2009 SEC Championship Preview - Bama vs. UF
UF TE Aaron Hernandez & Bama WR Julio Jones
UF TE Aaron Hernandez & Bama WR Julio Jones
Posted Dec 3, 2009

It's the game everyone was hoping to see. While two of the nation's top defenses should rule the day, the key might be if Bama's Julio Jones and Florida's Aaron Hernandez can open things up. It's going to determine the national title in some way, and it's almost certain to be a classic. Check out the Preview and Fearless Prediction.

2009 SEC Championship

Alabama (12-0) at Florida (12-0)

National Rankings
12th Total Offense 40th
1st Total Defense 3rd
10th Scoring Offense 25th
1st Scoring Defense 2nd
6th Rushing Offense 13th
8th Run Defense 2nd
64th Passing Offense 89th
1st Passing Defense 5th
17th Turnover Margin 5th
Position Ratings
relative to each other
FL 5 highest
1 lowest
5 Quarterbacks 3
4.5 RBs 5
2 Receivers 3.5
5 O Line 5
4.5 D Line 4
4.5 Linebackers 5
5 Secondary 5
3 Spec Teams 4.5
5 Coaching 5
4:00 EST, CBS, Saturday, December 5

By Pete Fiutak

Finally, something went right in the 2009 college football season.

The Heisman race has been a snoozer, the BCS race hasn't been all that interesting, a lack of major upsets over the last several weeks kept the same teams up top week after week, and the overall star power wasn't there with USC turning average, Sam Bradford getting hurt, Colt McCoy failing to shine until late, and Tim Tebow being more known for suffering a concussion than anything that he did on the field. But when it comes to the SEC Championship, the college football gods gave the fans a break. And after Charlie Weis, the retirement of Bobby Bowden, and the ever-present grousing about the lack of a playoff system, a matchup of 12-0 Florida vs. 12-0 Alabama comes just at the right time.

All but preordained from the start of the season, the first 12 games for the Gators and Tide were more about surviving and not screwing up on the way to Atlanta, and while both teams are unbeaten, the ride hasn't always been smooth. Instead of roaring in as the be-all-end-all juggernauts they were supposed to be from Day One, the two appeared to be going through the motions at times, doing what was needed to get the win and move on. But for all the concerns and all the issues, Alabama has won its last 12 games since losing to Utah in the Sugar Bowl and has won 25 of its last 27, while Florida has won 22 in a row and 29 of its last 31. You are what your record is, and these two are with Texas at the top of the food chain. However, it's time for each to show a bit more and actually look like the two best teams in America (or at least two of the top three).

Last year, Alabama came into the SEC Championship ranked No. 1 and having allowed double-digit points in just one of its final five games, while Florida overcame the Ole Miss loss to steamroll through everything it its path with undivided focus and frightening explosion. This year, both teams come into the title game having yet to play their best football, but they got here, they have a national title shot at stake, and they can finally relax (as crazy as that might sound) and play the game they've been waiting for since January 9th. They did what they needed to do, and now they can open things up full throttle.

Oh sure, Florida was great on the stat sheet and only Arkansas came closer than ten points of pulling off an upset, but the No. 1 team in the land, with so many stars returning from last year's championship squad, wasn't supposed to score just 29 points against Mississippi State and 24 against South Carolina. Florida State wasn't Florida State, meaning the best win this year came against a decent LSU team, but not an elite one.

Alabama has struggled to get the same game two weeks in a row offensively, but the defense, and the running of Mark Ingram, led the way to win after win. The offense bogged down way too often, points were hard to come by at times, and there were a few close calls, with Terrance Cody needing to block a field goal to beat Tennessee and Greg McElroy needing to lead the way to a big late scoring drive to beat Auburn, but the Tide is experienced, the talent is in place, and this is a more than good enough team to go on to win the national championship. It's better than last year's team, even if it hasn't always showed it.

But it hasn't been about style points for either team this year; being flashy wasn't necessary. It's more fun to get excited about the Big 12 of last year, when Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech were putting points on the board like a pinball machine, but the Gators and the Tide have been more about their respective defenses full of future NFL stars, and while that might not get everyone pumped up, 12-0 is 12-0 is 12-0.

Alabama has kept its passing game under wraps until desperately needed, with the offense, thanks to Ingram, looking more Wisconsin than New Orleans Saints. But the formula has worked, as it has for Florida, who has done a better job of hitting on the big pass plays even though the offense operates more like a drippy faucet going dive play, dive play, dive play, dive play, touchdown. But instead of a high-flying shootout, the two styles of play should create for intense drama in what should be one of the hardest-hitting most intense SEC battles ever. Think of this as a major league pitcher's duel between two crafty veterans.

TCU might look at both teams, especially after what Utah did in New Orleans last year, and would love to take its cut. Cincinnati's offense would make things interesting, and Boise State, in a one game shot, could give either one a serious run. But let's be honest; it's Florida vs. Alabama for the SEC Championship with spotless records. It's what we all wanted.

Players to Watch: It's Colt McCoy's Heisman to lose. He's the all-time winningest starting quarterback in NCAA history, he's a good guy, he probably should've won it last year, and no one will have any problems if he goes down in college football history as a Heisman winner. All he has to do is be decent against Nebraska, but Mr. Tebow and Mr. Ingram will each get to make their statements before McCoy hits the field on Saturday night.

Tebow has been fine, but anyone else wouldn't be within 100 miles of the Heisman. He could go from being on the list because he's Tim Tebow to winning the thing if he does what he did last year to the Tide. Alabama had the game won, but Tebow's running carried the Gators to the win and to the national title finishing with 57 yards on the ground that were far more meaningful than the relatively low number might suggest, while he was throwing darts completing 14-of-22 passes for 216 yards and three scores. He has only thrown four touchdown passes, but without a Percy Harvin or Louis Murphy to work with on the outside, he has only thrown 17 touchdown passes compared to 30 at the end of last year. With the concussion problems not a concern, he has started running more, and harder, and considering the Tide secondary might all but erase TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Riley Cooper, No. 15 will likely get at least 20 carries while running plenty of option.

For Alabama, Mark Ingram will try to give it a go after suffering a hip injury against Auburn. He was on top of everyone's Heisman list, but he only ran for 30 yards on 16 carries last week against the Tigers and now might not even be a finalist without a strong performance. While he says he's fine and he won't be limited, if he struggles at all it'll be up Greg McElroy to take advantage of the Gator D that will focus everyone on the ground game. McElroy struggled through the middle part of the season, failing to throw a touchdown pass in three straight games, but he was strong when needed against LSU and came up with a tight, 21-of-31 day for 218 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. He's not going to do that against the Gators, but he has to connect on just enough big plays to Julio Jones , who caught five passes for 124 yards in last year's SEC Championship, to keep the offense moving.

Alabama will win if ... : Terrence Cody eats up the dive play. It's not his job to make tackles, but it is the star defensive tackle's job to clog everything up to let everyone else produce. However, it didn't work last week against Auburn, at least early on, with the linebacking corps, most notably the star of the show, Rolondo McClain, making 12 stops but doing so far too often down the field. Florida has the best defensive back in the country, CB Joe Haden, but Alabama has enough rock-solid defensive backs to keep the hit-or-miss Florida passing game from exploding, and if Florida isn't running its option effectively, the offense will slow to a crawl.

Offensively, it's all about getting the line in a lather right away and controlling the clock. The Tide owned the third quarter last year with a 15-play, 91-yard drive that battered and bruised the Florida defensive front on the way to a touchdown, and also went on a 10-play, 65-yard drive that took up 3:40 and finished with a field goal. With Florida's NFL caliber DE Carlos Dunlap out after being suspended for being arrested on drunk driving charges, the Bama offensive front has to take advantage.

Florida will win if ... : Tebow is finding Aaron Hernandez right away on quick slant patterns. Hernandez deserves the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end (but he probably won't win it because Pitt's Dorin Dickerson, who can't block, has put up bigger receiving numbers), and he has be a big part of the attack from the start. He was used on a sort of delayed shovel pass against Florida State last week, but McClain and the Tide linebackers, if they're smarter than they were last week against Auburn, should sniff that out right away. The Florida dive and option plays won't work if the Tide linebackers are able to sit back and wait for them, as long as they don't overpursue, and if they're not worrying too much about Hernandez on mid-range seam routes

Without Dunlap, the Gators have to manufacture ways to get to McElroy early. Haden can do his part on Jones and Bama's downfield passing game, but that doesn't mean that McElroy won't be taking his chances deep to let his 6-4 target try to make things happen. The key for the Gators will be to prevent McElroy from having an easy second option. Florida's defense makes up for mistakes with blinding speed and tremendous athleticism, and while McElroy was fine against the speed of LSU, Auburn, and his own practices, he's not great against a pass rush. He hasn't had to deal with one on a regular basis, thanks to his tremendous line and the help of the ground game, but Jermaine Cunningham and LB Brandon Spikes, and even Haden from time to time, will pin their ears back and make McElroy rush. They have to.

What will happen: Tebow will struggle. Conventional wisdom dictates that Florida will win because Tebow is better than McElroy, but watch out for the Tide to get to him and beat him up before he can deliver punishment of his own. But the defense will bail him out. McElroy will have problems with the warp-speed of the Gator back seven, will make a few costly early mistakes, won't take any big chances over the last 40 minutes, and the Tide offense will sputter. And yes, Tebow will be a bit better than McElroy, while the Florida D will be a bit better than the Bama D.

CFN Prediction: Florida 23 … Alabama 16 ... Line: Florida -5.5
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