Doug Benc/Getty Images
The stage is set for the most anticipated SEC Championship Game matchup in the event's 16-year history: 12-0 Alabama vs. 11-1 Florida in what amounts to a de facto national semifinal.
But before we start looking ahead to next week, it's worth taking a moment to recognize the coronation that took place in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday. In throttling archrival Auburn 36-0, the Crimson Tide completed their regular-season schedule undefeated for the first time since 1994. In a year's span, Nick Saban has lifted Alabama from the misery of its second straight .500 regular season to the top of the college football world.
Yet this story of college football's sleeping giant finally rising from the ashes has been almost completely overshadowed by those of the Big 12 South circus, the job security of Charlie Weis, the future of Joe Paterno ... even the exploits of another team in 'Bama's own conference, Florida.
In a 2008 season that's been defined by razzle-dazzle spread offenses, the Tide have managed to slide under the radar because they're the rare power that still wins the old-fashioned way: by running the ball and stopping the run. Saturday's methodical Iron Bowl drubbing was a fitting finale. Running behind all-everything linemen Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell, tailbacks Glen Coffee (20 carries, 144 yards, one TD) and Mark Ingram (15 carries, 64 yards, two TDs) rammed the ball down the Tigers' throats, while the Tide defense held Auburn's woeful offense to 170 total yards, including just 57 on the ground.
While Florida is unquestionably loaded and arguably the most impressive team in the country over the second half of the season, 'Bama's identity has remained virtually unchanged since its season-opening rout of Clemson in Atlanta. That's a credit to Saban, whose team rarely veers from its course. Its lone "struggles" were an overtime win at LSU and a near fourth-quarter collapse against Ole Miss.
"When you look at Alabama, the sum is greater than the parts," CBS' Gary Danielson said during Saturday's broadcast. "When you look at Florida ... the spread [offense] highlights the parts that beat you."
It's not the smoothest analogy I've ever heard, but it's pretty accurate. It may well be that the Gators' multitude of weapons is too much for even as stout a defense as Alabama's -- but I wouldn't bet my house on it. The Tide's formula is one that's stood the test of time since well before the spread offense ever entered the sport's lexicon.
Meanwhile, Auburn endured a humbling ending to its first losing season (5-7) since 1999. There's no question there will be changes on The Plains in the weeks ahead, but how severe will they be? It would be very Auburn-like to allow the emotion of Saturday's humiliation to cause the school's power brokers (mainly uber-booster Bobby Lowder) to run 10-year coach Tommy Tuberville out of town.
Hopefully saner heads will prevail. Tuberville, with his 84-39 record, 5-3 bowl record and 9-4 record against top-10 teams the past five years, has earned the right to a mulligan. But he'll definitely need to make sweeping changes to his offensive staff, which may mean parting with a couple of longtime, loyal assistants.
For years, Auburn was a perennial contender in the SEC West while running a traditional, I-formation offense heavy on the run. How strange that the same year Tuberville tried unsuccessfully to switch to the spread, his cross-state rival has gone 12-0 the old-fashioned way.