score reflected the matchups on the field.

The Tebow factor
The only real advantage we can give Florida is their quarterback. Tebow is a difference maker, and the outcome of the game could come down to how well he can run his quarterback draw. If Alabama keeps him in the pocket, look for a Crimson Saturday night.

The Scheme
I think I’ll go with Nick Saban here. Saban is a master strategist and if the game comes down to who’s got the better game plan, Alabama will win. Florida hasn’t had to game plan a win this season. They haven’t had to out-scheme an opponent to rise to victory. The one time they were faced with that challenge they failed. Florida will depend on their superior talent to deliver, and if that talent is neutralized by a superior scheme, they’ll fail.  

The end result
The matchups we’ve considered are:

  • Penalties. Advantge-Alabama
  • Ability to win a close game. Advantage-Alabama
  • Florida’s O-line vs Alabama’s defensive front. Advantage-Alabama
  • Dictating tempo. Advantage-Alabama
  • Scheme. Advantage-Alabama

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Sure they can. Remember 1992? Going to play Miami in the Sugar Bowl the media pronounced the game over before it even began. Alabama had a “second rate defense and a one-dimensional offense.” Miami had the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and were the defending national champions. And then Alabama plowed them under, 34-13.

There are plenty of examples of the same type scenario: the nation is mesmerized by the potent offense of a team like Florida (Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, etc. etc.), forgetting that a bruising rushing attack controls the clock, keeps the ball out of that potent offense’s hands, and a stifling defense makes that potent offense look a lot more pedestrian.

The Florida team you will see on Saturday will look a lot different from the one you’re used to seeing pummel their opponents. Alabama is well-equipped to handle the Gators.

Alabama: 34
Florida: 28

Asked how he feels about being an underdog to Florida in the SEC Championship game, Nick Saban said, “That’s a’ight, don’t bother me any.”

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It wasn’t so long ago–right before the ’08 season kicked off–that Auburn fans were praising theiry  head coach and arguing that he was the best coach in the SEC. They even argued that he was one of the top 5 coaches in the country. Better even than Nick Saban, they said, en masse.

Just look at his record, they cried. He’s averaged ten wins a season over the past five seasons, won one SEC championship, and beaten cross-state rival Alabama six consecutive years.

Oh, how times have changed. Now those same fans are calling for a change. It seems Tommy isn’t quite the coach they thought he was. Either that or they’re as fickle as the weather.

But the fact is that Tuberville is the same coach now as he’s always been. He’s good–not great. Tommy took a look at where his program was, what they’d accomplished, and decided it was time to make a change. Ten wins a year wasn’t good enough. One SEC championship in his ten-year tenure wasn’t good enough. And yes, they beat Alabama six straight years, but it was an Alabama team crippled by NCAA sanctions, suffering through a gloomy era.

Along came Nick Saban and suddenly the focus changed. People weren’t talking about Auburn’s dominance any more, they were talking about the return of the Tide to prominence. Suddenly Alabama had a stable of stud recruits, had in fact whipped Auburn on the recruiting front, and the future was looking less bright on the Plains. And, worse, in Auburn’s greatest era ever, the Golden Age on the Plains, LSU was suddenly the perennial favorite to win the West. Another team constructed by Auburn arch-rival Nick Saban. And now Nick was busy building a beast in Tuscaloosa. Things were coming to a head.

So Tuberville opted to make the change, betting in his riverboat gambler style that the spread offense was what they needed to get them over the hump and into contention for the SEC or maybe even the BCS championship. He did it because he wanted to score more points, as he pointed out in this press conference:

If we wanted to win eight, nine games, sometimes maybe win 10, we could have stayed with the two-back offense. But it’s hard to consistently pound and pound the ball. People were ganging up on us with eight, nine, 10 people in the box. Last year I can count on one hand how many big plays we had over 15, 20 yards. It’s tough to win just trying to play smash-mouth. Hopefully this offense is going to help us be able to score from long distance a little more often.

And there’s the dirty truth that, in retrospect, might be the death knell for Tubs. He wasn’t content to be in contention every year. He wanted to stir the pot, change things up, score more points, and…still be in contention every year, but with a different offense.

Enter Tony Franklin, to the ecstasy of the Auburn Nation. They racked up 423 yards in his first game, last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, against Clemson, the Auburn of the ACC. But those yards were gained in the hands of a seasoned senior quarterback, a point that Auburn Nation seemed to fail to realize was relevant, until this season, when that same offense was in the hands of JUCO transfer Chris Todd and limp-armed Kodi Burns.

Suddenly, Franklin’s vaunted offense seems frozen in time, unable to complete a pass, and the only success they enjoy comes when they line up in a two tight end, two tailback set, which is so not the spread offense Auburn Nation was promised.

But at this point, Auburn Nation would embrace a return to the days of bruising power football. They’re ready to chuck the “spread eagle,” and Tony Franklin–and maybe even Tommy Tuberville–off the nearest cliff they can find.

That’s a far cry from where we were just six quick weeks ago, when Auburn Nation was praising their head coach as the best in the SEC and one of the top 5 coaches in the entire country. Now, despite a winning record (4-2), it seems the blinds have suddenly been lifted from the eyes of the Aubies and they see Tuberville for his mistakes rather than for his triumphs, or, another way of saying it would be they they see him for the tattered many rather than for the tainted few.

The tainted few, you say? Well, sure. One SEC championship in ten years is a dubious accomplishment. Beating Bama for six straight years while they didn’t even have a full roster…sure, it’s an accomplishment, but again, tainted. And what else has he accomplished in his Auburn tenure? He’s averaged ten wins the past five seasons, and the scrapped the formula that accomplished that impressive feat. Along the way, Tommy’s had some impressive wins, but for every win in the Swamp or victory against Georgia, there’s been a loss against a team they had no business losing to.

And now coacheshotseat.com lists Tommy as the sixth most-likely coach to be fired.

Curiously, in his most recent press conference, Tuberville noted that they would stick with the spread offense, that they were dedicated to making it work, and that they could “see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The day before that press conference, former AU coach Pat Dye had a similar observation in an interview on the Paul Finebaum Radio Network: “You know what’s goin through the Auburn folks’ mind, they lookin’ down the road… There’s a light down there an it’s a freight train comin.”

That freight train is called the Crimson Tide.

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You know what the thing about U.Meyer is? He’s not a winner. He’s a w-i-e-n-e-r. Sure, you can tell me he won the National Championship, but I can easily counter with the fact that he did it with Ron Zook’s players. There’s one thing about it: Zook, as maligned as he was by Gator Nation, had class and was in the process of building a champion. But Gator Nation doesn’t want class, they want wiener. And it’s for that reason alone that I find myself in support of Gator opponents, including last night’s bout with LSU. And I have to tell you, it was sweet to see Urban’s lips pucker like he was about to burst into tears. I haven’t seen the post-game interview yet, but I’m sure it was framed with such inventive gems as “Losing sucks.”

This is all very surprising to me, because in spite of Gator Nation’s cries during the Zook tenure to “get back to playing Florida football,” I can remember what Florida football really is. Gator Nation didn’t want to get back to Florida football, they wanted to get back to Spurrier football, because Steve Spurrier was the first rflorida-offense-dial.jpgeally successful coach the Gators ever had. And plus, I actually like Florida. I thought Zook had the team running in the right direction, despite the infamous “fireronzook.com” website that booted up practically the day of his hiring. Zook’s doing well in Illinois–good for him. How will Urban do? That’s still left to be shown, of course, but in his third season he’s enduring the first losing streak of his career (at 2), losing to Auburn and the #1 team in the nation, LSU. The thing that should really be distressful to Gator Nation, however, is the fact that Tebow is accounting for 98% of the offense. They have no running game except from the QB slot. How many running backs are going to want to play for a coach who won’t let them run?

I’m sure it’s not all that bad. Urban will benefit from the tradition Spurrier left him, the players Zook left him, and the rich recruiting pool in Florida. In that way, he might just win despite himself, but it’s going to be interesting to watch, either way.

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