One team has its sights set on a national title. The other is simply happy to be headed to Atlanta.
When Alabama meets Florida for the SEC Championship Game on Saturday afternoon (4 pm ET, CBS), the schools will have clearly defined roles. The No. 2 Crimson Tide are 17.5-point favorites over the No. 18 Gators after winning nine straight games.
It’s business as usual for Nick Saban and Alabama.
The Tide are on the brink of a second straight College Football Playoff appearance. All they need to do is knock off the Gators, whose “little brother” status is reinforced by the men on the sidelines.
First-year Florida boss Jim McElwain served as offensive coordinator on Saban’s Alabama staff from 2008-2011.
“He’s the best ball coach in our era,” McElwain said during a Sunday night teleconference. “When he first called, I actually might’ve hung up, thinking it was one of my buddies busting my chops, not knowing he had a job opening. I was just really excited he called back.”
Saban’s Tide were picked to be No. 1 in the SEC West this summer, while McElwain’s Gators were the fifth choice in the East.
“I think a couple people probably had us sixth,” McElwain said with a chuckle. “For us to be where we’re at; that’s pretty cool.”
The only “cool” thing in Tuscaloosa would be a 16th national championship trophy. A loss to Florida on Saturday would be, unequivocally, a failure.
History is on the Tide’s side; Alabama is 24-14 all-time against Florida, and has won four in a row, including the 2009 SEC Championship Game.
The two schools kicked off the modern era of SEC football more than two decades ago.
Gene Stallings’ intimidating Crimson Tide defenses fell to Steve Spurrier’s “fun ’n’ gun” Gators in two the first three conference championship games from 1992-1994, and then again in 1996.
Those games produced two national champions, Alabama in 1992 and Florida in 1996, and one Heisman Trophy winner, laying the groundwork for the conference’s post-millennium dominance.
This Saturday’s championship at the Georgia Dome marks the eighth Alabama-Florida battle in 16 seasons. Those who have kept tabs on the SEC this season know that Alabama (11-1) has a strong chance of bringing national championship hardware and the Heisman Trophy back to the Southeast.
Junior running back Derrick Henry has been a force all season, racking up 1,797 yards and 22 touchdowns (both school records), and becoming the first SEC back since Bo Jackson to record four 200-yard games in the same season.
“All I can say is ‘Wow,’” McElwain said during his Sunday teleconference. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, trying to jump on his back and slow him down.”
The Gators (10-2) feature star running back Kelvin Taylor, but Florida’s offense has not passed the 30-point mark in six games since freshman quarterback Will Grier was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance.
Nick Saban’s Alabama squad has been heating up during that time. The Crimson Tide have not lost since Sept. 19, and have outscored opponents 305-102 during their nine-game streak.
The dominant run had Saban smiling on Saturday night after defeating Auburn.
“Our guys have had their backs against the wall ever since the Ole Miss game, and they’ve responded every time” he said. “I really love this team.”
It’s been 17 years since the SEC last had a repeat champion (Tennessee), but that streak is in serious jeopardy on Saturday.
“It’s a huge challenge,” McElwain said. “We’re playing the best team in college football.”