Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s team is a heavy favorite to defeat Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. After all, the Crimson Tide is 12-0 and unanimously ranked first in the nation in all polls. The Gators are 8-3 and coming off a 31-13 beating at the hands of their cross-state rival, Florida State.
Alabama finished the heavy work of preparation Wednesday with a two-hour full gear practice in the indoor facility. Saturday’s SEC Championship Game will kick off at 4 p.m. EST (3 p.m. central time) and be televised by CBS.
Following practice, Saban said, "We certainly have a lot of respect for the team that we're playing. They have great players, some great skill players on offense that can make explosive plays. Their defense has been one of the top defenses in the country all season long.”
Still, as might be expected, Saban is more concerned about his own team. He said, "I think this time of year is really sort of a test of your mental fortitude. I think everybody is probably pretty tired of practicing after playing this many games. You probably don't always feel great when you've played in this many games and practiced this many days.
“I think what's important for players to stay focused on is what they want, making the choices they need to make so that they can respond the right way when the time comes, to compete the way they want. Because really, the whole season is all about how you finish.”
He added, “The players have been good this week.”
Of particularly good news, Saban said that cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who suffered an injury in last Saturday’s 30-12 win over Auburn, “was able to practice today so he did pretty well. I think we're moving forward with just about everybody getting ready to play the game."
Alabama’s biggest challenge is likely to come from the Florida defense, ranked second overall in the SEC and the league’s best on pass defense, allowing an average of 158 yards per game.
Saban said the Gators secondary has “really good players; they’re really well coached. They play a lot of man to man. Their matchups are better than most people that they play against. They’ve been very effective. They’ve got a good scheme. They do a good job of executing it. They play together as a group. They have great team speed on defense. But I think their ability to play man to man and cover and deny you the ball is probably what makes them special.”
Austin Appleby will quarterback the Gators. Saban said, “I think he’s a really smart player. He’s capable of making all the throws. He’s big, he’s strong, a physical guy -- hard to sack because of his size and strength. I really think he can make all the throws. I think when they’ve probably had a little trouble this year has been when they’ve gotten people who they had trouble giving him the time to operate, which probably happened a little bit in the Florida State game. But if that’s not the case, he’s made a lot of really good plays for them.”
Alabama and Florida will meet for the 40th time in the series, with the Crimson Tide owning the all-time advantage, 26-14. The two will meet for the ninth time (both teams have four wins) in SEC Championship Game history and the fourth time in the past nine years. In the most recent matchup at the 2015 SEC Championship Game, Alabama came away with a 29-15 victory over Florida. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry rushed for 189 yards and a touchdown on his way to MVP honors while Jake Coker threw for 204 yards and two scores.
Saban coached two other Alabama teams against Florida in the title game.
Alabama and Florida met as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the 2008 meeting, with Tim Tebow leading the Gators to a 31-20 win in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide countered the very next season with a 32-13 win to send top-ranked Florida home and earn No. 2 Alabama a trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. The Tide took down Texas in that game to earn Nick Saban his first national title at Alabama.
Thursday will mark the final full practice for Alabama before the team heads to Atlanta on Friday.