Game of the Week: Florida looks to topple 'Bama in SEC mega-clash
Tide no longer look invincible, Gators no longer look lost after last week
Trey Burton needs to be a key contributor for Florida to pull the upset
Injuries will be a factor, but so will Florida's quest for revenge after '09
Four active college football coaches have won two national championships. Two of them will share a field on Saturday.
Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and the top 10 powerhouses they've created at Alabama and Florida will renew acquaintances this weekend for the first time since last year's SEC Championship Game. Alabama won that contest in Atlanta before going on to win the national championship, just like Florida did in 2008. Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa won't carry the all-or-nothing BCS implications the past two SEC championships did, but it will serve as the nation's biggest regular-season game to date -- and as a possible precursor to a December rematch at the Georgia Dome.
1. How much has changed in a week? When Alabama was 3-0 and had outscored opponents 134-19, it appeared the Tide were next to unstoppable. After the same three weeks, the Gators were a shaky 3-0 and appeared unable to get out of their own way on offense. Had a betting line been established for Florida-Alabama at that point, it would likely have been over 20 points. But then Alabama was severely tested at Arkansas, pulling out a 24-20 win in the fourth quarter after its defense was torched for over 300 yards in the first half. Later that night, Florida put together its first complete performance of the season in a 48-14 undressing of Kentucky. With No. 1 Alabama looking a little more vulnerable, and No. 7 Florida looking a little more in-sync, this game now appears worthy of the hype typically bestowed upon these SEC mega-clashes.
2. Trey Burton needs to play a key role for Florida to pull off the upset. The freshman quarterback/receiver/tight end opened eyes with his six-touchdown performance against Kentucky, scoring mostly out of the Tim Tebow/Wildcat role. He ran the ball five times (scoring every time), caught five passes (one for a touchdown) and threw a 42-yard pass to Omar Hines. The added wrinkle will be a test for a young Alabama secondary that was burned early by Ryan Mallett and Arkansas. Saban was not pleased with his pass defense and admitted preparing for Burton would be "challenging." With Burton giving a varied offense even more versatility, there could be more blown assignments this weekend for the Tide. Florida must pounce when that happens.
3. Florida's ability to run will be affected by the status of two very important sets of feet. Jeff Demps, the Gators' best running back, wore a walking boot midweek after re-injuring his bruised foot against Kentucky. Marcell Dareus, Alabama's best defensive lineman, was limited in practice with an ankle sprain. Both players are expected to be on the field Saturday night, but if either is limited, it will be felt. Demps is a home-run threat who bailed out the Gators' offense when it struggled to find a rhythm in its first few games. If a healthy Demps gets a seam, the track star will not be stopped. Dareus can be a dominating player as well, but he has yet to have an impact this season after being suspended the first two games. If nothing else, Dareus can lift his draft status with a big performance against the Gators.
Alabama enters as a nine-point favorite against Florida. The Tide are 2-4 against the spread as a favorite in their last six SEC games, including a failure to cover last week at Arkansas. This is just the fourth time Florida enters a game as an underdog in five-plus years under Meyer. The Gators covered the spread all three times, though won just one game outright (the 2006 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State). The trends say Alabama wins, but Florida covers.
Florida's defense has recorded an NCAA-best 12 interceptions (three of which have been returned for touchdowns), while Gator quarterbacks have thrown only one pick.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Pauline evaluated Alabama's three first-round prospects last week:
OT Marcus Gilbert, Florida: The athletic Gilbert is the Gators' best tackle prospect in more than a decade. He possesses the strength to hold down the right tackle spot, but also offers the footwork to slide over to the all-important blind side tackle position. Grade: First- to second-round prospect.
CB Janoris Jenkins, Florida: The junior has played well during the early part of the season and is moving up draft boards. He's got good size for a corner and possesses top ball skills. Saturday is another opportunity for Jenkins to shut down receiver Julio Jones, something he helped do in last year's SEC title game. Grade: Second-round prospect.
S Mark Barron, Alabama: Barron was one of the Tide's better defensive backs last season in a secondary that produced three draft picks. He's a forceful run defender and an intimidating presence in centerfield. Barron must improve his pass coverage skills, but he has starting potential for the next level. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
QB Greg McElroy, Alabama: McElroy is a terrific college quarterback who maximizes the great talent at his disposal. He's a game manager with a good head for the position, but remains a signal-caller who struggles to throw the ball downfield or get velocity on intermediate passes. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
Mark Ingram said all the Alabama players thought about for a year was losing that 2008 SEC championship game, and 12 months later the Tide were able to pay Florida back with a 32-13 upset. Now, Florida is the team with payback on its mind. Meyer tried to downplay the theme this week, but minutes after the Kentucky win, Florida's coach announced "It's Alabama week." The Tide are rightly favored, but the Gators' opportunistic defense and rejuvenated offense will take this one down to the wire. FLORIDA 26, ALABAMA 23.