NCF Nation: Javier Arenas

ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel spent the day in Washington, D.C., with Alabama's football team on Monday and has an inside look at the Crimson Tide's visit with President Barack Obama and their tour of all the sights.

Maisel also caught up with quarterback Greg McElroy and former cornerback Javier Arenas to get their thoughts on the whole experience.

Alabama fans will love this anecdote from Maisel's piece: As Karen McElwain, the wife of offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, walked out of the White House, she turned to the policeman sitting behind the desk and said, "See you next year?"

Sounds like Mrs. McElwain is predicting a repeat. Wonder what her husband's boss thinks about that?

Alabama, Florida save SEC in bowls

January, 11, 2010
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At the top of the SEC, the 2009 bowl season had that same championship ring to it.

Alabama became the third different SEC team in the past three years to capture the BCS national championship with a 37-21 victory over Texas on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, Calif.

All told, that’s four straight for the SEC and five of the last seven. And, no, there are no immediate plans to rename the BCS National Championship Game the SEC Invitational.

The Crimson Tide became only the second national champion in major college football history to finish a season 14-0. Ohio State also did it in 2002.

Alabama coach Nick Saban would be the first to tell you that the Crimson Tide didn’t play their best game against the Longhorns and they were especially shaky on special teams. But mirroring the way the season went for the Tide, they made every play they needed to -- be it Marcell Dareus’ 28-yard interception return for a touchdown, Trent Richardson’s 49-yard touchdown run or Eryk Anders’ sack and forced fumble -- to pull away in the end.

It’s what made this Alabama team so special. It wasn’t always the usual suspects who made the difference. It was a different cast of characters every game.

“We didn’t have any hanger-ons on this team. If you were in the boat, you were in the boat for a reason,” Alabama senior cornerback Javier Arenas said.

Alabama’s first national championship in 17 years capped what was otherwise a ho-hum bowl season for the SEC, which finished 6-4.

At least Florida made sure there was no hangover from the SEC championship game loss to Alabama, and senior quarterback Tim Tebow said goodbye to college football with a record-setting performance in a 51-24 demolition of Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Tebow passed for 482 yards and three touchdowns and broke Vince Young’s BCS record for total offense with 533 yards. The Gators (13-1) finished No. 3 in both of the final polls.

Ole Miss completed the first back-to-back nine-win seasons since the John Vaught era with a 21-7 victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, but the two teams combined for 12 turnovers.

Georgia was impressive in its 44-20 rout of Texas A&M in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl. More impressively, the Bulldogs secured their 13th consecutive season of at least eight wins. Nobody else in the country can match that level of consistency over the past 13 seasons.

The two biggest disappointments of the bowl season for the SEC were LSU and Tennessee. The Tigers were again abysmal on offense in a 19-17 loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl, while the Vols wilted in the second half of their 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

We won't call South Carolina a disappointment, because the Gamecocks failed to even show up in what was a second straight dreadful postseason performance. They lost 20-7 to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl after falling 31-10 to Iowa in the Outback Bowl a year ago.

Auburn gets the excitement award for the bowl season. The Tigers, despite giving up 625 yards of total offense, outlasted Northwestern 38-35 in overtime in the Outback Bowl to put a nice wrap on Gene Chizik's first season on the Plains.

Late first-half interception dooms Texas

January, 8, 2010
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PASADENA, Calif. -- It was the kind of game that left Texas players feeling empty, wondering if they could have beaten Alabama under some different circumstances.

Like having a healthy starting quarterback. Or without a botched shovel pass late in the first half that cost them a touchdown, a touchdown that proved to be pivotal at the end of a 37-21 loss to the Crimson Tide.

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
AP Photo/Chris Carlson Alabama's Marcell Dareus (57) breaks away from Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert after intercepting a pass that he would return 28 yards for a touchdown.
“Who knows?” Texas senior defensive end Sergio Kindle said. “If Colt hadn’t gotten hurt, things might have been a little different. It’s something we’ll never know.”

The Longhorns were already in a huge hole after McCoy’s injury occurred only five plays into the game. But Alabama was able to cruise into a 24-6 halftime lead after a bizarre call. Backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert's shovel pass for D.J. Monroe was intercepted by Marcell Dareus for a 28-yard touchdown with three seconds left in the half.

Texas coach Mack Brown initially considered letting the clock run out. But the Longhorns got greedy, thinking they could hit a big play and get some points.

“We knew it would be a struggle with points and we felt that with 15 seconds left we had the safest thing,” Brown said. “We called a little shovel pass that had never been intercepted before and I certainly never had seen it intercepted for a touchdown. We were trying to run down 10 or 15 yards and then take a shot in the end zone.”

Instead Brown’s gamble backfired and gave the Crimson Tide a huge surge of momentum before the break.

“They tried to shovel pass and my first reaction was to grab the ball,” Dareus said. “Then I blanked out and all I could do was think about Mark Ingram and Javier (Arenas), and making all the moves I didn’t think I could do. I saw the lineman coming for my legs and my first reaction was to spin. I looked to my left and I saw Eryk Anders and I knew it was a touchdown. I could not wait to get into the end zone.”

Brown didn’t show the moxie Thursday that led to eight bowl victories in the past nine seasons, and a 3-0 record in BCS games. The Longhorns battled to overcome mistakes for much of the night.

But Brown said he was proud of what his team accomplished during a 17-game winning streak that stretched back to a October 2008 loss at Texas Tech.

“I told the guys they had a great run,” Brown said. “I thought they were prepared and had worked really hard. Losing is tough. We’re proud to be in the national championship game, and it’s still equally hard to lose it.”

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Critical late turnovers cost Texas

January, 8, 2010
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PASADENA, Calif. -- After overcoming obstacles throughout the game, Texas' late hope was undone by a pair of critical late mistakes by freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert.

Alabama got a clinching 1-yard touchdown by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram with 2:01 left to ice the Tide's 37-21 victory.

The Crimson Tide took advantage of a short field after a blindside sack by linebacker Eryk Anders. The fumble was recovered by Courtney Upshaw at the Texas 3.

On the ensuing drive, Javier Arenas returned an interception to the Texas 27 that led to a 2-yard TD run by Trent Richardson with 47 seconds left.

And Tyrone King produced the final interception with a pick at the Alabam 31 with 26 seconds left.

Those two late scores make the final margin of victory for the Crimson Tide a little misleading.

The Longhorns had a chance to take the lead with 3 minutes left before the sack on Gilbert.

Before the late struggles, Gilbert had shown promise and moxie. But in the end, he couldn't overcome those late miscues so deep in his own territory in the end.

Arenas' interception kills Texas drive

January, 7, 2010
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PASADENA, Calif. -- Texas' offense finally clicked under freshman Garrett Gilbert, but Javier Arenas' interception snuffed out the drive at the Alabama 25.

Texas got some life when D.J. Monroe raced 28 yards on a reverse. On the play before the interception, Gilbert appeared to have Malcolm Williams in the end zone, but the sophomore wide receiver couldn't make a tough catch in the end zone.

The drive should give Gilbert some confidence, although it was a tough learning experience to finish the drive as they still trail, 14-6.

Three keys for Texas: Citi BCS National Championship

January, 7, 2010
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Here are three keys for Texas if it hopes to pull its second upset at the Rose Bowl in four seasons and earn another Bowl Championship Series national title.

1. Producing yards on first down: The Longhorns have a better chance of achieving offensive success if they produce early in a series. Second-and-long and third-and-long will make the Crimson Tide’s defense much more difficult to crack. If Colt McCoy can make things happen on first down – particularly early in the game – it should boost the Longhorns' confidence and their chances at an unexpected victory.

2. Dominate special teams: The Longhorns had one of the nation’s most proficient special teams units all season. Alabama has struggled in kick coverages, ranking 116th nationally with an average of 25.7 yards per kick return, and have been blistered with two returns for touchdowns. With the likely return of D.J. Monroe to the kick return rotation, the Longhorns will add the No. 2 kick returner in the nation. Marquise Goodwin was strong while Monroe was suspended, and Jordan Shipley is a threat to score a touchdown every time he returns a punt. The Longhorns need to make several big plays in this phase of the game.

3. Protect Colt McCoy: The Longhorns have allowed 30 sacks this season, and nearly half came in tight victories over Oklahoma (four) and Nebraska (nine). If the Longhorns have hopes of claiming the national title, they must give McCoy enough time to pass and keep fearsome Alabama pass rushers like Marcell Dareus, Eryk Anders, Javier Arenas and Rolando McClain away from their senior quarterback. And it would be a good time for the center of Texas’ offense – guards Michael Huey and Charlie Tanner and center Chris Hall -- to keep massive defensive tackle Terrence Cody away from McCoy.

Blogger debate: Texas vs. Alabama

January, 6, 2010
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Alabama is coming off its best victory of the season. Texas is coming off its worst.

Mark Ingram will be battling the Heisman Trophy jinx in national championship games, and Alabama will be trying to claim the fourth-straight BCS national title by an SEC team. The last non-SEC team to win the title: Texas.

Those are just a few of the subplots in Thursday's Citi BCS National Championship Game. Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin and SEC blogger Chris Low take a look at the matchup and other factors that will play into it.

[+] EnlargeGreg McElroy
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireIf Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy plays the way he did against Florida, the Texas defense could be in for a long night.
Tim Griffin: Chris. I saw Alabama in the SEC title game and was very impressed with the way they jumped on Florida quickly and put the Gators behind from early in the game. Do you think Greg McElroy can have a mammoth performance against a strong defense in back-to-back games?

Chris Low: Tim, it's ironic that you would ask about McElroy, because everybody was asking about him back in the spring. Nobody really knew anything about him, whether he could handle the quarterback position or whether he would even finish the season as the starter. I think it's safe to say that he's far surpassed anybody's expectations. He's such a smart player, knows the Alabama offense inside and out and rarely makes the same mistake twice. After all, he's only thrown four interceptions in 13 games. I've seen halves against SEC defenses in which quarterbacks have thrown three or four picks. But McElroy is not just a caretaker of the offense. He'll spread the ball around. He throws a nice deep ball, and is better at moving around and making plays than he's given credit for. In short, if the Alabama offensive line plays the way it did against Florida, I look for McElroy to have another solid game. That's the thing about this Alabama offense. They don't need him to put up mammoth numbers to win. My question to you, Tim, is whether Colt McCoy is going to be running for his life against Alabama like he was against Nebraska a month ago?

TG: If he does, Texas has absolutely no chance. But I think the fact that observers have been questioning Texas' offense for nearly five weeks after the Longhorns allowed nine sacks against Nebraska should serve as a motivational ploy. I look for Texas to try and dictate tempo early. Look for McCoy to try to use the Longhorns' one-minute offense, in which there would be little time between plays as they try to keep them out of their comfort zone. The Longhorns have struggled with their pass blocking all season. Look for freshman Tre Newton to get more time because of his pass-blocking skills. And I would also expect Texas to use tight end Greg Smith more than usual to have an extra blocker. In the Big 12, the Longhorns liked to run a lot of three- and four-wide receiver sets. I think they'll need the extra beef tonight. Chris, speaking of beef, how do you think Alabama's big offensive line will play against Texas' fast and quick defense. The Longhorns led the nation in rush defense, but faced four teams with defenses ranked 100th or worst. Does Alabama feel like they can exploit a Texas defense that is good, but hasn't played many good rushing attacks?

CL: Honestly, I think Alabama thinks it can exploit any defense. This Alabama offensive line isn't as big as the one last year and has relied more on quickness and angles than just lining up and mashing people. Alabama will certainly look to run the football and won't be afraid to use both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. It seems like the Crimson Tide always have a fresh back in the game. Against Florida, Alabama was able to throw it some and spread the Gators out. But that was just one game. We also saw Alabama struggle to run the ball against Auburn in the last game of the regular season, and McElroy had to bring them from behind throwing the football. Even in that game, after getting down 14-0, the Crimson Tide didn't panic and didn't get out of character offensively. What do you make of McCoy having two of his worst games against the two best defenses he's faced this season -- Nebraska and Oklahoma?

TG: Chris, interestingly those were also the games where he most faced consistent pressure from blitzes and had more trouble with interceptions. If Alabama can keep him from getting comfortable in the pocket and knock him around some, he could face a similar fate. The Texas offensive front isn't a great line -- by its standards or anybody else's. It's their biggest weakness, but really didn't impact them over the course of the season. The Longhorns had too many weapons and scored touchdowns in other ways to beat all the Big 12 teams they played.

[+] EnlargeJordan Shipley
Brendan MaloneyAlabama's special teams will have its hands full with Texas returner Jordan Shipley.
When they played Oklahoma, they were facing a green quarterback in Landry Jones after Sam Bradford's injury earlier in the game. And against Nebraska, they were able to neutralize the Cornhuskers' big defensive effort because Nebraska's offense played so poorly. Chris, I think that Texas is going to have to get some cheap points -- say from a long kick or punt return or a turnover to have a chance. Is there anything you've seen that shows Alabama has got its special teams under control enough to withstand the pressure that D.J. Monroe, Marquise Goodwin and Jordan Shipley will place on the Tide?

CL: Alabama has not been very good on kickoff coverage. That's a given. So it wouldn't be a shock to see the Crimson Tide give up some long returns or even a touchdown. Short fields could be critical in this game, because neither defense has allowed teams to consistently put together long drives. The problem with exploiting Alabama on special teams is that the Crimson Tide have one of the best punt returners in the country in Javier Arenas and a field goal kicker in All-American Leigh Tiffin who's made a bunch of big kicks and also has great range. In short, unless Alabama uncharacteristically turns the ball over and/or is forced to play from behind the whole game, I think the Crimson Tide take home the crystal trophy and complete a perfect season. Alabama 27, Texas 17

TG: I think Texas is going to have trouble stopping the run defense. But if they can get some early momentum, I like their chances of taking this game into the fourth quarter. But at that point, Alabama will have too much power and gradually wear the Longhorns down, likely with a late drive like the one Florida put Oklahoma away with last season. Alabama 24, Texas 13

Tide's Arenas was born ready

January, 6, 2010
1/06/10
6:51
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Alabama’s Javier Arenas is one of the most feared return specialists in college football.

As it turns out, he may have been a bit too feared this season. Hardly anybody kicked to him.


Kevin Liles/US PresswireAlabama defensive back Javier Arenas needs 29 yards to become the NCAA's leader in punt return yards.
“That comes with the territory. You just have to be ready when they do,” Arenas said.

Does he think Texas will kick to him on Thursday in the Citi BCS National Championship Game?

“I don’t know, but I’m going to be ready,” Arenas said.

The truth is he’s been ready since the day he stepped foot on campus at Alabama.

A mere afterthought when he signed the last week before signing day back in 2006, Arenas never had any doubt that he would do big things at Alabama. He was down to Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M before former Alabama coach Mike Shula decided to take a chance on him.

It's safe to say that chance paid off and then some.

The 5-9, 195-pound Arenas will play his final game at Alabama on Thursday as a consensus All-America cornerback, the SEC special teams player of the year and needing just 29 yards on punt returns to break Wes Welker’s NCAA record of 1,761 yards.

For his career, Arenas has taken seven punt returns back for touchdowns, including one this season.

“I committed to Florida Atlantic and Florida International and I was excited to go there,” Arenas recalled. “I was going to make a difference if I had gone there. Wherever I ended up, I was determined to make a difference.

“When Bama came along, everything kind of switched. But the determination to make a difference was still inside of me. That drive was still inside of me.”

That drive is what makes Arenas so fearless (and feared) any time he’s back deep on a punt return.

It’s the same thing that’s made him one of the better cornerbacks in the nation, whether he’s coming on a corner blitz or wrestling away a pass from a taller receiver.

“It goes back to that window of opportunity, the chance to play for a great and prestigious university and make something of yourself,” Arenas said. “Guys like that work hard. Every guy on this team works hard. But when you get a guy like me or guys that weren’t really highly recruited, we go out and have so much fun because we know there was a slim chance of us even being here.

“But we made it, and we want to go out and make each and every day count.”
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban has had several weeks now to diffuse what he’s termed the “David vs. Goliath” buildup to the Citi BCS National Championship Game.

Clearly, Saban has no desire for the Crimson Tide to play the role of Goliath, and neither do the players.

Alabama’s cause wasn’t helped much by Florida’s dominating performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators could have named their score against Cincinnati in a 51-24 rout. And that’s the same Florida team Alabama spanked 32-13 in the SEC championship game back on Dec. 5.

The real media crunch will start later Sunday when the Alabama and Texas players report for their first scheduled interviews at the Newport Beach Marriott and Spa. The Alabama players are almost defiant about not letting this become a situation where Texas is painted as a huge underdog.

“That’s what the media is about, just hyping a lot of things up,” Alabama senior cornerback Javier Arenas said. “They blow it up. That’s what’s going to happen, no question. That’s what they do. Then when you take down Florida, that’s when they say you’re going to blow out Texas, which is insane because it’s two great football teams going at it.

“It’s going to be a very competitive football game.”

Wonder if Arenas and his teammates have been listening to Saban, who was tersely deflecting any talk of Alabama being an obvious favorite the night the Alabama vs. Texas matchup was officially announced?

But with Texas looking so beatable in its Big 12 championship win over Nebraska and Alabama looking so impressive in its win over Florida, it was a given that the Crimson Tide were going to be seen nationally as the better team.

Of course, a week earlier, Alabama was lucky to escape at Auburn after falling behind by 14 points and pulling out a 26-21 win thanks to a fourth-quarter drive.

Alabama senior offensive guard Mike Johnson knows what the Longhorns were thinking if they watched that game.

“That this team can be beat,” Johnson said.

In other words, all that matters is who's the better team come Thursday at the Rose Bowl.

It's all about avoiding 'clutter' for Tide

December, 22, 2009
12/22/09
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For the record, it hasn’t sunk in yet for Alabama coach Nick Saban that he has this program in the BCS National Championship Game in only his third year on the job.

And for that matter, it won’t sink in. At least not while he’s getting ready for this game.

The same goes for his players, because in Saban’s words, to even allow yourself to think about such things is the very definition of clutter.

Arenas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCornerback Javier Arenas says he's "exceptional" at avoiding clutter.
In vintage Saban fashion, he pounded that message home to his players Monday -- doing so while scolding the media for even bringing up the subject.

After all, who dares to talk about playing for a national championship in the weeks leading up to the big game?

“I’m not worried about winning a national championship, and I don’t want our players to worry about it, either,” Saban said. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ask them, although I know you will.

"What I want our players to focus on is playing their best football and to assume that they’re going to play the best football team they’ve ever played and they’re going to be playing against the best player they’ve ever played against, and that’s what they should be working to do and what they should be focused on.”

The clutter is for everybody else on the outside to talk about.

And make no mistake. The Alabama players know clutter when they see it.

Senior cornerback Javier Arenas provided the most vivid definition.

“Clutter is clutter, bro,” Arenas said. “You’re driving down the road thinking about a chick, and you hit a dog in the road. That’s clutter. If you ain’t thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about, that’s clutter.”

Is he pretty good at avoiding clutter?

“I think I’m exceptional at it. I slack off every once in a while, but I never hit dogs,” Arenas cracked.

ESPN.com's All-SEC team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
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We’re pleased to announce the “official” 2009 All-SEC team.

No biases. No slant. No trying to take care of every team. No career achievement awards.

Just the best players in the SEC this season with heavy emphasis placed on how they did against league competition.

The quarterback decision was extremely difficult. Florida’s Tim Tebow is one of the best college football players I’ve ever seen over the course of his career, but the numbers say Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett was a little better this season.

Mallett had 2,189 passing yards, 16 touchdown passes and five interceptions in eight SEC games. Tebow had 1,552 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and five interceptions in nine games against SEC foes. Tebow also had eight rushing touchdowns compared to Mallett’s two.

I realize that Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody is in the running for several national awards. At times, he’s a force in the middle, but he wasn’t one of the four best defensive linemen this season on an every-down basis.

Alabama's Javier Arenas was the only player in the league to make it at two different positions. What a senior season he's had. Vanderbilt's Warren Norman was the only freshman to make the team.

There were several tough choices (running back and defensive line, in particular), but here’s our 2009 All-SEC team. On offense, we’ve included an all-purpose player:

OFFENSE

QB -- Ryan Mallett, So., Arkansas

RB -- Mark Ingram, Jr., Alabama

RB -- Anthony Dixon, Sr., Mississippi State

AP -- Randall Cobb, So., Kentucky

WR -- Shay Hodge, Sr., Ole Miss

WR -- A.J. Green, So., Georgia

TE -- Aaron Hernandez, Jr., Florida

OL -- John Jerry, Sr. Ole Miss

OL -- Mike Johnson, Sr., Alabama

OL -- Chris Scott, Sr., Tennessee

OL -- Mike Pouncey, Jr., Florida

C -- Maurkice Pouncey, Jr., Florida

DEFENSE

DE -- Antonio Coleman, Sr., Auburn

DE -- Pernell McPhee, Jr., Mississippi State

DT -- Dan Williams, Sr., Tennessee

DT -- Malcolm Sheppard, Sr., Arkansas

LB -- Eric Norwood, Sr., South Carolina

LB -- Rolando McClain, Jr., Alabama

LB -- Brandon Spikes, Sr., Florida

DB -- Joe Haden, Jr., Florida

DB -- Patrick Peterson, So., LSU

DB -- Javier Arenas, Sr., Alabama

DB -- Eric Berry, Jr., Tennessee

SPECIAL TEAMS

K -- Leigh Tiffin, Sr., Alabama

P -- Drew Butler, So., Georgia

KR -- Warren Norman, Fr., Vanderbilt

PR -- Javier Arenas, Sr., Alabama
Texas (13-0) vs. Alabama (13-0)

Jan. 7, 8 p.m., (ABC)

Texas take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: The Longhorns nearly played their way out of the BCS title game Saturday night and were fortunate to beat Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.

That narrow victory should provide much emphasis over the next few weeks to the Longhorns, who earned their first BCS title game berth since 2005. Mack Brown’s program has become one of the most proficient in the postseason, winning five consecutive bowl games including three BCS bowl games during that streak.

The Longhorns offensive line struggled mightily against Nebraska’s defensive front, producing a season-low 18 rushing yards and allowing nine sacks against the Cornhuskers. It will be another challenge against Alabama’s defense studded with defensive All-Americans Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas and mammoth run-stuffer Terrence Cody. The game will also feature offensive starpower with Heisman contenders Colt McCoy of Texas and Mark Ingram of Alabama.

The Longhorns streaked to their first Big 12 title since 2005 thanks to an offense keyed by McCoy’s passing talents and a deep collection of receivers. It will be a challenge for them to make yardage against an Alabama defense that led the nation in pass efficiency defense and scoring defense and ranks second in rushing defense and total defense. In order to be successful in the title game, the Longhorns will have to show improvement over their struggling performance in the Big 12 title game.


Alabama take by SEC blogger Chris Low: It took Nick Saban all of three years to build Alabama’s program back to national championship contention. The Crimson Tide are right where they expect to be after sweeping through the regular season unbeaten for the second straight year, and this time, finishing it off with a 32-13 demolition of Florida.

This is an Alabama team that’s every bit as physical as it was a year ago, but even more diverse offensively. Junior quarterback Greg McElroy showed how diverse by carving apart Florida’s vaunted defense in the SEC championship game. The convincing 19-point win over the Gators was easily the Crimson Tide’s most complete performance of the season.

Saban has already started to send the message to his team through the media that no matter how well Alabama played in its conference championship game and how shaky Texas was in its conference championship game that this isn’t a “David vs. Goliath” affair. In other words, don’t look for the Crimson Tide to get caught sleeping no matter how big a favorite they are in this game. They will be ready.

Alabama’s defense is one of the best in the country, and Saban’s a master when he has this much time to scheme up a team. But Texas has a pair of assistants on its staff that know his system extremely well. Saban has called Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp one of the best assistants that he’s ever had. Muschamp, the Longhorns’ head coach-in-waiting, was Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU and was also with Saban on the Miami Dolphins’ staff for a year. Texas assistant head coach/running backs coach Major Applewhite was Saban’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama during Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

SEC championship game key matchups

December, 3, 2009
12/03/09
4:17
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Let's break down five key matchups in Saturday’s SEC championship game:

[+] EnlargeAlabama
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Alabama offensive line's task got a little easier with the suspension of Gators DE Carlos Dunlap.
1. Alabama’s offensive line vs. Florida’s defensive line: The Crimson Tide have played a lot better up front offensively than anybody expected after losing three starters from a year ago, including two All-Americans. The anchor of the line is senior guard Mike Johnson, but junior college transfer James Carpenter has come in and done a nice job at left tackle. Nobody has really run the ball against Florida all season. The biggest challenge for Alabama may be protecting Greg McElroy if the Tide can’t get the running game going. The Gators are missing their most talented defensive lineman. Junior end Carlos Dunlap is suspended, but Jermaine Cunningham is equally adept at rushing the passer and will move around some.

2. Florida cornerback Joe Haden vs. Alabama receiver Julio Jones: Haden is one of the best cornerbacks in the college game. Jones is one of the toughest one-on-one matchups in the college game. This will be a battle from the opening kickoff. Jones has been much more involved in the Alabama offense the last month of the season and had two key third-down catches in the game-winning drive against Auburn. The Crimson Tide would love to get him isolated in man coverage and give him a chance to break a tackle and make a big play, but Haden doesn’t give up much of anything at his position.

3. Alabama punt returner Javier Arenas vs. Florida’s punt coverage: The Gators don’t give up return yards in the punt game to anybody. Then again, Arenas isn’t just anybody. He set the SEC record this season with his seventh career punt return for a touchdown and is bearing down on the NCAA mark for most career punt return yards. Only three punts have been returned against Florida all season for a total of 13 yards. Because the defenses are so good, both of these teams are going to need to find some big plays somewhere, and Arenas is probably Alabama’s most dynamic big-play threat, albeit on special teams. The Gators probably won’t give him many punts to handle. But if they do, it could get interesting.

[+] EnlargeRolando McClain
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRolando McClain will be keeping a close eye on QB Tim Tebow.
4. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow vs. Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain: Both of these players have tremendous respect for each other. They’re both fierce competitors. They’re both strong leaders, and they both think the game as well as they play it. McClain doesn’t mince words when he says Tebow willed the Gators to the victory last season in the fourth quarter. When those key third-down plays and key red zone plays come up again this Saturday, you know McClain will be shadowing Tebow’s every move. And the thing we know about Tebow is that he won’t shy away from any collision, even if it’s with the 250-pound McClain.

5. Alabama coach Nick Saban vs. Florida coach Urban Meyer: It’s hard to pick a favorite here. In big games, they’re both money. Saban is the defensive guy and Meyer the offensive guy. Early on, it will be interesting to see what kind of defensive wrinkles Alabama has implemented to keep Tebow at bay. Saban is one of the best in the business when he gets a second shot at a team after losing the year before. Meyer is one of the best in the business in marquee games -- period. He has yet to lose in two previous SEC championship games and three BCS bowl games, including a pair of BCS National Championship Games.

What to watch: SEC championship game

December, 3, 2009
12/03/09
8:00
AM ET
All of your questions will be answered two days from now.

Who’s better on defense? Can Greg McElroy get it done? Does Tim Tebow sparkle again in the fourth quarter? Can Alabama avenge last season’s bitter loss?

It’s Alabama vs. Florida for all the SEC marbles on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Here’s an SEC championship game version of what to watch:

1. Dealing with distractions: The good thing for Florida is that the Gators have been putting out fires since before the season started. So they ought to be used to this. There was all the Urban Meyer-Lane Kiffin stuff, the Meyer-to-Notre Dame rumors, the flu bug in September, Tebow’s concussion, Meyer being fined by the SEC, all the gaudy expectations and now star defensive end Carlos Dunlap’s DUI arrest and suspension and the likelihood that defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is on his way to Louisville as head coach. It’s been an eventful week for the Gators. It’s been an eventful season. Can they overcome it all one final time and move a step closer to their third national championship in four years? We’re going to find out.

2. Ingram’s health: Despite his hip pointer, Alabama running back Mark Ingram has been practicing this week and will play Saturday. The word coming out of Alabama is that he looks fine, although it still remains to be seen how he might be affected if he takes a couple of early hits on that hip. Ingram had an extra day to rest it, which helps. The Crimson Tide won’t be hesitant about using freshman Trent Richardson, either. He was on the field that final drive against Auburn, and several in and around the Alabama program think he has more raw ability than Ingram. The Crimson Tide won’t have to change their game plan regardless of who’s in the game. Ingram might not be 100 percent, but he’s itching to play in this game and show his stuff against the best defense he’s faced all season.

3. Being special on special teams: Florida has the best special teams in the country, which has long been an Urban Meyer staple. The Gators are 14-0 under Meyer when they block a punt. This season, they’ve only had three punts returned against them for a total of 13 yards, and Brandon James has returned four punts and one kickoff for touchdowns during his career. They can beat you a number of different ways on special teams, which means the Crimson Tide need to have one of their better games in special teams. They’ve been particularly shaky in kickoff coverage, finishing 10th in the SEC. But Javier Arenas is one of the best return men in college football and gives the Crimson Tide the same threat at James. One of Alabama’s best special teams players, linebacker Cory Reamer, has a pulled hamstring, which will limit how many specials teams units he plays on in this game. And if it comes down to the kickers, Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin and Florida’s Caleb Sturgis both have strong legs. With this game being played indoors and both defenses being so strong, don’t be surprised if Tiffin and Sturgis both get shots at long field goals.

4. Chasing history: Both teams will be chasing history Saturday. Alabama is the only team in the league to have won an SEC title in every decade since the league was formed in 1933. This is the Crimson Tide’s last chance to keep that streak alive. They’ve also gone nine years without an SEC title, which is the longest drought in school history. Florida is seeking to win back-to-back SEC titles for the first time since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998. And by winning, the Gators would get a chance in the BCS National Championship Game to do something that hasn’t been done in 60 years: win three undisputed national titles in a span of four years. Notre Dame won in 1946, 1947 and 1949. The Gators are also vying to finish a season unbeaten for the first time in school history.

5. Saban’s second chance: Only once since he arrived in the SEC from Michigan State has Nick Saban lost back-to-back games to the same team. As fate would have it, those two losses were to Florida in 2000 and 2001, Saban’s first two seasons at LSU and when Steve Spurrier was coaching the Gators. In other words, Saban is pretty good in rematches. He’s 13-1 during his stints at LSU and Alabama in return games against teams. One of the reasons is that he never rests. He’s always looking for ways to get better, how to tweak things, new ways to pressure the quarterback and new ways to attack a certain offense. Alabama’s proud defense gave up a staggering 129 yards and two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of last season’s 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide’s defense couldn’t get off the field, as the Gators kept the ball for nearly 12 minutes in that final quarter. We’ll see what answers Saban has for Tebow and Co. the second time around. Think he's looked at much tape from the fourth quarter of that game last year?
When is a punt out of bounds at the 35-yard line a good thing?

When you’re kicking to Javier Arenas or Brandon James.

Between them, they’ve taken back 12 punts or kickoffs for touchdowns during their careers.

[+] EnlargeJavier Arenas
AP Photo/ Butch DillAlabama's Javier Arenas is thinking touchdown each time he gets his hands on the ball.
Arenas, Alabama’s senior cornerback, set the SEC record earlier this season with his seventh punt return for a touchdown. James, Florida’s junior running back/receiver, took a kickoff back for a touchdown in the opener this season. He already had four career punt returns for touchdowns.

They’re both fearless. They’re both impossible to tackle in the open field. They’re both the kind of players who can completely change the complexion of a game with one stutter step, one broken tackle and one burst down the sideline.

This Saturday, they may also be their respective offense’s best friend in the SEC championship game.

Points won’t be easy to come by against either one of these defenses and neither will yards.

So it goes without saying that a short field set up by a nice return would be extra valuable, and a touchdown on special teams would be worth its weight in gold.

Florida’s defense has allowed just nine touchdowns all season, while Alabama’s defense has given up 13 touchdowns. They’re both serious about protecting their end zone, which makes game-changers like Arenas and James all the more critical in a game of this nature.

For Arenas, who needs 37 yards to pass Wes Welker as the NCAA’s all-time leader in punt return yardage, the hardest thing might be staying patient.

When he’s back deep, he’s thinking touchdown -- every time.

[+] EnlargeBrandon James
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesBrandon James has 12 punt returns of 30 yards or more in his career.
“I've always got to have people on the sidelines telling me relax, to calm down, [that] it's going to come to you,” Arenas said. “I'm like, ‘You’re right.’ I need somebody in my corner to help me out with things like that. I want to get back and make the play.

“I know at the same time that I have experience from trying to do too much and fumbling the ball or muffing the ball, all the worst that you can expect. I had experience from that, and I think it's helped me grow as a return man back there.”

While Arenas may be a little more powerful and more adept at running through would-be tacklers, James has Houdini-like moves and an extra gear after he makes that first guy miss.

He has 12 punt returns of 30 yards or more in his career, including four punt returns for touchdowns of 74-plus yards.

“It’s not one man,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s the whole scheme, and both teams take great pride in their return games.”

Both teams also have guys who can change the game in the blink of an eye … and may need to Saturday in the Georgia Dome.

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