Dec. 5, 2008

By Adam Caparell

Two coaches with two national championship rings on their fingers also happen to own two of the biggest personalities in college football.

And they actually expect us to believe them when they say this game isn’t about them?

The SEC Championship arrives this weekend in Atlanta with more at stake, at least regionally, than a presidential election. After all, we are talking about the SEC where football is life – for some, a religion – and everything takes a back seat to Saturday’s matinee.

That includes any Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer battle-of-the-coaching-masterminds storylines leading up to No. 1 Alabama’s showdown with No. 4 Florida for the conference championship and an all-but-assured entry into the BCS Championship game.

“This is a player’s game. It isn’t going to be about coach vs. coach, this is going to be player vs. player,” Meyer said. “It is all about getting these guys in position to be successful.”

Just how each team can find that perfect position to be successful is the fun part of the debate about who will win the SEC’s biggest game of the season. The winner gets a shot at the biggest prize of them all and both teams plan on getting there their own way.

For Alabama, it’s pretty simple. Run the ball. Then run it some more. Preferably right down the opponent’s throat. Saban likes that blue collar mentality on offense and his players have followed directions accordingly.

“As an offensive unit, that’s the way you are supposed to go at it,” Alabama running back Glen Coffee said. “We aren’t doing anything intricate or trying to trick anybody, we just run straight at them.”

The Crimson Tide have surprised everyone this year, rising from a borderline Top 25 team at the beginning of the season to the nation’s top team for the better part of a month now. And they’ve done it with a running attack that is only rivaled by one other team in the SEC.

Guess who.

Alabama used to be the best rushing team in the SEC, but that was weeks ago before the real Tim Tebow started to take over.

Mr. Heisman Trophy didn’t start off the season playing like the Tebow we all came to expect, the one last year who absolutely dominated the game. It took a while for the 2007 Tebow to appear in 2008 and since he did the Florida offense has absolutely clubbed teams over the head. The Gators are averaging 237 yards rushing and 46 points per game as they’ve steadily climbed from the hole they dug themselves out of the hole that was September’s loss to Ole Miss.

The 31-30 victory by the Rebels in The Swamp looks to have been the turning point in the Gators’ season. It was a shocking upset that seemingly dropped Florida out of the national title picture before October, but that’s where we saw an impassioned Tebow simmer for an hour after the game before giving a stirring speech to his teammates and the media. The now-infamous sound-bite heard Tebow proclaim no player or team, from that point on, would practice and play harder than he and the Gators. 

So far, Tebow has proved to be a man of his word considering no team has played as well over the final two months of the season than Florida.

“I didn't want to make any brash statements or anything just on emotion,” Tebow said. “That's why I waited and thought about it in my locker for about an hour before I came out and addressed the media, and I really just tried to say heartfelt things and didn't try to make any statements like we're going to win the rest of our games or we're going to go undefeated or anything like that. It was just that we were going to go out there and play with intensity, play with passion, character and love for the game. And that's something that we could control and something I could control. I can't control whether we win or lose, but I can control how we play. So that's all I was really trying to say.”

Tebow’s being modest. Few players in the today’s game matter to their team like Tebow does. Without him, Florida wouldn’t be Florida. And they definitely wouldn’t be on the doorstep of a second national title in three years. Forget being the glue of the Gators. Tebow’s the foundation and first level.

That’s why a speech back on Sept. 27 has resonated for a good two months. 

“I mean, what Tim said was very emotional to everybody,” Gators center Maurkice Pouncey said. “He's one of the big time leaders on the team, and everybody looks up to him and just respects what he does. We just wanted to look past that loss, and now we're just playing with great emotion and just love for the game now.”

But it’s going to take much more than love to beat Alabama. Florida will face its biggest challenge of the season in the Georgia Dome and the Crimson Tide could very well have the most physical defense the Gators have faced this season. Statistically no defense is better in the SEC than Alabama’s and few coaches can match wits with the likes of Saban. Meyer is one of those guys, but it’s going to be fun watching the Tide’s brute strength and blue collar approach go up against the Gators’ speed and glamour.

“It’s neat to say the things about style of play, but at the end of the day, do you tackle really well? Do you contain the football on defense? Are you efficient on offense?” Meyer said. “I’d have to say both teams are really strong in those areas.”

For those clamoring for a playoff that may never come, this year you have a de facto national semifinal with the SEC Championship. It should be fun watching two of the nation’s best butt heads. And it helps, too, that they have some players who can play.