Whatever business - actual business - we had to discuss had long been settled. Now we were just being silly with each other.
"Hey, we got a press kit from 'Lopez Tonight'! It's a mini watercooler, as in, 'we'll be discussing his show around the watercooler.'"
"I bet we won't."
"George Lopez sucks!"
"Yeah. You see, he's not really funny at all."
You know, being silly with each other.
Madison Underwood was sitting next to me; we were talking about the recent Alabama-LSU game. Talking about how Julio Jones finally showed up, Greg McElroy finally stepped up and how, for the first time since the Virginia Tech opener, Alabama played its way back into a game and took control in the fourth quarter. Things look good for them, they needed a game like this going into the final stretch of the regular season, not to mention the SEC Championship.
Speaking of the SEC Championship...
"I'm nervous," Madison said, "about the Florida game."
"Don't be nervous," I said. "You have nothing to be nervous about. Bama's got that game in the bag."
Then I went off on a bit of a tangent, which is not an uncommon thing for me to do. Something about Nick Saban as a modern day Ahab with Urban Meyer as his big white whale. Something about every waking second of Nick Saban's life since Dec. 6 of last year being consumed by the fact that his team blew a fourth quarter lead and missed out on a chance to play in the BCS title game. Something about every facet of his life being consumed by his wanton desire for revenge against Tim Tebow and the Gator Nation. I think I threw in something about Little Debbie snack cakes, the tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the fact that I can't find a decent dry cleaners in this town...I really can't remember all of it. But it was good, a darn good rant. So good apparently that, when I regained consciousness, my buddy Jesse Chambers implored me to write it all down and make it my pre-SEC Championship game column. I tried, but I'm afraid that was the best I could do.
Before previewing the latest in what's now a series of titanic SEC title game matchups between the Tide and the Gators, we need a little closure on last weekend's Alabama-Auburn game. That was easily best Iron Bowl since 1997, which coincidentally was the last game in the series that was still in doubt on the final play. What we saw last weekend was a true classic. We know this because the game already has a title - "The Drive" - and probably its own Wikipedia page. I'm sure that as I write this, Daniel Moore is putting Terrance Cody's armpit-block on hold and pencil-sketching a likeness of Roy Upchurch's touchdown grab.
The game does raise some serious questions as the Tide readies for another defacto national championship play-in game this weekend. Was 'Bama overlooking it's biggest rival? How was Auburn able to exploit that secondary so often? Was Mark Ingram's poor play really the result of a hip pointer? How serious is this hip pointer?
Truth is, Auburn outplayed Alabama for all but seven minutes and three seconds in the fourth quarter. They took a page out of the Utah playbook and jumped on the Tide early with a series of trick plays and quick scores. They sold out on stopping Mark Ingram. Alabama looked slow, Auburn looked well-rested. It was a rivalry game in a hostile environment. When you lump all that together, it's not a surprise that Alabama struggled.
To say that the Tide was fortunate to emerge with a victory is an understatement. There have been a handful of close calls this season, but not since January has Alabama been thoroughly outplayed and overmatched. This time, however, Alabama found a way to stop the bleeding, pick itself up off the mat and fight back. That's why I'm convinced that this year they'll leave Atlanta with a trophy and a ticket to Pasadena. Let's break it down...
Alabama offense vs. Florida defense: It's safe to say that Alabama will try and establish its power ground attack early against the Gators, but Florida has only allowed 100 or more yards rushing in three games this season. However, one of the few teams that did manage some success against the Florida front was Tennessee on Sept. 19. Like Alabama, the Vols have a deep, multi-talented stable of runningbacks at their disposal. Regardless of how healthy Mark Ingram's hip is by Saturday afternoon, look for Alabama to try and mix Ingram, Trent Richardson and Roy Upchruch as much as possible to change pace and keep the Gator defense on its heels.
Perhaps there was no better time for both Greg McElroy and Julio Jones to step up than during the final drive against Auburn. Should the Gators load up on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Alabama should be able to throw over the top and stretch things out a bit. None of this will be easy, though. Florida is first in the nation in scoring, passing and total defense. The Alabama offense, although improved from the mid-point in the season, is still fairly inconsistent.
Florida offense vs. Alabama defense: All year long we've heard how adept Alabama LB Rolando McClain is at making adjustments on the field and moving his teammates into position before the snap. Well, if the man's a savant, we'll know for sure after this weekend. No team in college football uses the run to set up the pass more effectively than the Florida Gators. It's a finesse scheme, but it's executed by a power runner in Tim Tebow. The key to stopping Florida's spread is discipline, a trait that McClain and his head coach are known for. If you watched the Florida-Florida State game, you'll remember that little inside shovel pass that went for an easy touchdown. Tebow stretches the play out and shows an option look, forcing a trio of linebackers to move up and to Tebow's left. Then Tebow flicks a Utah shovel inside and to the right. Aaron Hernandez makes the grab and waltzes untouched into the endzone. Saban will undoubtedly use film sessions to try and emphasize the importance of discipline on a play like that, as well as identify the seemingly countless fakes and motions that the Gators use to disguise their famous dive play. If Bama plays smart and maintains personal discipline on the defensive side of the ball, perhaps they can force Tebow & Co. into becoming one-dimensional.
Statistically, the Florida and Alabama defenses are virtually inseparable. Alabama is second in scoring and rushing defense, third in total defense and fifth in pass defense. If any team is engineered to disrupt the Gators' run-first spread attack, it's Alabama. The Tide is big and deep up front, flush with speedy linebackers and experienced in the secondary.
Special Teams: Two out of three ain't bad, but it almost got Bama beat the last time they played in the Georgia Dome. Javier Arenas is, pound-for-pound, the most dynamic return man in college football and Leigh Tiffin is a Groza award finalist. But kickoff coverage has been a concern for Alabama since the Virginia Tech game and that's a problem when you consider the speed that Florida brings to the table.
The Tide has a distinct advantage with Leigh Tiffin (27-31, 87.1 percent) as opposed to Caleb Sturgis (19-26, 73.1 percent) when it comes to field goal kicking. Punting's a push: Alabama's P.J. Fitzgerald and Florida's Chas Henry both average roughly 42 yards per kick.
Intangibles: Though both teams went through rough patches during the season (Florida: LSU through Miss. St., Alabama: Ole Miss through Tennessee), it's obvious that Alabama has survived more near-death moments than Florida has during the season, most notably in last week's Iron Bowl win at Auburn. If the game is exceedingly tight down the stretch, you would think that Alabama's newly-forged mental toughness would give them an advantage. Bear in mind that Florida is also riding the nation's longest winning streak (22 games) and the pressure to maintain such a mark must be weighing heavy.
Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban: All else being equal (and what else would you expect from a No. 1-No. 2 matchup), this is where Alabama has its biggest advantage. However implausible they may be, rumors continue to swirl linking Urban Meyer to the pending opening at Notre Dame - his self-described "dream job." That's a distraction that Alabama doesn't have to deal with. To belabor an earlier point, there's no question that Nick Saban wants this win more than Urban Meyer. After all, Alabama hasn't won a national championship in 17 years; Meyer has won two in three seasons. Chances are, no matter what Saban has said week-to-week about focusing on one opponent at a time, you can be certain he has set aside part of every day this season to game-plan for his eventual rematch with the Gators. In addition, chances are that no matter what Meyer has said in recent weeks, the Notre Dame job has to intrigue him. What else is left to accomplish at Florida, especially considering that Tim Tebow has played his last game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium? From a motivation and revenge standpoint, this is Saban's game to lose.
Prediction: Alabama 24, Florida 22