SEC Championship Game 2009

Championship greetings from snowy north Georgia.

That’s right, it’s snowing in Dixie this morning. And while weather poses no threat to the SEC Championship Game, tucked snugly into Atlanta’s climate-controlled Georgia Dome an hour south of the current snow line, the falling flakes provide a perfect storm for a perfect conference championship between Alabama and Florida.

Both teams are perfect record wise.

Alabama and Florida arrive in Atlanta ranked as the top two teams in national polls with matching 12-0 regular season records. Each prevailed in one truly tough game (a win at LSU for Florida and a win at Auburn for Alabama). Each team also got a bit lucky and survived a fluke challenge in games that should not have been so close (Bama vs. Tennessee and Florida vs. Arkansas). Since the first week of the season, most college football fans expected these two to go undefeated and they met expectations.

Both teams have perfect pedigrees.

Alabama boasts the South’s grandest football history. The Crimson Tide owns 25 SEC titles, far more than any conference rival. Bama backers claim 12 national titles and while the figure might be a bit inflated due to the “mythical” nature of college football championships nobody can claim more. We all know about the man in the houndstooth hat.

Florida floundered for decades before winning a conference championship. That changed when the guy in the visor showed up. Steve Spurrier started winning in 1990; since then the Gators have been the league’s glamor guys for nearly two decades. Should this team win a national title, it’d be the Gators’ third in four years and fourth since 1996.

Both teams have great coaches.

For my money, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are the two best coaches in the country. More similar than not, even though one is known more for defensive toughness (Saban) the other for offensive imagination (Meyer), rarely do these two leaders allow their teams to be outflanked from a strategy standpoint.

Both teams have great players.

Some college football fans suffered Tim Tebow fatigue as early as three seasons ago, but the Gator quarterback is the face of college football – and the sport could not ask for a better representative. The guy punishes opponents on the field and does missionary work off it. He runs and passes. He preaches and teaches. He’s the best college football player in the country. Period. Sprinkling the Florida roster are Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, Riley Cooper, the Pouncey twins, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden … these guys only seem to have been there a decade.

Alabama brings its own campus-full of talent. Mark Ingram is no worse than the second-best running back in America, Rolando McClain may be the best linebacker, Terrence Cody the most dominant defensive lineman, and Julio Jones the most physically imposing receiver. Toss in two of the nation’s best special teams players in returner Javier Arenas and kicker Leigh Tiffin and we are playing a de facto all-conference all-star game at the Dome today.

Both teams have great fans.

The Georgia Dome RV lots were already nearly full yesterday, school flags on full display, crimson colors clashing proudly with bright blue and orange hues. Alabama supporters slightly outnumbered Gator backers yesterday morning, but it is a shorter drive east to Atlanta than north from the Sunshine State. The dome will be evenly split this afternoon.

So … great records, great pedigrees, great coaches, players, and fans.

Now, who will win?

Trends for most of the season favored Alabama.

The Crimson Tide seemed more dominant than Florida, just as solid on defense as the Gators, but more varied and effective on offense. Florida rarely seemed to find an offensive stride, dinking and dunking and riding Tebow, the big bull Gator, on punishing drives instead of unleashing the lightning quick attack we’re used to.

Trends this week favor the Tide.

Bama got an extra day of rest and preparation after playing the Iron Bowl on Friday, while Florida played a late Saturday afternoon game. Then, star Florida defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap ran afoul the law this week and will miss the championshp game due to suspension, a big blow to the Gator pass rush and psyche.

The revenge factor also favors Alabama.

The Gators spoiled an undefeated Tide team is this game last season and don’t think Nick Saban has forgotten. He’s probably been scheming since December, awaiting a chance to atone for the loss and play for a national title.

So, the Tide would seem to be the pick.

I’m going with the Gators.

Here are three reasons:

1. Mental Toughness … Florida under Urban Meyer always rises to the occasion. This particular team has played under enormous pressure since they were virtually anointed as this year’s champs after last season’s national title. The road has not been smooth, but they have shown the mental toughness to navigate it well. When bad things happen in this game – as they will for both squads – Florida appears more apt to handle them.

2. Playmakers … this is a close call, but Florida just seems to have a few more playmakers, especially on defense generally (although the loss of Dunlap is significant) and in the secondary specifically. I would not be surprised to see a Gator DB turn in a game-changing play.

3. You knew this was coming … Tim Tebow. How can you go against the face of college football? The Gator quarterback is simply the sport’s greatest winner and with the game on the line, with an undefeated season on the line, with a potential third national championship on the line … expect Tebow to win.

Professor’s Pick: Florida

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