Conventional wisdom tells you the 2016 SEC Championship Game should be a non-contest.
The Crimson Tide enters the Georgia Dome Saturday as the 24-point favorites, two-time defending SEC champions, and reigning national champions. They haven’t let another team into the end zone since October 22, and their offense is averaging more than 35 points a game.
Florida limps into Atlanta off the back of an ugly loss to Florida State in Tallahassee last Saturday. Memories of Alabama holding the Gators to 15 rushing yards the entirety of last season’s SEC Championship Game are still fresh.
But this is college football. Conventional wisdom does not exist. Never was that more obvious than at Friday’s media day before the 25th SEC Championship Game.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey commented on the history of this matchup. “[It’s an] interesting twist on history,” he explained, “that the two teams that played in the first SEC Championship Game are playing in the 25th.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban was his usual quiet self in the media scrum, deflecting attention onto the players in a way only he can, stressing, “The legacy of this team is still yet to be defined.”
When being asked about winning a potential sixth national championship this year, he countered with: “Be where your feet are,” refusing to get ahead of himself.
Florida coach Jim McElwain was relaxed and optimistic during his press conference. He set the tone in his opening statement, which he geared toward his players. “To be able to be a part of this event will be something that you will remember for the rest of your life,” McElwain said. “I can’t wait for tomorrow to get here!”
Last week’s 31–13 loss to Florida State will not factor into how this one plays out according to the second-year head coach. “That game was put behind us a long time ago,” he said. “As everybody got off the bus Sunday morning, I told them that it was over, and we have to move on to the SEC Championship Game. Let’s go put a great piece of work together, and our guys have done that. They are excited about coming out and playing [Saturday].”
As far as the game itself goes, McElwain stressed the importance of the turnover battle right off the bat, emphasizing “not giving them any free ones” and “taking care of your own opportunities.”
One reporter asked McElwain, point-blank, if Alabama is an unbeatable team.
“They’re not unbeatable at all,” the coach answered. “Last I checked, we’re a pretty good football team.” His team gets a chance to prove that on Saturday afternoon.
Clearly, Alabama does not intimidate McElwain’s group. The Gators are using the status of extreme underdog to their advantage. The Tide is trying to become the first team since Steve Spurrier’s Gators of 1993–95 to win three straight SEC championships. And, of course, they have their sights set on a return to Atlanta on December 31 for the national semifinal, and Tampa on January 9 for all the marbles. But before any of that is possible, the road runs through the Florida Gators.
The stage is set. Twenty-five years after college football changed forever with the first ever conference championship game, the teams that played in that very game will lock horns in Atlanta. Spurrier and Gene Stallings, the coaches that day in Birmingham, will be on the field for the coin toss on Saturday.
Everything has come full circle. Now it’s time to play football.
Photographs by (from top): Joe Robbins/Getty Images; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images