second national championship.
ATLANTA -- This is my fifth SEC Championship Game, and one thing I can tell you is that it's very much like a mini-bowl game. The fans arrive early (I walked out of my hotel this morning and nearly bumped into three women sporting Alabama pom-poms), representatives from all 12 schools come to town and, just like a bowl game, the two head coaches hold a press conference the day before the game (complete with the requisite photo-op in front of the trophy).
The national perception of the Alabama-Florida showdown is that it's a matchup of two polar opposite teams -- the Gators with their speed and fancy-dancy spread offense; the Tide with their "old school," smash-mouth approach. You would never know this, however, listening to Urban Meyer at his press conference Friday.
"This is classic football," Meyer said of the matchup. "It's the same way you won 70 years ago and the same way you're going to win seven years from now. Both teams are strong right down the middle. If I'm a 22-year-old coach trying to figure out how to go win a game, I sit in front of the TV or somehow find a ticket because this is classic football."
Meyer was referring specifically to what he considers to the matchup of Florida's offense against Alabama's defense. He considers the leaders of the Gators' offense to be center Maurkice Pouncey and quarterback Tim Tebow, while Alabama's key defensive players -- nose tackle Terrence Cody, middle linebacker Rolando McClain and free safety Rashad Johnson -- line up straight down the center of the field.
But wait a minute, coach. What about all those speedy wideouts of yours, with the reverses and the option pitches and what not? Does that not make you guys the antithesis of Alabama, whose offensive approach is usually some combination of "Coffee, run left, Coffee, run right, Ingram ... you, too?"
"I think [the teams] are identical," said Meyer. "We take great pride in our strength of our team is the offensive line on offense. You watch them play, it's the same thing. We may do it from spread sets, but at the end of the day, we want to run for 230 yards."
"They run the single wing [with Tebow]," Nick Saban said of the Gators. "I haven't been associated with the single wing since I was 10. So I don't know who has the 'throwback' offense."
Meyer may be oversimplifying things a bit -- he tends to get a tad defensive whenever people try to imply the Gators are a "finesse" team -- but he's right. Whatever the differences stylistically, both Florida and Alabama are run-first teams. In fact, the Gators actually average more rushing yards (237.1 per game) than the Tide (201.5).
Spread offense or not, this is not Texas Tech vs. the old Nebraska Cornhuskers.
And while 'Bama certainly wouldn't be 12-0 in Saban's second season without its dominant defense (248.5 yards per game allowed; No. 3 nationally), the Gators are no slouches themselves (275.7; No. 7.)
Ultimately, the game will come down to which defense can take away what the other offense does best. If Florida's D can keep Alabama from grinding out yards and moving the chains with its dominant offensive line and talented running backs (a task made tougher by the fact DT Brandon Antwine tore his ACL against Florida State) -- game over.
But the same might be said if the Tide's swarming defense can eliminate the running lanes that allow Tebow, Percy Harvin (who may or may not play), Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps to get into space. Because only then does Florida's speed become such a distinct advantage, as it has during its eight game-winning streak. No room to run, no 50-point outbursts.
"The first, second, third series of the game, you find out how a team is going to play you," said Meyer. "The first three series [Saturday] will be very intriguing in terms of our offense versus their defense."
Forget the first three series. In terms of the chess match involved, this could be the most intriguing game of the season.