What to watch in the SEC championship game
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
The first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in SEC history (according to the Associated Press poll) is upon us. Alabama and Florida have met five previous times in the SEC championship game, but the stakes have never been this high for both teams. The winner earns a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Back in August, a lot of people were picking the Gators to be here. Nobody expected the Crimson Tide to be here. At least, nobody outside of the 205 area code. Both teams are still relatively young. Alabama only has nine scholarship seniors on its entire team, the fewest in the nation. Florida, meanwhile, is the only team in the SEC without a senior starter on defense. They've gotten here with contrasting styles -- the Gators with speed and the Crimson Tide with power. It ought to be a classic. Here are a few things to watch:
1. How's Percy? Through Thursday's practice, Florida running back/receiver Percy Harvin hadn't done anything on the field this week with rest of the team. He spent Thursday in the pool rehabilitating his sprained right ankle, but Florida coach Urban Meyer remains hopeful that Harvin will be able to play some in the game. How much remains to be seen. Meyer said he should know more Friday. Harvin is no stranger to playing through injuries. It seems like he's had something plaguing him from the time he arrived at Florida. But even when he's not 100 percent, Harvin is one of those guys that can turn a quick toss or a missed tackle into a touchdown. There's a reason he's scored a touchdown in 14 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the nation.
2. Scoring in different ways: Florida has scored seven non-offensive touchdowns this season -- five interception returns and two punt returns. There are only three teams nationally who've scored more, and one of those is Alabama. The Crimson Tide have eight non-offensive touchdowns this season, tying Kansas State and Boston College for the most among FBS schools. Alabama has four interception returns for touchdowns, two punt returns, one fumble return and one blocked punt. Both defenses are so good that a non-offensive touchdown could easily be the difference in this game. Both teams have big-time weapons in the return game, too. Between them, Alabama's Javier Arenas (five) and Florida's Brandon James (four) have returned nine career punts for touchdowns.
3. Rushing to success: There's an age-old adage in football that says if you can run the ball and stop the run, you're going to win a lot more games than you lose. That adage has been the cornerstone of Alabama's success this season. The Crimson Tide are second in the SEC in rushing offense (Florida is first), but they're also second nationally when it comes to stopping the run. They're allowing just 73.6 yards per game on the ground and have given up only three rushing touchdowns all season, the fewest in the country. The Tide's rushing defense will really be tested by the Gators, who've run for a staggering 1,612 more yards than their opponents this season. Ultimately, it's probably going to get down to whether Alabama can keep the ball away from Florida by running the ball and putting together long drives. Being able to get 4 and 5 yards consistently on first down will be especially important for the Tide.
4. Tebow time: One of the reasons Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has been so efficient this season is that he hasn't had to do as much as a year ago. The emergence of Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps in the backfield has helped to take a lot of the pressure off of Tebow. Spreading the wealth around also means that it's a much healthier Tebow than it was at this time a year ago. He hasn't taken the pounding he did last season, which means he's going to be more willing than ever to lower his shoulder and try to pick up the tough yards. Having that dimension in the red zone and in short-yardage situations is invaluable. It's also a nice bonus for the Gators should Harvin not be as effective on his gimpy ankle. Tebow carried it a season-high 16 times last week against Florida State. He'll have at least that many carries in him Saturday if need be.
5. Spikes vs. Coffee: As good as Florida middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been this season, he's been known to wander out of position at times. It's more a product of being too aggressive than anything else. He's a dynamic player capable of making game-turning plays. See his four interceptions against Top 25 teams. Still, look for Alabama to try and use some of that aggressiveness against him and do its best to get him out of the play. Alabama junior running back Glen Coffee hits the hole as hard as anyone, and he's the kind of runner who delivers the blow. His 1,235 rushing yards are the second most in the SEC behind only Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, who has 1,338. Coffee led all SEC rushers with a minimum of 100 attempts by averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also showed the ability to break the long one. So look for Spikes and Coffee to come face-to-face more than a few times Saturday.