Tuesday, December 2, 2008
'Bama, Florida focus on SEC title, avoid BCS talk
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida receiver David Nelson pulled out his 2006 Southeastern Conference championship ring the other night, slipped it on his finger and wore it for hours -- a tangible reminder of what the Gators are playing for now.
Nelson kept his national title one stashed away, at least for a week.
Believe it or not, there has been little talk among players and coaches about the Bowl Championship Series implications that come with Saturday's SEC title game.
They surely know the winner is all but guaranteed a spot in the national title game in Miami. But they won't dare mention it, and not because they fear jinxing anything either.
For top-ranked Alabama and No. 2 Florida, getting to Atlanta has been the main goal all year. It was what motivated them in the offseason, what they talked about in the preseason and what they played for during the season. It also will have a huge impact on their postseason.
"There's stuff going around that we can go to some big-time bowl I guess, a big-time game," Nelson said with a smile. "But this is our goal. During the offseason, there's no talk of Miami, there's no talk of Louisiana, it's all talk of Atlanta. Everything we did was to get here. We're here now and we're not just satisfied being here."
Few gave Alabama (12-0) much of a shot at winning the West, especially not after finishing 6-6 last season and then beating Colorado in the Independence Bowl. The Tide was picked to finish third in the division, behind Auburn and defending national champion LSU.
Second-year coach Nick Saban, meanwhile, was telling his players something different. He was convinced they could get to Atlanta, and it wasn't just talk, either. He knew the talent was there, and given that each of the Tide's six losses in 2007 was by seven points or less, Saban figured hard work, perseverance and a little more confidence would help them pull out close games.
The Tide are 3-0 in games decided by less than a touchdown and on their way to the Georgia Dome.
"It's probably better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit," Saban said. "I think it's important to have high goals and aspirations for what you want to accomplish.
"I think it's more important to buy into the things that it takes to be able to do that. That's what this team has done so well. They just didn't believe that they could do it. They believed in the things that they needed to do to do it. That's where their commitment, their perseverance and their hard work has paid off for them."
Alabama is making its first trip to the SEC title game since 1999, when the Tide beat Florida 34-7, and sixth overall. Only the Gators have more appearances (nine).
"It's been a while since Alabama has made it back to the SEC championship," safety Rashad Johnson said. "And to come in and be such a big stage with so much on the line, it makes the game more exciting for the players, more exciting for the fans."
Especially for the winner.
The Gators (11-1) were the preseason favorite to win the East. But their attention was focused on winning the division and returning to Atlanta for the second time in three years long before fall practice began. It started when Michigan manhandled Florida in the Capital One Bowl in January.
"Getting embarrassed in the last bowl games was one of the best things that ever happened to Florida football," Meyer said. "It's hard to say that, but last year's team was an entitled, selfish group. ... They got slapped on New Year's Day. That was the best thing I think that ever happened to them.
"They realized you better get to work. Most of you guys really had nothing to do with that '06 team, so let's leave it alone and try to create your own here. They've done that so far."
The Gators are reminded of all the program's SEC success daily. Pictures of Florida six SEC championship teams line the hallways in the athletic facility. Those championship years are commemorated on a wall inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. And Meyer brings in former champions to speak to the team on a regular basis.
All those former players say the same thing: that to even be in the hunt for the national title, you have to win the conference championship.
That's the main reason Nelson kept his 2006 national championship ring in the box Saturday night. This week is all about the SEC title.
"We're playing for a ring, we're playing for Florida history," Nelson said. "It's the reason you come to Florida: to win championships. We're here again. I got in my head that I hadn't seen that ring in a while, so I pulled it out and had flashbacks to that season and how it felt and the memories of that season.
"I almost slept in it, but I don't want to jinx myself here."