What did you and your family have for Thanksgiving dinner? Turkey and dressing? Sweet potatoes? Cole slaw, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole?
Last weekend, several teams in the SEC participated in a football version of Thanksgiving dinner. Mississippi State got its fill of Ole Miss sliced turkey. Georgia mashed more than potatoes as it stomped the Flying Bugs of Georgia Tech. LSU, with its customary ethnic culinary flair, slow roasted the whole Hogs, accented in overtime with a little Cajun spice.
But the real feast for SEC football fans comes this weekend in Atlanta as Florida and Alabama slug it out to determine which team will represent the league in the BCS Championship Game.
By the way, why is this game played in Atlanta? There is not a single SEC team that makes its home in the Georgia capital. Georgia Tech used to be in the conference, but Tech got tired of being the perennial whipping boy for Georgia, Alabama and Auburn so they quit the league and only the Bulldogs remain as a permanent fixture on the Tech schedule.
When the idea of a Conference Championship Game was first conceived, the game was to be played in Birmingham’s Legion Field; a venue that is within a few miles of the Conference offices. In its day, that venerable old stadium, before the upper deck was condemned for being structurally unsafe, was the largest football stadium in South not located on a college campus.
It was a working man’s venue. Its exposed structural steel aptly reflected the no-frills, industrial character of a city justifiably known as the Pittsburgh of the South. At Legion Field, the game was the thing. Comfort for fans was not even an after-thought; it never entered into the equation. You counted yourself lucky to have the privilege of a ticket and if your car was still where you parked it, and not up on cinder blocks when you returned, you considered yourself especially fortunate.
The Georgia Dome could not be more different. It is a high-tech sports palace dedicated to the proposition that athletic competition is a form of entertainment, and no opportunity will be missed to separate the paying fans from every last dollar in their pockets. Maybe that’s the point.
Whatever the thinking behind moving the game to Atlanta, there can be little dispute that the SEC Championship Game has produced some incredibly memorable games, just as it has produced more than its fair share of eventual national champions. The last two quarterbacks to play a national championship game that did not involve a team from the SEC were Vince Young and Matt Leinart; the two NFL signal callers who squared off against each other last Sunday in LP Field — with eerily similar results.
This Saturday, Alabama and Florida, the two teams that have represented their respective divisions more than any other, will again compete for the conference championship. Picking which team will win is a daunting task, especially when there are five good reasons why each should win.
Five reasons why Alabama will win
Defensive dominance: Alabama ranks first in the SEC in rushing defense, and is second in passing, scoring and total defense. Over the entire season, Tide defenders have made 86 tackles for lost yardage, including 31 quarterback sacks. Safety, Mark Barron, leads the SEC in interceptions (7) and the Tide leads the league in turnover margin (+13).
Offensive balance: Alabama gains an average of 213 yards rushing per game and 194 yards per game through the air. The Tide’s committee of running backs, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Roy Upchurch, boast per-carry averages of 6.5, 4.9 and 6.0. Ingram is also the Tide’s second most prolific receiver, with 28 catches for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns. Alabama has scored 40 touchdowns; 16 passing and 24 on the ground.
Special teams excellence: Javier Arenas, Alabama’s senior kick-returner, holds the NCAA record with seven punts returned for touchdowns in his career. This season, Arenas has averaged nearly 17 yards per punt return, making him the SEC leader, and 29.5 yards per kick return, good enough for second in the conference. Alabama’s return game has contributed an average of 128 yards per game, to the Tide’s 536 all-purpose yards.
Great coaching: Nick Saban is no stranger to the SEC Championship Game; this will be his fifth trip to the conference title game. He is an indefatigable recruiter who has stocked the cupboard in Tuscaloosa with excellent talent like wide receiver Julio Jones, running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and defenders Terrence Cody, Marcel Dareus, and Rolando McClain.
Intangibles: Alabama has put together back-to-back undefeated regular seasons for the third time in school history. The previous consecutive perfect seasons were 1925-1926 and 1973-1974, each one a championship year. Last week, late in the fourth quarter, the Tide drove the length of the field to erase a one-point scoring deficit to beat Auburn and preserve its undefeated season and championship aspirations.
Five reasons why Florida will win
Defensive dominance: Where Alabama is second in defensive statistics, Florida ranks first. Where 'Bama is first, the Gators are second. Florida leads the conference in interceptions with 20. The Gator pass rush has produced 34 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries.
Offensive balance: Florida has averaged scoring more than 36 points per game while generating an average of 451 yards of total offense. Tim Tebow is the SEC’s most efficient passer with a rating of 160.7 earned by completing 66.7 percent of his pass attempts for 2166 yards and 17 touchdowns. Tebow also is the Gators’ leading runner with nearly 1,000 yards gained on the ground this season.
Special teams excellence: Florida’s punter averages nearly 43 yards per punt and has kicked 6 punts of more than 50 yards. The Gators average 7.5 yards per punt return and a very respectable average of 26 yards per kick return.
Great coaching: Urban Meyer has been a winner everywhere he has been a head coach, but no active coach can equal Meyer’s achievements at Florida. A win over Alabama will place within Meyer’s grasp the unprecedented prospect of winning three national championships in four years.
Intangibles: Florida’s intangible advantage can be summed up in two words: Tim Tebow. The Florida quarterback is a phenomenal, once in a generation, talent. Who cares whether he has a future in the NFL? As a college quarterback he has few peers. Are there better pocket passers than Tebow? Yes. Are there swifter, more elusive runners? Again, yes. But no other individual player possesses the rare combination of size, speed, passing ability and leadership that Tebow brings to the Gators.
The Tide and Gators are evenly matched in most statistical categories. Like last year, this game will effectively decide the BCS Championship. But which team will be the SEC Champion? Where can the objective observer look to make a prediction on the outcome of this game?
I offer two considerations: difficulty of schedule and performance against common opponents.
Both teams have played some light non-conference opponents. The one notable exception is that Alabama opened the season against nationally ranked Virginia Tech. Florida closed its season against pathetic FSU. Bama has the edge in quality non-conference games.
Within the Conference, the Gators have played a much easier schedule. Florida’s conference opponents have a combined win-loss record of 51-45. Bama’s conference opponents have a win-loss record of 57-39.
The Tide has played and defeated four teams ranked in the AP Top 25 in the second half of the season; Florida has played and defeated only two. Two of Alabama’s opponents, LSU and Va. Tech., are currently ranked; Florida has only one, LSU. Alabama has played a tougher schedule.
So what about performance against common opponents? Florida and Alabama have played and defeated six common SEC opponents: Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State. But a very interesting statistic emerges when you look at the combined margins of victory. Alabama outscored these six conference foes by 99 points; Florida outscored them by only 77.
Against these common opponents, Tebow completed 90 of 143 passes for 1,148 yards and 7 touchdowns, while Alabama’s Greg McElroy completed 110 of 175 passes for 1,360 yards and 10 touchdowns. On the ground, Tebow carried the ball 129 times, gained 492 yards and scored 5 rushing touchdowns. Mark Ingram, Alabama’s leading rusher, gained 844 yard on 133 rushes and scored 7 touchdowns against this common half-dozen.
What does this tell us?
Alabama is better than it was last year, has played a tougher schedule and has played better against common opponents. Florida, although it still has Tebow, is very good but perhaps not quite as good as it was last year. The Gators depend too much on Tebow offensively. Against common opposition, Tebow has not matched the performance of his Tide counterparts.
Last year, Florida was a better team than Alabama and the result of the Championship Game proved it. This year, it looks as if the tide has turned. The pick: Alabama.
The Commissioner is Nashville attorney, Joseph A. “Woody” Woodruff, a partner in the litigation practice at the Nashville office of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP.