- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 5, 2009

ATLANTA | Back in those dog days of August, when players were just reporting for two-a-days and no school is beyond dreaming of a title, this was the game everyone has circled on the schedule.

Before anyone had taken a snap, Florida and Alabama had already been penciled in for a rematch in the SEC championship game.

Well here they are, having survived the gauntlet of 12 grueling games apiece and three months of expectations, scrutiny and pressure with not one slip-up between them.

The Gators vs. the Crimson Tide.

No. 1 vs. No. 2.

The game everyone wanted to see.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain said. “We want that rematch. They put us out of our run for the national championship last year, and we haven’t forgotten.”

This is the second year in a row the teams have been Nos. 1 and 2 when they clashed for the SEC championship, though the roles were reversed in 2008. Alabama was undefeated and sitting on top, while Florida had clawed its way back up to second after an upset loss to Ole Miss.

Both teams made it through unscathed this time, marking one of those rare times when not one but two teams do everything that was projected of them.

“We had a plan to go to the SEC championship. That’s the whole goal. That’s the mindset for the whole team,” Florida defensive back Joe Haden said. “Now we’re all sitting here undefeated, [playing for the] SEC championship. We win this, we go on to the national championship.”

Basically, it’s a national semifinal game, an enticing crumb thrown to all those proponents of a playoff system. The winner heads to Pasadena for the BCS championship. The loser likely goes to the Sugar Bowl.

There’s plenty of motivation on both sides. Florida is going for its second straight national title and third in four years, the perfect capper for Tim Tebow’s brilliant career. Alabama is eager to make up for a 31-20 loss to the Gators in last year’s SEC championship game, its perfect season snatched away in the final 15 minutes.

The Tide went to the fourth quarter clinging to a three-point lead, but Tebow rallied Florida to a pair of touchdowns.

“We always pride ourselves on dominating the fourth quarter,” McClain said. “If everybody does their job, the defense takes care of itself. If everybody would have just done what they had to do in the fourth quarter instead of getting caught up in the moment, I think we would have been fine.”

There are no complaints about the defense on either side this season.

Florida has allowed the fewest points in the nation (9.8 a game), Alabama the second fewest (10.8). The Gators also have given up the fewest yards (233.1), and the Tide is right there with them in the No. 3 spot (233.9). From Brandon Spikes to Terrence “Mount” Cody, it’s hard to envision either team scoring very many points.

“Really good athletes all over the place,” Haden said.

Florida will send out Tebow, its too-good-to-be-true quarterback. Alabama will counter with Mark Ingram, a dynamic runner with more than 1,400 yards on the ground. This will be a three-hour-plus campaign commercial, both players making their final pitches for the Heisman Trophy.

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