Florida and Alabama could rule the SEC for the foreseeable future
This season has seen the SEC landscape change considerably seemingly overnight
In a suddenly not-so-deep SEC, Florida and Alabama simply dominated this year
Florida and Alabama are already at the top of the SEC even with young rosters
One of the main reasons the SEC has long been perceived as the nation's preeminent football conference is its depth of quality programs. The most concrete evidence of that is the fact that the same two teams have not met in the SEC Championship Game in consecutive years since 1994.
Something tells me that drought is about to end.
When No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida meet Saturday at the Georgia Dome, there's a very good chance it will be just the first installment in what could become an epic rivalry the next few years. Expect to see the Gators and Crimson Tide meet again on the same field next year ... and possibly even beyond.
This theory would have seemed preposterous just four months ago. At the SEC's preseason Media Days, Florida coach Urban Meyer espoused that as many as nine teams had a realistic shot of winning the conference. LSU was basking in the glory of its second BCS championship in five seasons, and there was talk that preseason No. 1 Georgia had "turned the tables" in its previously one-sided rivalry with Florida.
Meanwhile, reporters covering the event took turns playing a popular parlor game: Rank the SEC coaches. (The idea being, you couldn't, what with a roster that included five national-championship coaches and three others that had won conference titles.)
The 2008 season, however, has seen the conference landscape change considerably seemingly overnight. Georgia went from national-title contender to Capital One Bowl team, and LSU plummeted from 12-2 to 7-5. Tennessee and Auburn, two of the conference's more consistent programs, simultaneously imploded, leading to the ouster of star-studded coaches Phillip Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville. Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom -- the conference's Coach of the Year just last season -- has stepped down as well.
In a suddenly not-so-deep SEC, Florida and Alabama simply dominated this season, going a combined 15-1 in league play. The Tide endured just one real scare all year, an overtime win against LSU, while the Gators cruised in every game outside of their early season loss to Ole Miss.
Florida's success was not entirely surprising. The Gators are just two years removed from a national title, and Meyer has assembled a Pete Carroll-like recruiting machine during his four years in Gainesville. He has his team back in title contention despite a near-total turnover in personnel from the dominant defense that carried his 2006 title team.
Alabama hired Nick Saban two years ago with the hopes he would do much the same thing -- but few expected it to happen so soon. And he's done it very much with the same formula that worked at LSU: A modest, run-first offense coupled with a dominant defense and meticulous attention to detail.
"We kind of provided a road map, a plan, a direction that we wanted the program to go," Saban said this week. "We didn't deviate from that plan."
Regardless of the outcome Saturday -- and whether or not the winner ends up claiming a BCS title as well -- it's not unrealistic to think the two teams will be in much the same position this time next year.
The Gators start just four seniors on offense and none on defense. Fourteen of the 22 players on their defensive two-deep are freshmen or sophomores, including top cornerback Janoris Jenkins and starting safeties Major Wright and Ahmad Black. Their top three running backs (Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody) are all freshmen or sophomores as well.
Florida will likely lose star juniors Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes to the NFL (QB Tim Tebow is also a possibility, though most expect he'll remain in Gainesville), but the Gators' reinforcements will come from among one of three straight top-three recruiting classes.