One-shot deal: Alabama set to carry full burden of SEC’s Playoff hopes
ATLANTA — Carrying the torch of SEC expectations isn’t a new phenomenon at Alabama.
In the Nick Saban coaching era alone (2007-present), the Crimson Tide have played in four conference title bouts, one national semifinal (2014 College Football Playoff) and three BCS National Championship games — with a sparkling 6-2 record.
Within that scope, Alabama shouldn’t be feeling any extra or undue pressure, in advance of Saturday’s SEC title game versus Florida. The No. 2 Crimson Tide have notched nine consecutive victories (by an average differential of 22.5 points) and stand as prohibitive favorites against the offensively challenged Gators.
But here’s the new twist: Given Florida’s sagging status in the College Football Playoff rankings (No. 18 — down six spots from last week), only Alabama can plausibly represent the SEC in the upcoming four-team Playoff; and that’s a little unsettling for the nation’s most decorated football conference. (No other league member resides in the top 10.)
To cap the 2011 season, Alabama and LSU met in the BCS title game (the Crimson Tide blanked the Tigers in their revenge match).
In 2012, Alabama and UGA entered the SEC title game ranked second and third nationally; and the winner (‘Bama) had the luxury of encountering an overachieving Notre Dame squad in the BCS National Championship. (The Crimson Tide won in a landslide.)
In 2013, the final season of the BCS/computer-matrix experiment, both Auburn and Alabama held top-four rankings after Championship Weekend; and the Tigers advanced to the BCS National Championship against Florida State (lost in the final minute).
And in 2014, when the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings were released, a staggering four SEC teams (No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 3 Auburn, No. 4 Ole Miss, No. 6 Alabama) comprised the top six overall.
Which brings us to 2015:
How strange would it be for the second-ever College Football Playoff to take place without an SEC representative?
Would the other conferences rejoice in this circumstance, knowing the big, bad SEC — seven straight national titles from 2006-12 — had no skin in this year’s championship?
Would such an occurrence fuel speculation the SEC had suddenly lost its status as the nation’s greatest football conference?
Of course, that’s a lot of big-picture questions for Coach Saban to ponder during a game week. Yes, he’s aware Alabama-Florida has been the most common matchup in SEC Championship history (Saturday will mark the eighth meeting). He also understands the conference hasn’t had a repeat champion since 1998 (Tennessee).
“I just think it speaks to the quality of the league and how many good teams there always are in this league. There’s certainly a lot of good teams this year. Florida’s one of the best teams I’ve seen,” Saban said over the weekend, just hours after Alabama’s Iron Bowl victory over Auburn clinched the SEC West crown. “I’ve only watched a little bit of film (Sunday) afternoon, but they’re a very, very good team and very capable of winning the SEC. So I think this is just an indication of the quality of the league and how many good teams there are.”
The SEC bore the look of an 800-pound gorilla back in September, when Ole Miss strolled into Bryant-Denny Stadium and walked out with a 43-37 win over No. 2 Alabama — an upset in which the Rebels held a 30-10 lead late in the third quarter. On that night, Ole Miss amassed 433 total yards off only 16 first downs, one of the more confounding stats you’ll ever see against a Saban-led defense.
Earlier that day, LSU hung 45 on an Auburn team that was still viewed as a national-title contender. It was a breakout effort for sophomore tailback Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 228 yards (and three touchdowns) on just 19 carries — for a remarkable average of 12.0 yards per rush.
Using the eye test for that busy Saturday, Ole Miss and LSU seemingly had enough talent, depth and balance to dethrone Alabama as SEC West champs. And at 0-1 in conference play, it seemed like a long shot for ‘Bama to rally for seven straight SEC victories — with daunting trips to UGA, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn and toss-up home tilts with Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU still on the docket.
And yet, the Crimson Tide (11-1 overall) are coming to Atlanta. Again.
To claim a conference title and secure a spot in the four-team Playoff. Again.
“I’m certainly very proud of what our team has done. (The players) have had their backs against the wall since the Ole Miss game … and really come through just about every time they needed to, in some tough circumstances on the road, as well as playing well at home against some very good teams,” said Saban.
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The fractional number above, which doubles as the early line for Saturday’s title match, reads similar to the sticker shock one might find with a new Mercedes.
As in, how could Florida, the current SEC East champs (lone conference loss to LSU), be two-touchdown-plus underdogs — on a neutral field?
Or, how could Alabama, which averages only 215 yards passing per game, be viewed as a hard-charging juggernaut — against a high-profile foe that’s loaded with NFL-caliber athletes on defense? (Don’t be shocked if All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is a top-five pick in next year’s NFL draft.)
And in the land of common opponents, how could Ole Miss have a plus-6 advantage on the Crimson Tide … but a negative-28 shortfall against the Gators? (Florida stomped Ole Miss back in October.)
That’s not to say Florida is 34 points better than Alabama; but it also shouldn’t mean the Crimson Tide are blowout locks against the Gators, right?
Recent history suggests this might actually be the case:
**Since 1998, spanning 17 SEC championships, the final score has had a double-digit point spread 15 times.
**Charting the last six SEC title games (2009-14), the champion won by 17 or more points five times.
**For the month of November, Florida averaged just 13.8 points per game. By comparison, Alabama has averaged a clean 30 points in its last three conference outings.
**Crimson Tide tailback Derrick Henry (1,797 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns), the likely Heisman Trophy front-runner, has found the end zone in 17 consecutive games — an SEC record.
Regarding Henry (movie pun — intentional), it’ll be interesting to see how he fares against a Florida rush defense which ranks seventh nationally.
“(The Gators’ front seven) is as good as anybody I’ve seen all year long. They’re very talented guys. They’re very athletic. They play hard. They’re well-coached,” gushed Saban. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers, and they’re obviously one of the best defensive teams in our league, and I think probably a very, very talented defensive team overall.”
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In this age of up-tempo offenses and pass-heavy systems, it’s worth noting that neither Alabama’s Jacob Coker nor Florida’s Treon Harris have averaged more than 185 yards passing over their last six starts. By extension, you won’t find many Crimson Tide or Gators playmakers in the SEC’s list of top-15 receivers — with the lone exception of Alabama’s Calvin Ridley (67 catches, 791 yards, five TDs).
And yet, the time-tested brands of Alabama and Florida captured outright division titles, amid minimal late-season drama. The reasoning for this development is twofold: Defense and a strong rushing attack.
Alabama boasts top-10 national rankings with rushing defense (first), total defense (second), scoring defense (third) and third-down conversion percentage (eighth). In the same realm, Florida holds top-10 marks with rushing defense (seventh), total defense (fifth), passing yards allowed (ninth) and third-down completion percentage (10th).
On offense, Derrick Henry leads the nation in rushing; and his backfield counterpart, Gators tailback Kelvin Taylor, has stealthily posted superb numbers, rushing for 977 yards and 13 touchdowns. For good measure, Taylor has collected 98 total yards and/or one touchdown in every game this season.
“We thought Kelvin was a fantastic player in high school and one of the top backs in the country, and certainly somebody that would fit nicely into our style of play,” said Saban, upon being reminded that Taylor’s dad, former Jacksonville Jaguars great Fred Taylor, originally thought Kelvin would follow Saban to Tuscaloosa. “(Taylor) certainly hasn’t disappointed, in terms of the production he’s had this year (three straight 100-yard games) and the way he’s competed and the way he’s played.
“He’s everything and more than I thought he’d be. I’d love to have him here,” added Saban, who has collected his fair share of 5-star tailbacks over the last 20 years (covering Michigan State, LSU, Alabama).
Counting Saban’s successful tenure at LSU (two SEC titles, one BCS national championship from 2000-04), the coach will experience his seventh SEC Championship game on Saturday. Basically, he has seen it all in the last 15 years.
The same cannot be said for the current Florida players, including Hargreaves, who still has painful memories of the 4-8 campaign in 2013, along with how former Alabama All-American Amari Cooper (now with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders) shredded the Gators for 10 catches, 201 yards and three touchdowns last year.
“Obviously, I’ve never been to the SEC championship. It’s my first time. But I’ve heard (things), everybody always tells us about how exciting it is. (Head coach Jim McElwain) talks about the energy; even coach Mike Peterson, he always tells us how big of a game it is,” said Hargreaves. “I’m just really excited. The guys, we worked hard for (the SEC East title). We went through a lot. We had downs in the season, but everybody stuck through and we pulled through. We deserve to be here.”
Without a doubt, Florida deserved to win the middling SEC East. But that doesn’t necessarily quantify the Gators as mirror images of the vaunted Crimson Tide.
Not here. Not right now. Not when Alabama has everything to gain on Saturday — and considerably more to lose.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.