Saturday’s 2015 SEC Championship Game will almost certainly decide No.2 Alabama’s fate in terms of making the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide are looking to earn a postseason berth for a second straight year when they face No.18 Florida at the Georgia Dome.
With just one loss in the SEC, Alabama is virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs if they can defeat Florida. The Gators had their postseason hopes dashed last week when they lost to Florida State, but they can secure a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl game by upsetting Alabama.
Alabama is looking to become the first back-to-back SEC champion in 17 years. Florida’s last appearance in the conference title game resulted in a 29-point loss to Alabama in 2009 when the Gators failed at their attempt to win the SEC championship for a second straight year.
Counting Florida Out
Even though the SEC title is on the line, Saturday’s contest doesn’t have the feel of a traditional championship game. While none of the other power conference championship games feature a betting line of more than five points, Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Alabama 17-point favorites, according to vegasinsider.com. But head coach Nick Saban isn’t overlooking Florida, whom many experts aren’t giving much of a chance to win on Saturday.
“This is an outstanding team that we're playing; they wouldn’t be in the SEC Championship Game if they weren’t,” Saban told reporters on Monday. “I think anybody out there that thinks this is not going to be a real challenge and a real test for our team, I don't know what you're thinking. I really don't get it.”
The Gators have one surprising upset this year, defeating then-No.3 Ole Miss by 28 points, having entered the game as a seven-point home underdog. Of Alabama’s 11 wins this season, their Oct. 24 win over Tennessee was the only one that was in doubt late in the game. The Crimson Tide didn’t take the lead for good until there was 2:24 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Trusting the Gators' Defense
Florida has allowed at least 27 points in three games this season, resulting in two losses and a come-from-behind, one-point victory. If the Gators want to keep Saturday’s game close with a chance to win, they’ll have to do so in a defensive battle.
Florida’s defense is among the best in the nation with the ability to keep them in a game against just about any team. They rank fifth in both points (15.5) and yards (284) allowed per game. The Gators have struggled against the pass, but they rank eighth in opponents' rushing yards and ninth in yards per carry. That could benefit them against Alabama, whose offensive success is predicated on being able to run the ball.
The over/under of 39.5 points indicates that the SEC title game could be a low-scoring affair. As good as Florida’s defense is, Alabama’s is better. The Crimson Tide rank second and third, respectively, in yards and points allowed per game. They’ve allowed more than 23 points just once this season, though Alabama gave up 43 points to Ole Miss, whom Florida limited to 10 points.
Can Derrick Henry Be Stopped?
Forcing Jake Coker to make plays might be the key for Florida to win, considering the quarterback has thrown for more than 190 yards in just two of his last nine games. But Alabama will put the ball in the hands of perhaps the country’s best running back, and Florida has been unsuccessful when trying to stop college football’s best rushers.
Derrick Henry leads the country with 1,797 rushing yards. Leonard Fournette, who ranks second on the list, ran the ball 30 times for 180 yards and two scores when LSU defeated Florida. Florida’s other loss came against Florida State, who won behind a big day from Dalvin Cook. The nation’s No.5 rusher totaled 183 yards on seven yards per carry against the Gators.
Not only has Henry put up overall great numbers, but he’s been at his best when Alabama has needed it most. When going head-to-head with Fournette, Henry ran the ball 38 times for 210 yards. He totaled 271 rushing yards last weekend when Alabama needed a win to clinch the SEC West title, and he even ran for 127 yards on 5.5 yards per carry in the team’s only loss.
Florida won’t have a chance to win if they can’t stop Henry, and the running back is likely in for another big game. The Gators don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Crimson Tide, who might have the game wrapped up at the start of the fourth quarter. Four of Alabama’s five wins against ranked opponents have come by at least three scores, and Saturday should be no different.
Alabama over Florida, 33-13