3 SEC QUESTIONS THAT NAG MORE THAN YOUR EX
(i) Who do you expect to have the best performance in the SECCG?
First, allow us to get this off our chest. More of the endless hype machine… Raise your hand if you heard/read some pundit say that Alabama "kept its National Championship hopes alive" with the last minute comeback win over Auburn. Nuts! Alabama kept its pride, but the Iron Bowl meant nothing with respect to the NC. Whoever wins the SECCG is playing in the National Championship, period. In fact, it's not a stretch to suggest that had Alabama and Florida both lost last weekend, the winner of the SECCG still would have received the nod for Pasadena, so great was the advantage they shared in the BCS poll. But certainly had Florida won, and ‘bama eventually beaten the Gators, the Tide would be rising in LA regardless of the Iron Bowl. Perhaps it's just that we hate hyperbole, but stop blindly accepting the CFB hype-machine marketing bs you're fed. ‘nuff said.
HB Jeffrey Demps will have a better performance than most expect, as ‘bama is likely to focus on stopping QB Tim Tebow and TE Alex Hernandez before Demps. But that's not our answer, and to complicate matters further, it's a tie. And neither is a player. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban will have the best performance this weekend. Both head coaches have enjoyed the better part of three weeks preparing for this contest; as such, expect to see a masterful display of offensive/defensive scheming. For those of us that appreciate strategy as much as athleticism, this has the potential to be one of the best games ever, and I do not write that lightly.
Well this won't be the most creative answer, but expect Tim Tebow to have a huge game this weekend, because that is what he does in big games. This is his third SEC Championship game, he is a senior, and he has a chance to add to his already growing legacy in both Gainesville and the SEC. This is the kind of game that Tebow has made a career of dominating, and you know it. Whether you like/dislike him is immaterial - he makes plays when he has to. Even with the fantastic Alabama defense he'll be facing, it's hard to see him not performing at the level to which we've all become accustomed. Florida cannot win against Alabama unless Tebow has a great game; if he can handle coming back in Baton Rouge from a concussion, he can handle another SECCG in Atlanta. Ever since his guarantee to play better after the Ole Miss loss last year, Tebow has been on a mission. There are only two games left until that mission is complete, and we should expect him to be ready for the challenge Alabama brings.
(ii) Florida/Alabama Position by Position: Who has the Edge?
Mitchell: FLORIDA – In our sport which is so dependent on debate, this isn't even close. Unless, that is, your paycheck has the letters "C-B-S" or "E-S-P-N" on it, in which case you're on point to manufacture hype. A shame, since there's no reason to hype what is already a breathtaking contest. As for this position, it will be the difference in the game; but we'll save that analysis for the end of this column.
Harbach: FLORIDA – The awards are too many to name here, but this will be Tebow's third time in the SEC Championship game. So far he's 2-0, and he always shows up in big games. Alabama's Greg McElroy had a defining drive against Auburn last week to win the game, but he doesn't have the experience that a player like Tebow will bring.
Mitchell: TIE – Are we debating the rushing attack itself or the position? Usually, rushing implies RB, but for the Gators, Tebow is a key factor. Florida has the conference's best rushing attack – in fact, Alabama's ranked only 4th best in the SEC, behind Miss. St. and Auburn. Moreover, as every CFB fan living outside of a cave knows, Alabama's star TB Mark Ingram is struggling with a hip injury suffered last Friday in the win over the Tigers; a game in which several of his weaknesses were exposed. However, Florida's rushing attack has declined nearly every Saturday since week four; from 308 yards after Kentucky to 236 now. Moreover, the Tide's RB talent drops off little from Ingram to true freshman Trent Richardson, and even then to senior Roy Upchurch. We wouldn't fault you for choosing Florida or Alabama, but for us, this is too close to call.
Harbach: ALABAMA – If you count Tebow as a running back, you might consider the Gators the favorite here. But for name-on-name comparison, and with its success all season at the size/power rushing attack, and the physical backs they have in Ingram and Richardson, the edge goes to Alabama.
RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
Mitchell: FLORIDA – This is close, in a similar vein to RBs. When he gets the ball, Alabama's Julio Jones is better than anyone on the Gators' roster, while Hernandez has a similar advantage the other way. Moreover, in the Florida offense, Hernandez is utilized in many ways atypical to the TE position, which makes him incrementally more valuable. Interestingly, Hernandez has more Receptions per Game (4.3 v. 3.6) and Yards per Game (55 v. 50) than Jones, and is nearly even with the WR in Yards per Catch (12.8 v. 13.6); exceptional for a TE against arguably one of the league's best WRs. Statistically, these teams are close: the Gators average 215 receiving yards per game, Alabama 195. While we wouldn't fault anyone for suggesting a tie, Tebow's experience and talent is the difference in giving Florida the advantage; he'll make his receivers better. Tebow's passing efficiency rating is materially better than McElroy's (161 to 139), and as anyone who's followed the Tide this year knows, receivers are only as good as the number of times they get the ball.
Harbach: FLORIDA – This is actually closer than one might think, with Alabama's Colin Peek playing very well right now. However, with all the ways that Florida's offense uses Aaron Hernandez, the Gators get the nod. Those inside pitches to Hernandez are designed so well and so difficult to defend, he is a huge part of this Florida offense
Mitchell: FLORIDA – Florida rushes for more yards than ‘bama. It passes for more. It's significantly better at 3rd down conversions, at 50%. It's the #1 offense in the conference, and 12th overall. And it all starts with the O-line. Don't get hung up on Sacks Allowed – Tebow is averaging 16 carries a game, which artificially inflates his sack total. Alabama's O-line is good, to be sure. You don't win with an average QB unless your line can create holes for the running game and protect the QB. But Ingram's gift is his ability to get yards after first contact, which tends to inflate the value of a line.
Harbach: FLORIDA – Both lines are very good, but Florida has an edge in experience in nearly every position. The Pouncey twins played in this game last year, Carl Johnson is a beast at guard, and Marcus Gilbert has really stepped up. The best lineman on the field is Alabama's Michael Johnson, but the rest of the Crimson Tide line is not as talented as their Gator counterparts; certainly not at this point in their college careers.
Mitchell: ALABAMA – Florida has the nation's #1 defense (i) overall, (ii) against the pass, and (iii) putting points on the scoreboard. It's also better than Alabama in Sacks. That written, a healthy portion of that is due to Carlos Dunlap, particularly in Sacks/QB Hurries, and his absence turns this from a tie into a slight nod in favor of the Crimson Tide. There's an easy way to gauge Dunlap's importance to this unit… Here are the names of the men who will fill in for him Saturday: Justin Trattou, Jaye Howard, William Green and Duke Lemmens. First, it takes four men, and second, outside of those folks in Gainesville, we'll bet few of these names are recognizable. That's how good Dunlap is. Meanwhile, Alabama's Rushing D is best in the conference, and #2 in the nation, is right behind Florida for Sacks, and significantly ahead of the Gators in Tackles for Loss. Perhaps most importantly, the Alabama line plays with great discipline. Edge Tide.
Harbach: ALABAMA – With Carlos Dunlap out of the game, it is hard not to pick the Tide D-line here. Marcel Dareus is a force on passing downs, and Terrence Cody is his mirror image, eating up blocks in the middle and stuffing the run. Brandon Deadrick has improved immensely this year, and while there is a lot of speed on the Florida line, without Dunlap, Alabama's size will be key.
Mitchell: TIE – If Dont'a Hightower were still playing, we might give the nod to the Tide. Both units are not only among the best in the conference, they rival the best in the nation, and are key to their dominant defenses. ‘bama's Rolando McClain might be the best, but Florida's Brandon Spikes isn't far behind, and has more experience. And he's a bit meaner – a plus for a LBer. Next to McClain are seniors Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders (who has flourished of late), and prodigy Nico Johnson. Senior Ryan Stamper and Brandon Hicks flank Spikes, and are excellent in their own right. The Gators have perhaps greater depth at the position, but we're splitting hairs at this point.
Harbach: TIE – Breaking down the depth chart, it is nearly impossible to pick the better group of linebackers between the two. Brandon Spikes and Rolando McClain are the headliners, and there are talented players on the outside as well. The Gator starters Stamper and Jones don't miss many tackles, and Alabama backers Eryk Anders, Cory Reamer and Nico Johnson know how to rush the passer aggressively in Saban's 3-4.
Mitchell: FLORIDA – Saban is known as a wizard with the secondary, and no coach in CFB uses his DBs better to put pressure on both the QB and the point of attack. And the absence of Dunlap will mean less pressure on McElroy, and thus more on the talented Gator secondary. But the Gators Pass Defense is ranked #1 in the nation, they're upperclassmen, quite experienced, they love to hit, and play tight, aggressive defense. Alabama's Pass D is excellent in its own right (#5 in the nation), but the nod here clearly goes to Florida.
Harbach: FLORIDA – There is NFL talent at nearly every position in the Gator secondary, with safeties Will Hill and Major Wright along with corners Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins. Sick talent; there is not a weak spot among them. The Alabama secondary has ball-hawking Mark Barron and the aggressive Javier Arenas, but they are very susceptible to big plays if the D-line does not get pressure. The Gators have a big advantage in the secondary.
Mitchell: ALABAMA – Not even close. The Gators struggled early in the season at this position, benching returning starter Jonathan Phillips in lieu of Caleb Sturgis, who has been decent at 19/26. However, Leigh Tiffin has been a bright spot for the Tide all season. The senior is a remarkable 27/31. Yes, part of his success has been due to Alabama's struggles in the Red Zone, but that doesn't diminish his performance. Both kickers have proven they can make clutch kicks, but in this case, we're going with the senior from Tuscaloosa. As for punting, ‘bama's P.J. Fitzgerald is good, averaging 42/per (on 49 punts). It's hard to grade Florida's Chas Henry – the junior has only kicked 29 times this season, and thus doesn't meet the 3.6/per game minimum. But he's averaging 43/per, so we'll call this a wash.
Harbach: FLORIDA – We all know what Brandon James and Javier Arenas can do when they get the ball, but the Florida advantage in the kicking game is all about their ability to punt and cover punts. Florida never has a return when they punt the ball, if they can take Arenas out of the game; that is a big swing in the Gators favor.
Mitchell: ALABAMA – On the surface, this might appear to be a tie, with Florida's Brandon James excellent in his own right. But dig a little deeper. We're inclined to give the nod to ‘bama for this reason: Javier Arenas is the more masterful punt returner, and with these two great defenses, not only is field position going to be at a premium, but we expect there to be far more punts than kickoff returns. Arenas is actually averaging 3 more yards per KOR than Florida's Brandon James, but he's had only half as many tries. No, the difference will be PRs, particularly since Florida has only had 29 chances to practice it's punt coverage all season, and has faced no one of Arenas' caliber; the edge here goes to Javier. Keep an eye on this during the game; his ability/lack thereof to get field position on PRs is key.
Harbach: ALABAMA – Brandon James is great, but Javier Arenas is on another level this season, he looks so comfortable with the ball in his hands and he reads the holes so well in returns. He might be neutralized with Florida punting but if he gets his hands on a kickoff he can go the distance every time.
Mitchell: FLORIDA – Both coaches are at the top of their game, and have had much of the past three weeks to prepare for this contest. However, in big game (Conference Championships and Bowls), there's actually a material difference between these two coaches, which is why we're going with Meyer. Saban's winning percentage in these games is just 46% (6-7: 4-6 in Bowls, 2-1 in SECCG)), while Meyer is 88% (7-1: 5-1 in Bowls, 2-0 in SECCG). Edge: Meyer.
Harbach: ALABAMA – Lane Kiffin said yesterday that "Florida has the players but Alabama has the coaches", and we can't argue with him. (RM Note: Lol. Baby K is quickly picking up the OBC's mantle when it comes to tweaking opposing coaches.) This is Saban's fourth SEC Championship game, and Meyer's third. Saban has done a better job this year with a first year starting QB and a new offensive coordinator. Both coaches are among the best in the country, but right now Saban gets a slight edge over Meyer.
(iii) What every SEC fan should be talking about re: the SECCG, but isn't?
Can you win a championship with an inexperienced QB? Alabama's McElroy now has a year under his belt, but removing emotion from the equation, when was the last time a "rookie" QB won a championship? With due apologies to Texas, who is going to get its ass handed to it by either of these two defenses, the SECCG Saturday is the de facto National Championship. In this past decade, only one QB has won a NC with as little experience as Greg McElroy: OSU's Craig Krenzel won it as a junior in 2002. But Krenzel had much more experience the year prior, actually starting and winning the Michigan game, in Ann Arbor. Here are the rest of the NC winning signal callers this decade:
2008 – Tebow – Jr.
2007 – Flynn – Sr.
2006 – Leak – Sr.
2005 – Young – Jr.
2004 – Leinart – Jr.
2003 – Mauck – Sr.
2002 – Krenzel – Jr.
2001 – Dorsey – Jr.
2000 – Heupel – Sr.
Yes, there are some juniors on that list, but all had more experience than McElroy, and were either Heisman winners or runners up. McElroy has been serviceable, particularly when his receivers are open, but this has hardly been a Heisman campaign.
Every person knows by now that Florida will be without Carlos Dunlap for the SECCG, but no one seems to remember that last year the Gators were without one of their most valuable players. Few are mentioning that Florida beat Alabama last year without Percy Harvin. Take that in for one second. The likely NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and Florida's most dangerous offensive weapon over the past three year didn't play one snap in Florida's win over Alabama in 2008. There is no question that Dunlap's not playing is a huge loss to the Gators, but they have won championships without their best players before, and it will not be the reason they lose against Alabama. Players like Justin Trattou and William Green will have expanded roles in this game, and senior Jermaine Cunningham will have an opportunity to help lead this defense along with fellow senior Brandon Spikes. Don't kid yourself thinking that the Dunlap loss is not a serious problem, but there are talented players on the roster that can step up and make plays. They did it without Harvin, can they do it without Dunlap?
IN FOCUS: Which SEC Coach / Player is in the Spotlight in the SECCG?
Javier Arenas, Alabama P/KR. Given the caliber of these defenses, field position will be even more of a premium this game than usual. Florida has only punted the ball 29 times this season, for an average of 2.4/per game. Expect to see more than double that from Chas Henry on Saturday. Arenas has to shine here for Alabama to have a chance to upset the Gators. It's not even about points, though those would be welcomed. It's more about field position. Florida has done well with punt coverage, but has yet to face someone of Arenas' skill. And at just 29 kicks, the Gators have had little practice - outside of kicking to Brandon James during the week. Keep an eye glued to Florida's punt coverage, as it will be a key to this game.
Aaron Hernandez, Florida TE. Tim Tebow is the obvious choice here, but digging a little deeper Hernandez is a player that will be the difference between a win or a loss for Florida. Third down conversions are going to be tough in this game and those little short passes and option pitches to the tight end are so tough to defend and so crucial to moving the chains for Florida. If Alabama can control Hernandez and effectively shut down that option Florida loves to run there is a great chance for them to win this game. Hernandez has caught 51 passes this season for 654 yards and four scores this year, that is first on the Gator team in receptions, second in receiving yards and second in receiving TD's. The Gators use him a lot and he will be a key factor in their success or lack of it against Alabama.
SEC POWER RANKINGS
1 Florida – Time to pick up all the marbles
2 Alabama – Slightly better season than expected, but the run ends here
5 LSU – It's never boring on the Bayou, that's for sure
5 Arkansas – Will improve only in pace with Mallett's humility/maturity
5 Tennessee – Clutch win… Vols are ahead of schedule
8 Ole Miss – An ugly finish; different team outside of Oxford
8 Auburn – Would rave, but for the questionable prevent defense at the end
8 Kentucky – T-H-I-S close; but given injuries and talent, a good season
8 South Carolina – Don't know what it says more about: SC or the ACC
8 Georgia – Wow, 7-5. Read USC above
9 MSU – Way to force it on Snead; going to miss Dixon more than words
12 Vanderbilt – Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
1 Florida (up from 2) – Back at the top on my rankings; can you really pick against Tebow? (RM Note: You knew I wasn't going to just let this go, Brian.)
2 Alabama (down from 1) – The win over Auburn showed a side of McElroy we had not yet seen; great drive
3 LSU (up from 4) – Loved to have seen Jasper attempt that FG in Oxford
4 Ole Miss (down from 4) – Houston Nutt, you are who we thought you were
5 Arkansas – If you're Mallett, how much are you thinking about Sam Bradford?
6 Tennessee – Even when UT isn't playing, Kiffin's quoted more than Meyer or Saban
7 South Carolina (up from 9) – Spurrier teases us with creativity (Wild-Cock Offense), then takes it away
8 Georgia (up from 10) – D staff gone; Bobo to the principal's office, please
9 Auburn (down from 8) – No moral victory in losing to Bama, but Chizik looks better now than January
10 Kentucky (down from 7) – Heartbreak and UK football one in the same
11 MSU – Has the power shifted in Mississippi?
12 Vanderbilt – Spring practice a wee 4 months away
THE GAME TO DVR
1) Alabama vs. Florida, December 5th. Last year's contest came down to this one single fact: for all the ballyhooed talk about Florida's dynamic offense, it was the Gator defense that was the difference. For those who have forgotten, Alabama had but one yard of offense in the fourth quarter. Even without Dunlap, this defense returns nearly everyone, and is even better than a year ago. It is by far the toughest defense that Greg McElroy has seen to date in his young career. Not beaten. Seen. Tebow? He's faced many, including much of this same ‘bama defense last year. He accounted for ~75% of his team's offense that day (3 of Florida's 4 TDs, 273 of 358 yards – 76%), in bringing home the conference crown.
Given the quality of Florida's D, and the fact that he's banged up, we can't expect Ingram to get as many yards after first contact. And Trent Richardson is talented but inexperienced. True, our conference championship has witnessed a true freshman running back fill in and earn MVP honors this decade (LSU's Justin Vincent, 2003). But Vincent won the position mid-season, and started for several weeks leading up to the win against Georgia. Besides, Richardson's not the same bruising style runner that Ingram is, which is better suited for attacking this Florida defense that is quick enough to keep up with TR. Not saying he's weak, because he's a tank. Just not in the same mold as Ingram.
As for those who say McElroy has turned the corner these past four games after struggling mightily, and thus can put this ‘bama team on his back, we ask you to stop reading "analysis" from those whose interests rest in promoting this game, and instead, do your homework. (i) After being stifled for much of the LSU game by the Tigers' star DB Patrick Peterson, McElroy threw a 2 yard fourth quarter pass to Julio Jones, which the latter converted into a 73 yard TD, while Peterson was on the sideline nursing cramps. Part of the game indeed, but is that McElroy's greatness, or Peterson's absence? If we factor for that, and add the INT no call, McElroy's stats are 18/35, 203, 1 TD and 2 INTs. (ii) MSU's Pass Defense is ranked 11th in the conference. (iii) Chattanooga. And (iv) going into the last drive of the Auburn game, he was 14/30 for 155 yards, before Auburn – ranked 9th in the conference in Pass Defense – remarkably backed away and allowed McElroy to convert on short, uncovered passes (far more impressive was his 33 yard, 2Q TD pass to TE Colin Peek, on 3rd and nine facing a stiff pass rush). Every completed pass of that last drive was sub-10 yards; even Richardson's 17 yard screen was mostly YAC (yards after catch). Yes, you take what the defense gives you. But again, how much of that is McElroy's greatness, or Auburn's coaching blunder? And really, which of you thinks Florida's aggressive DC Charlie Strong, and equally aggressive DBs (and #1 ranked Passing D), are going to give McElroy the space to complete passes like Auburn did on that last drive?
Again, it bears repeating: this time last year, facing the same Florida defense with a far more seasoned QB, Alabama ran only six plays in 4Q crunch time. Five of these were passes (1-for-5 for only 10 yards), with a sack (-11 yards) AND an INT. The other play? A two yard run by Glenn Coffee. One yard of offense in the fourth quarter. The Gators will once again wear down this Tide offense, with its younger, less experienced players, many of whom will be facing a defense of this caliber for the first time. Already sporting a pedestrian Red Zone scoring albatross, expect Florida's stout defense to force the Tide to settle for Leigh Tiffin field goals over McElroy/Ingram TDs. And while both coaches are at the top of their profession, one has a startlingly better record in Championships/Bowls: Saban is 6-7 (4-6 in Bowls, 2-1 in SECCG), while Meyer's 7-1 (5-1 in Bowls, 2-0 in SECCG). That's a winning percentage of 46% vs. 88%.
For these reasons, and baring a serious injury to either of Florida's emotional leaders Tebow or Spikes, Florida will win this game going away in the fourth quarter. Much like last year. Except ‘bama will kick a late FG to cut the difference from 11, to 8…
Florida 24, Alabama 16
1) Alabama vs. Florida, December 5th. The defenses will determine the direction of this game, even though the offensive talent is off the charts. Most people see players like Tebow, Jones, Ingram, Riley Cooper, Demps, Arenas and think about the scoreboard lighting up. I keep seeing the defensive stars in this game, and it is hard to imagine either offense sustaining drives and controlling the ball. Big plays are going to define this game. If Auburn can control the Alabama offensive line for much of the game, and keep Mark Ingram locked down, what do you reasonably expect Florida to do? Florida has the corners to slow down Jones, they have the linebackers to tackle Ingram, and they have the special teams to limit Arenas' big play ability. No one has an answer for Tebow, at least not yet. So Florida is the pick.
Florida 17, Alabama 14
Yell at Brian: Brian Harbach
Yell at Russ: Russ Mitchell
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