Next week's Alabama-Florida showdown shapes up as one of the greatest SEC Championship Game matchups in history.
Alabama (11-0) is ranked first and Florida (10-1) is fourth in the latest BCS standings. If Alabama and Florida win Saturday, next week's game would mark the first time two top-five teams have faced off in the SEC Championship Game. The Florida-Alabama showdown also would become a de facto NCAA semifinal, with the victor one win away from a national title.
But if either team slips up against its in-state rival Saturday, the stakes of the title game could change significantly.
A loss at Florida State would drop Florida's record to 10-2 and knock the Gators out of national title contention. Alabama's title hopes probably wouldn't survive a setback against a disappointing Auburn team, even though the Crimson Tide would have only one loss.
No wonder both teams are refusing to look ahead to their championship showdown.
"When you play a game like this, it's like having a one-game season," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "It doesn't matter what you've done before this or what's coming up next. It's all about this game. It's all about Alabama and Auburn. It's not about where you're ranked of what your record is or any BCS or any of that stuff. It's really about this game and this week."
Auburn has won six consecutive Iron Bowls, but Alabama enters this season's game as a two-touchdown favorite. Auburn has lost five of its past six games, with the lone win in that stretch coming against Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) program Tennessee-Martin.
The Tigers (5-6) could become bowl eligible and salvage their season by wrecking Alabama's national title hopes.
"We've got a tough assignment," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We know that. We haven't been a great football team this year. Not one time this year do I think that we've played up to our potential for several reasons, but our coaches and players have worked very hard."
Florida has beaten Florida State four consecutive times and pounded the Seminoles 45-12 at The Swamp last season, but recent history suggests the Gators could have a tough time Saturday. The last time Florida visited Doak Campbell Stadium, the Gators struggled to a 21-14 victory before going on to win the 2006 national title.
This Florida State team is better than that 2006 edition that finished 7-6. The Seminoles (8-3) are coming off an impressive 37-3 triumph at Maryland and still have a chance to win the ACC title.
A victory at Doak Campbell Stadium would give Florida its first five-game winning streak in this series since it beat the Seminoles six consecutive times from 1981-86.
"This is one of the most important weeks in the history of the program," Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
And if the Gators take care of business, it could make next week that much more important.
Alabama RBs Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram vs. Auburn's run defense. Auburn's chances of winning a seventh consecutive Iron Bowl depend in large part on whether the Tigers' run defense can recapture its early season form. Auburn gave up only 1.8 yards per rush in its first three games, but its run defense hasn't been the same since LSU's Charles Scott gained 132 yards in the fourth game of the season. Arkansas' Michael Smith ran for 176 yards, West Virginia's Noel Devine rushed for 207 yards, Ole Miss' Cordera Eason gained 104 yards and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno ran for 131 yards against Auburn. Now the Tigers must face Coffee, who already has rushed for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns this season while running behind one of the nation's top lines. Ingram also has come on strong lately by rushing for at least 78 yards in two of his past three games. If Auburn can hold Alabama's running game in check and keep the game close, the Tigers have at least a remote chance of pulling the upset.
LSU QB Jordan Jefferson and Arkansas QB Nathan Dick. These two guys will spend Friday auditioning for the right to quarterback their respective teams next season. Jefferson went 10-of-20 passing for 159 yards with a touchdown and an interception last week while backing up Jarrett Lee in a 31-13 loss to Ole Miss. He also rushed for 23 yards on 10 carries. He figures to earn his first career start Friday as Lee deals with an injured right ankle. Dick earned the start over his older brother, Casey Dick, last week and went 25-of-43 for 333 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in a 31-28 loss to Mississippi State. If Nathan Dick leads Arkansas to an upset of LSU, he could throw a wrench into the notion that the Razorbacks would automatically hand the starting quarterback job to Michigan transfer and former five-star prospect Ryan Mallett next fall.
Alabama FS Rashad Johnson has five interceptions in his past five games. Arkansas TE D.J. Williams has caught 25 passes over his past four games. Florida QB Tim Tebow has 10 touchdown passes, six touchdown runs and no interceptions in his past four games. Florida WR Percy Harvin has scored at least once in every game he has played this season. Florida RB Chris Rainey has rushed for 197 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries over his past two games. Georgia's Knowshon Moreno has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of his past seven games. Georgia QB Matthew Stafford has five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past two games. Georgia WR A.J. Green has caught a touchdown pass in four of his past five games. LSU WR Brandon LaFell has caught four touchdown passes over his past five games. Ole Miss WR Mike Wallace has three touchdown catches in his past two games. Ole Miss QB Jevan Snead has seven touchdown passes, two touchdown runs and no interceptions in his past three games. South Carolina LB Eric Norwood has seven sacks in his past three games. Tennessee SS Eric Berry scored on a 45-yard interception return in a 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt last week and now has an NCAA-leading seven interceptions this season.
LSU's Charles Scott has rushed for 100 yards on 34 carries in his past two games. Ole Miss held Scott to 10 yards on 10 attempts last week. LSU QB Jarrett Lee has thrown seven interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns this season. Tennessee QBs B.J. Coleman and Jonathan Crompton are a combined 15-of-36 for 112 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in their past two games. Vanderbilt QB Mackenzi Adams has gone 58-of-118 with seven interceptions and three touchdown passes in the Commodores' past six games.
What they're saying
"There will be no discussions of national titles. There will be no discussions of Alabama. To go into [Maryland's] stadium and play like that caught everyone's attention. The focus is very clear." Florida coach Urban Meyer to GatorBait.net, about the importance of not overlooking Florida State.
"I was at the game when [Alabama] played Auburn. Auburn invited me on a visit, but the only reason I went on there was to watch Alabama play, and I was rooting for [Alabama] on the Tigers' side. I bought into it real good, how the main game is the Auburn game and how much hatred there is." Alabama NT Terrence Cody to The Birmingham (Ala.) News, on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.
"In this game, winning is for bragging rights. You want to give your fans the opportunity to walk into a restaurant, Wal-Mart or a business and be able to brag about the game. And it is only a game. It is not life or death. If there is anything close to that, then it will probably be the emotions of this game in terms of fans." Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville.
"I thought he came out and played a great game. He executed things well. Overall, for a first start, he did a fantastic job. Anytime you've got a brother playing with a brother, you've got to support him, no matter what the situation is. He's family, and when football ends, we're still going to be brothers." Arkansas QB Casey Dick, discussing the first start of his brother, Nathan Dick, to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Casey Dick was benched in favor of his younger sibling last week.
"I have not offered the job to anybody, and if there is any report to that effect, if anyone has said that, it would be incorrect information." Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, responding to reports that the Volunteers were on the verge of hiring former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.
"We're going to give the game to Chris Smelley, though. We're going to give him an opportunity to go out there and play the entire game. Hopefully, we're hoping he can go the distance. We'll give him every opportunity to do that. We're out of the two-quarterback thing, and Chris knows more about our offense." South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, to GamecockCentral.com. Spurrier had alternated Smelley and Stephen Garcia at quarterback during the Gamecocks' past two games.
Arkansas RB Michael Smith has a hamstring injury that probably will sideline him for the LSU game. Florida G Mike Pouncey and C Maurkice Pouncey missed Tuesday's practice after their stepfather lost a leg in a railcar accident. The Pounceys are expected to play Saturday against Florida State. The SEC owns a 35-8 non-conference record and leads all "Big Six" conferences with an .814 non-conference winning percentage. Florida QB Tim Tebow was selected as an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America of the Year. Tebow owns a 3.7 grade point average as a family, youth and community services major. Tebow also has been selected as a finalist for the Maxwell Award that goes to the nation's most outstanding player. Tebow, who won the 2007 Maxwell Award as well as the Heisman Trophy, is joined by Texas QB Colt McCoy and Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell as finalists. Ole Miss OT Michael Oher and Alabama OT Andre Smith have been named finalists for the Outland Trophy given annually to the nation's top interior lineman. Oklahoma G Duke Robinson is the other finalist. Tennessee SS Eric Berry has been named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation's best defensive back. The other finalists are Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins and USC FS Taylor Mays. Georgia's Knowshon Moreno is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award that goes to the nation's top running back. Moreno is competing with Iowa's Shonn Greene and Michigan State's Javon Ringer. Although next weekend might mark the first SEC Championship Game between two top-five teams, that scenario nearly unfolded a couple of times before. No. 6 Florida defeated No. 3 Alabama 24-23 in the 1994 SEC title game, and No. 7 Alabama whipped No. 5 Florida 34-7 in 1999.