Alabama and Florida meet for the eighth time in the SEC Championship Game history on Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. The Gators own a 4-3 edge over the Crimson Tide in SEC Championship appearances but enter Saturday’s game as a heavy underdog. According to the good folks in Vegas, Alabama is favored by at least two touchdowns (17.5 spread). That’s the largest spread among the eight conference championships in Week 14.
The stakes are high for the Crimson Tide, as coach Nick Saban’s team is one win away from locking up a spot in the College Football Playoff and their third SEC Championship in four seasons. Alabama ranked No. 2 in the latest rankings and an impressive win over the Gators could be enough for the committee to consider Saban’s team for the No. 1 overall seed. Since losing to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, the Crimson Tide have won nine in a row. And even more impressively, the margin of victory in eight out of those nine contests was at least 13 points.
Florida’s first season under new coach Jim McElwain has been a success. The Gators finished the regular season at 10-2, with losses to rival Florida State and a seven-point defeat at LSU in mid-October. McElwain still has a lot of work to do, but the program is back on track after finishing 11-13 under Will Muschamp from 2013-14.
Alabama owns a 24-14 series edge over Florida. The Crimson Tide have a four-game winning streak over the Gators, including a 42-21 victory last season in Tuscaloosa. This is Florida’s first appearance in the SEC Championship since the 2009 season.
Florida vs. Alabama (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Offensive Line
On paper, the matchup between Florida’s offensive line and Alabama’s defensive front is the biggest mismatch in this game. The Gators have struggled to find consistency in the trenches all year and surrendered 37 sacks in 12 games – the most in the SEC. This unit also had trouble generating a push for the ground attack, as Florida rushers averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. Alabama’s defensive line is deep, aggressive and the best in the nation. This unit has limited opponents to 2.5 yards per carry and just 78.9 rushing yards per game. Additionally, the Crimson Tide wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage against quarterbacks, which disrupt the timing and big-play ability of passing games. Nick Saban’s defense ranks third nationally with 41 sacks and also has 86 tackles for a loss. With a struggling offensive line, Florida will have to get creative on offense and utilize quarterback Treon Harris’ legs to avoid the Alabama pass rush. Will the Gators hold up in the trenches long enough for Harris to stretch the field or for running back Kelvin Taylor to generate yards on early downs? Or will the Crimson Tide’s defense – led by lineman A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, along with linebacker Reggie Ragland – simply overwhelm and dominate this group?
2. Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Alabama running back Derrick Henry has emerged as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after a strong second-half performance this season. The junior is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, possessing breakaway speed and the physical presence to run over or stiff arm defenders. The junior has rushed for 200 or more yards in four out of the last six games, including 271 yards in last week’s win over Auburn. Henry is also approaching 300 carries this year and posted a hefty total (46) against the Tigers last Saturday. Not only can Henry handle 30-35 carries a game, he’s tied with LSU’s Leonard Fournette with 15 rushing plays of 20 yards or more. Needless to say, Henry presents a tough challenge for Florida’s defense. The Gators rank second in the SEC by holding opponents to 111.3 rushing yards per game and have limited teams to just nine scores on the ground. However, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook rushed for 183 against this defense last week. One problem for coordinator Geoff Collins in recent weeks has been injuries. Standout Jonathan Bullard has been banged up, and end Alex McCalister is not expected to play after sitting out the last two games due to injury. Will the Gators find a way to do what opposing defenses have yet to do this season – stop or find a way to slow down Henry? Additionally, this group needs to generate pressure on quarterback Jake Coker. Getting Alabama into third-and-long situations is a must for Florida’s defense.
3. Florida QB Treon Harris
Harris is the x-factor in this game. Since taking over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart following Will Grier’s suspension, Harris has experienced his share of ups and downs. The sophomore threw for 271 yards against LSU but completed only 8 of 17 passes for 122 yards against FAU. He also struggled in last week’s loss to Florida State, averaging 7.1 yards per completion. Harris doesn’t shoulder all of the blame for Florida’s offensive woes, as the offensive line, receiving corps and running backs could all provide more support. But for the Gators to surprise on Saturday, Harris will have to play one of the best games of his career. Limiting mistakes is his biggest priority, but the sophomore also has to create plays with his legs, connect on a few deep balls to receivers Antonio Callaway and Demarcus Robinson and avoid putting the offense into long-yardage situations. How will Harris perform against arguably the best defense in the nation? If Florida wants to pull off the upset, this sophomore has to deliver his best performance of the year.
Alabama is 60 minutes away from a spot in the College Football Playoff and another SEC title under Nick Saban. It’s hard to envision the Crimson Tide stumbling here, especially against a Florida team that’s overmatched on paper. The Gators have the defense to hang around in the first half, but the offense just doesn’t have enough firepower to keep up with Alabama’s offense. Henry may not reach 200 yards against Florida’s solid front seven. However, the Crimson Tide won’t need another monster performance from their Heisman contender. Quarterback Jake Coker is efficient, Henry tops the century mark and the defense stuffs the Gators’ offense to comfortably seal the victory. The only question here should be margin of victory. Three out of the last five SEC Championship games had a winning margin of 29 points or more. Can Florida find a way to keep it close? The guess here is no. Alabama wins and builds momentum for the playoff.