Let's break down five key matchups in Saturday’s SEC championship game:
1. Alabama’s offensive line vs. Florida’s defensive line: The Crimson Tide have played a lot better up front offensively than anybody expected after losing three starters from a year ago, including two All-Americans. The anchor of the line is senior guard Mike Johnson, but junior college transfer James Carpenter has come in and done a nice job at left tackle. Nobody has really run the ball against Florida all season. The biggest challenge for Alabama may be protecting Greg McElroy if the Tide can’t get the running game going. The Gators are missing their most talented defensive lineman. Junior end Carlos Dunlap is suspended, but Jermaine Cunningham is equally adept at rushing the passer and will move around some.
2. Florida cornerback Joe Haden vs. Alabama receiver Julio Jones: Haden is one of the best cornerbacks in the college game. Jones is one of the toughest one-on-one matchups in the college game. This will be a battle from the opening kickoff. Jones has been much more involved in the Alabama offense the last month of the season and had two key third-down catches in the game-winning drive against Auburn. The Crimson Tide would love to get him isolated in man coverage and give him a chance to break a tackle and make a big play, but Haden doesn’t give up much of anything at his position.
3. Alabama punt returner Javier Arenas vs. Florida’s punt coverage: The Gators don’t give up return yards in the punt game to anybody. Then again, Arenas isn’t just anybody. He set the SEC record this season with his seventh career punt return for a touchdown and is bearing down on the NCAA mark for most career punt return yards. Only three punts have been returned against Florida all season for a total of 13 yards. Because the defenses are so good, both of these teams are going to need to find some big plays somewhere, and Arenas is probably Alabama’s most dynamic big-play threat, albeit on special teams. The Gators probably won’t give him many punts to handle. But if they do, it could get interesting.
4. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow vs. Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain: Both of these players have tremendous respect for each other. They’re both fierce competitors. They’re both strong leaders, and they both think the game as well as they play it. McClain doesn’t mince words when he says Tebow willed the Gators to the victory last season in the fourth quarter. When those key third-down plays and key red zone plays come up again this Saturday, you know McClain will be shadowing Tebow’s every move. And the thing we know about Tebow is that he won’t shy away from any collision, even if it’s with the 250-pound McClain.
5. Alabama coach Nick Saban vs. Florida coach Urban Meyer: It’s hard to pick a favorite here. In big games, they’re both money. Saban is the defensive guy and Meyer the offensive guy. Early on, it will be interesting to see what kind of defensive wrinkles Alabama has implemented to keep Tebow at bay. Saban is one of the best in the business when he gets a second shot at a team after losing the year before. Meyer is one of the best in the business in marquee games -- period. He has yet to lose in two previous SEC championship games and three BCS bowl games, including a pair of BCS National Championship Games.