Alabama SEC's last hope for playoff bid
The once-unstoppable Southeastern Conference is down to one national title contender.
Predictably, it's No. 2 Alabama. If No. 18 Florida pulls off the upset in Saturday's SEC championship game in the Georgia Dome, the league that trumpeted a seven-year national title stranglehold not so long ago won't even get an invitation to the competition.
The Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC, No. 2 CFP) kept its playoff candidacy intact with 10 fourth-quarter points in Saturday's 29-13 win over rival Auburn.
The Gators (10-2, 7-1) already had an uphill battle before a 27-2 loss to Florida State.
And then there was one.
Pressure is nothing new to Alabama, which has essentially had nine straight must-win games since losing to Mississippi.
"I couldn't be more proud of the guys than I am of this team," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Ever since the Ole Miss game they've had their backs against the wall and responded every possible way that you could ask them to."
Urban Meyer and Florida started the SEC's seven-year reign over college football with a national championship in 2006, adding another two years later. Alabama won three of four from 2009-12. Back then, the SEC champion was a virtually automatic entry in the title game.
But the SEC hasn't won since then with the Tide losing to eventual champion Ohio State in last season's semifinals. If Alabama loses, that mini-drought will stretch to three seasons.
The Tide is trying to become the first team to win back to back SEC titles since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998.
Saban said the SEC championship game is "one of the best competitive venues" he's participated in, shy of the playoffs and national title contests.
"That certainly means a lot of if you can win the SEC regardless of what anybody might say," Saban said. "There's a lot of good teams, a lot of good coaches, a lot of good programs. It's something special to me to be able to play in the game."
This game will feature two Top-5 defenses and Alabama tailback Derrick Henry. It also pits Saban against his former offensive coordinator, first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain.
McElwain said it's been "one heck of a year" for the Gators.
Alabama, he said, "gave me the opportunity to be here at the University of Florida, and then to have the Gators playing them, that's something special."
McElwain also expressed confidence in struggling quarterback Treon Harris.
"Treon's going to prepare this week and go in and play a heck of a game in the SEC championship game," he said.
Here are some things to know about the game:
THE COMMITTEE IS WATCHING: Presumably the playoff selection committee will have an easy call if Alabama wins — and almost certainly if the Tide loses, too. 'Bama has won eight times by 13 points or more during its nine-game winning streak. The defense, and Henry, have been consistently dominant.
HEISMAN POTENTIAL: The seemingly indefatigable Henry has come up huge in some of Alabama's biggest games, including a 46-carry, 271-yard performance in the Iron Bowl. Another big one on a national stage could make him a clear front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. Fellow tailback Mark Ingram is the only Tide player to win one, in 2009.
Henry's final carry against Auburn was a 25-yard touchdown, his school-record 22nd of the season. He's also already set the school mark with 1,797 yards and 17 consecutive games with a TD.
LOOKING BACK: Florida and Alabama were the undisputed kingpins of the SEC in 2008 and 2009, with Meyer and Saban matching wits and recruiting chops annually. They staged the SEC's first 1 vs. 2 matchup in the 2008 title game — and the second in 2009. Tim Tebow and Florida won the first one 31-20 while Ingram, Julio Jones and the Tide evened the score 32-13 in the second.
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