The fourth SEC title in head coach Nick Saban’s era and a second straight trip to the College Football Playoff is within the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide’s (11-1, 7-1) grasp, but first they must tangle with the upset-minded No. 18 Florida Gators (10-2, 7-1) for the SEC crown Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
The Tide have ripped off nine straight victories, including last week’s 29-13 dismantling at in-state foe Auburn, and have largely left their poor and singular home loss to then-No. 15 Ole Miss in the dust to reach the pinnacle of the conference and the nation.
Behind running back and Heisman Trophy favorite Derrick Henry’s 1,791 yards and 22 touchdowns as well as the nation’s No. 3-ranked defense allowing 14.3 points per contest, Alabama’s clearly back on pace for a second consecutive SEC title and third in the last four seasons.
Though they haven’t reached No. 1 in Associated Press poll at all this season, which hasn’t happened since Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa back in 2007, the Tide are still angling for the CFP’s top spot and could very well attain it if current No. 1 and undefeated Clemson either loses or just squeeze’s by No. 10 North Carolina.
With Henry in tow, defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and linebacker Tim Williams tallying 17 total sacks this season, and defensive back Eddie Jackson tied for the conference lead with five interceptions, Alabama is a huge 17.5-point favorite to pummel the Gators for a fifth straight game and second time in the conference title game since 2009.
Yet Florida and first-year head coach Jim McElwain have defied expectations lots of times this season. The Gators are coming off a difficult 27-2 home loss to previously No. 13 Florida State that ended the regular season on a very sour note and saw the offense sputter out 262 total yards and a poor 5-for-17 third down conversion rate.
But Florida did thwart the same Running Rebels squad that toppled the Tide, earning a convincing 38-10 victory behind since suspended quarterback Will Grier’s four touchdown passes and the nation’s fifth ranked defense holding Ole Miss to a season-low 10 points.
Hoping for the program’s first conference title since 2008, McElwain’s since turned the offense’s reins over to sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, and running back Kelvin Taylor is still the focal point of the attack.
Harris nearly led the Gators to an upset at LSU with two touchdown passes, and he withstood Florida Atlantic’s upset bid with a 13-yard touchdown strike in overtime for a 20-14 win. The junior Taylor’s found his stride late in the season with three straight 100-plus yard games, and four in the Gators last five contests, including 136 yards against the Seminoles.
Harris and Taylor will have to contend with the Tide’s seemingly impenetrable defense, but the key matchup will be the Gators frontline versus Henry. After Alabama, no SEC defense was better against the run than Florida, allowing 111.9 rushing yards per game and only nine touchdowns all season.
Much of that success rests on the pads of linebacker and leading tackler Antonio Morrison, who returned to uniform just nine months after a devastating knee injury he suffered in Florida’s bowl game last season, and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and linebacker Jarrad Davis’ combined 26 tackles for a loss of 125 yards.
Betting Line: Alabama -17.5 points
Over/under: 40 points
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Prediction: Alabama over Florida, 33-13