Alabama's SEC dominance shows no signs of letting up
ATLANTA >> Alabama has set the bar high for the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Heading into another appearance in the SEC championship game, there's no indication that anyone is close to knocking off Nick Saban's behemoth from Tuscaloosa.
Certainly not Florida, which will face the No. 2 Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Despite a resurgent season under new coach Jim McElwain, the offensively challenged Gators are a massive 18-point underdog against Alabama (11-1, No. 2 CFP), which is one victory away from a second straight trip to the College Football Playoff.
"Not real excited about playing these creatures," McElwain joked Friday.
In his ninth season as the Tide's coach, Saban has already won three national titles. Discounting a rebuilding season when he took over a then-floundering program in 2007, his teams have posted an astonishing record (95-12), earned a spot in five SEC championship games, and been a serious player in every national race except one (in 2010, when the Tide "slumped" to 10-3).
Not that there seems to be any joy in the ride.
Saban was in an especially grumpy mood Friday, barely cracking a smile as he coldly, methodically discussed what it takes to stay on top, year after year after year.
"It's not easy at all," he said. "You have to have the right psychological disposition to be able to sustain all those ups and downs and look at every one of those challenges as a test, not a sign of what's going to happen. It's a test of how you respond to it, how you react to it, and how you try to take advantage of it, good or bad. That's the only way you have a chance."
Does No. 18 Florida (10-2, No. 18 CFP) have any chance?
The Gators' offensive woes were especially glaring as they struggled to beat Florida Atlantic in overtime and lost 27-2 at home to Florida State, with only a safety preventing Florida's first shutout loss since 1988.
But McElwain isn't about to shy away from the challenge of going against his former boss, having at least restored some of Florida's former glory after the Will Muschamp era.
The Gators are playing in the SEC championship game for the first time since 2009.
"It's been so much fun seeing the development of the program, of our players, of the people around the program," said McElwain, who spent four years as Saban's offensive coordinator. "When you sit back and reflect a little bit, we've come a long ways. But how far we're going to go is probably the most exciting part of it."
Alabama is already there, though Saban has gone to great lengths to make sure no one is looking ahead to the playoff. He called this game "a set up," insisting that Florida is the best team the Tide has faced all season.
"We know if we don't win this game, we can't do anything else further in the season," tight end O.J. Howard said, taking his coach at his word. "We've got to take it one step at a time, so we're just focused on this game."
Here's some things to watch for when Alabama takes on Florida for the SEC title:
HEISMAN HYPE: Alabama running back Derrick Henry is a leading Heisman candidate and will likely lock up college football's top individual award with another strong performance. It won't be easy, going against a Florida defense that ranks seventh in the nation against the run.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: The Crimson Tide wins with a ground-and-pound philosophy, relying on Henry to carry the running game and a fearsome defense to handle the rest. Alabama has surrendered a nation-leading 78.9 yards per game on the ground. Florida is nearly as stout on the defensive side, ranking in the top 10 nationally in all four major categories. Points will be at a premium Saturday.
KICKING WOES: Neither team wants this game to come down to the kicking game. Alabama's Adam Griffith has missed seven field-goal attempts, two of them inside 30 yards. He looks downright reliable compared to Florida's Austin Hardin, who has made just 5 of 13 tries and botched three extra points.
ROBINSON RETURNS: Florida's leading receiver will play against Alabama after being reinstated to the team by a vote of the seniors. Demarcus Robinson was suspended for the Florida State game after violating a team rule, but he'll get a second chance. McElwain called it "a family decision" and said "it will be fun to see him come out here and play."
NO INSIDE KNOWLEDGE: McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and defensive line coach Chris Rumph are all former assistants on Saban's staff at Alabama. But the Florida coach shrugged off any inside knowledge of the way the Crimson Tide does things. "There really aren't any secrets," McElwain said, pointing to hard work, discipline and motivation as Saban's main attributes.
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