- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2008

It’s easy to break down Saturday night’s SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome as a clash between the power of No. 1 Alabama and the speed of No. 2 Florida. But many signs indicate that the matchup is more a study in contrasts.

Alabama (12-0), with its talented tailback trio of Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram and Terry Grant, would like to pound the ball right at the meat of the Florida defense behind All-American linemen Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell. Like everyone else, Gators coach Urban Meyer is well-aware of the Crimson Tide’s modus operandi.

“The biggest challenges are that their center [Caldwell] and left tackle [Smith] are premier players,” Meyer said. “Behind that talented offensive line are a couple running backs that will pound it. It seems that all three are physical, downhill guys. What we try to do is create a matchup problem and get another guy in the box.”

Translation: Florida (11-1) will put eight defenders in the box against the Tide and force Alabama senior quarterback John Parker Wilson to beat the Gators with his arm. In defensive coordinator parlance, this is called making the opponent “play left-handed.”

That’s bad news for Alabama, a team that enters Saturday’s showdown ranked 97th in passing offense (169.3 yards a game) among the nation’s 119 FBS teams. Only two teams all season sold out to stop Alabama’s run game: Mississippi and LSU. The Rebels held the Tide to 107 yards rushing and lost 24-20 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. LSU held Alabama to 138 yards rushing and lost 27-21 in overtime.

Wilson has one of the best young receivers in the game at his disposal in Julio Jones (46 receptions for 723 yards). But Florida leads the nation in interceptions (23) thanks to a corps of ballhawk defensive backs that includes Janoris Jenkins, Ahmad Black, Joe Haden, Will Hill and Major Wright.

Although the game has been painted as Florida’s offense vs. Alabama’s defense, the Gators arguably feature a more daunting defensive unit than the Tide. Up front, defensive end Carlos Dunlap leads the SEC with nine sacks. All-American Brandon Spikes, who has a team-high 80 tackles, leads the linebackers and has returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns. And the aforementioned secondary is second to none.

The sum is a Florida defense that ranks seventh in the nation in total defense (275.7 yards a game) and is tied for fourth in scoring defense (12.3 points), and even those numbers are slightly skewed given how little defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s first unit plays after halftime. In Florida’s last seven games, the Gators have allowed opponents to score two touchdowns in 50 first-half possessions. In those games, Florida’s average lead at halftime has been 30.9-4.4.

Shift the argument to coaching’s two pet categories, special teams and the turnover battle, and Florida’s case gets even stronger.

The Gators led the nation in turnover margin this season (plus-21) thanks in large part to their opportunistic defense and quarterback Tim Tebow’s efficiency (25 touchdown passes, two interceptions).

And Florida also boasts arguably the nation’s strongest set of special teams. The Gators rank ahead of Alabama in each of the six key special teams categories (net punting, kickoff returns, punt returns, field goal kicking, punt defense, kickoff defense). They blocked an SEC-best eight kicks this season (five punts, three field goals) and also feature the SEC’s most dangerous return man in speedster Brandon James.

“This is not a good football team - it’s a great one,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the Gators. “Offense, defense, special teams, turnover margin, speed, game-breakers, competitiveness … they have it all.”

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