- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009

Expect the Gators to put the chomp on Mark Ingram and the pressure on Greg McElroy.

Top-ranked Florida’s defensive blueprint against No. 2 Alabama (12-0) in Atlanta for Saturday’s SEC championship game is obvious: Like Auburn last week, the Gators (12-0) likely will stack the box in an effort to stymie Ingram, the Crimson Tide’s bullish tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate.

“[Auburn] game-planned great for our running game,” said Ingram, who rushed for just 30 yards on 16 carries against the Tigers. “They had eight or nine people in the box and came out with some looks that we weren’t expecting. That helped out the passing game.”

Sure, Auburn’s strategy opened up passing opportunities for McElroy (by design), and the junior quarterback responded by completing 21 of 31 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns in Alabama’s 26-21 victory. But Auburn’s ploy also allowed the Tigers (10.5-point underdogs) to lead throughout and dictate the focus of a game the Crimson Tide snatched from the upset column by scoring a touchdown with just 84 seconds remaining.

Florida enters Saturday’s showdown ranked first in the nation in total defense (233.1 yards), thanks in large part to a star-stocked secondary that gives the Gators the nation’s stingiest pass defense. Translation: If Florida follows Auburn’s lead, McElroy might have to come up with the game of his life to give the Crimson Tide a chance.

In interviews this week, almost every player has mentioned the similarities between Saturday’s game and last season’s SEC title game, when the same teams showed up at the Georgia Dome at the top of the national rankings with a berth in the BCS title game on the line.

Of course, there’s one monumental difference. Florida’s Tim Tebow turned in a perfect fourth quarter in that game (5-for-5, 72 yards, one TD) to carry the Gators to a 31-20 victory and then added a national title a month later to his Heisman Trophy from 2007. Now a senior and the most decorated player in SEC history, Tebow enters Saturday’s game with a shot to collect both of those coveted laurels this season.

And McElroy? He watched from the bench last season as senior John Parker Wilson quarterbacked the Crimson Tide. McElroy has never been in such a situation - not even remotely.

McElroy has won 28 consecutive games as a starting quarterback dating to his days at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High. But before last week’s clutch final drive against Auburn, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder had struggled in the second half of the season. In the team’s past six games against FBS opponents, McElroy has thrown just six touchdown passes against three interceptions; his pass efficiency rating (119.02) ranks seventh among the quarterbacks from the SEC’s 10 bowl-eligible teams during that span.

Crimson Tide fans are hoping McElroy exorcised that pedestrian second half during Alabama’s final drive last week, when he went 7-for-8 for 63 yards and a touchdown in a hostile environment with a perfect season on the line.

“I think it was important for everybody involved,” said McElroy, who capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Roy Upchurch with 1:24 remaining. “It was important for us as an offense because most times people will sit back and say, ‘OK, if our offense is put in charge of winning that, shoot, we’re going to be out of luck.’ But it was nice for all of us to kind of be able to put together a drive and give them a memorable moment.”

Perhaps McElroy did come of age last week, but he’ll be center stage again this week in Atlanta. In a game featuring two of the nation’s top defenses and squads equally superb on special teams, the disparity in experience and accomplishments between McElroy and Tebow is unquestionably the most lopsided matchup on paper.

Said Alabama tight end Colin Peek of McElroy’s performance against Auburn: “He’s a cool customer when the pressure is on.”

Florida is certain to force McElroy to provide a little more proof of his prowess under pressure.

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