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November 20, 2008

SEC: Florida has look of true title contender

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

Florida hasn't clinched a spot in the national championship game just yet. As Alabama fans won't hesitate to point out, the Gators still must beat the undefeated Crimson Tide before they can even stake a claim to the SEC title.

But at least one rival coach believes the Gators are better than the 2006 Florida team that won the national championship.

"They're better on defense," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "They've got more speed on offense. [Their] special teams score a bunch about every time they play. All you've got to do is just look at their scores for this year compared to two years ago. Huge difference."

A look at the numbers underscores Spurrier's argument: This year's Florida team is scoring nearly 15 more points per game and allowing 2.2 fewer than the 2006 national champions.

The 2006 team didn't score more than 28 points against any SEC opponent until its 38-28 victory over Arkansas in the championship game. The Gators won five games by seven or fewer points, including one-point victories over Tennessee and South Carolina.

This season's team scored at least 30 points in each of its eight SEC regular-season games. The Gators have outscored their past six opponents 299-63 while becoming the first team in SEC history to win six consecutive league games by at least 28 points.

"They sort of shut it down after they got 56 on us," said Spurrier, whose team lost 56-6 to Florida last week. "They probably could have scored a few more if they'd really tried in the fourth quarter."

Florida certainly has the most dominant team in the SEC, but are the Gators the best team in the conference? Only time will tell.

"They've still got some big games left," Spurrier said. "Alabama's a very good team. There's still a lot of ball left to see who finishes No. 1."

Alabama remains the top-ranked team in the country and the only unbeaten team in the conference, though the Crimson Tide haven't won their games quite as convincingly. Alabama slipped past LSU in overtime and beat Kentucky and Ole Miss by a combined total of seven points.

Of course, that's the same Ole Miss team that beat Florida 31-30 at the Swamp on Sept. 27, though the Gators clearly have stepped up their game since.

The Gators don't need long memories to realize they shouldn't overlook their SEC Championship Game date with Alabama.

Two years ago, Florida's deceptively close scores in SEC competition made them the clear underdogs in the BCS Championship Game. The Gators stunned the skeptics by overpowering Ohio State 41-14 to capture the national title. Alabama could head into the Georgia Dome in a similar position as the 2006 Florida team. The Gators can only hope the Tide don't deliver similar results.

  • Best matchup
  • Ole Miss OT Michael Oher vs. LSU DEs Tyson Jackson and Rahim Alem . Oher, a senior, has been considered a prime NFL prospect from the moment he set foot on campus, but he has enjoyed the best season of his career this fall. Oher is a near-certain All-American who was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week after helping the Rebels gain 520 yards in last week's 59-0 rout of Louisiana-Monroe. Whether he lines up against Jackson or Alem on Saturday, Oher figures to have a busy evening. Alem has six sacks this season, ranking third in the SEC in that category. Jackson had two-sack performances against Alabama and South Carolina. Oher's ability to protect QB Jevan Snead could go a long way toward determining whether the Rebels leave Death Valley with a victory.

  • Player to watch
    Tennessee at Vanderbilt, 12:30 p.m.
    The Citadel at Florida, 1:30 p.m.
    Arkansas at Mississippi State, 2:30 p.m.
    Ole Miss at LSU, 3:30 p.m.

    Tennessee QB Jonathan Crompton. This hasn't been the kind of season Crompton envisioned. He has completed just 51 percent of his attempts, with four interceptions and only three touchdown passes. He lost his starting job to Nick Stephens and could only stand and watch as Tennessee clinched a losing season and coach Phillip Fulmer lost his job. Crompton now finally has a chance to at least salvage some sort of small victory amid a brutal season. Fulmer has named Crompton the starter for Saturday's game at Vanderbilt, which is seeking just its second win over Tennessee in the past 26 years. Vanderbilt enters this game as a three-point favorite despite its history of frustration in this series. If Crompton plays well and leads Tennessee to a victory, he could at least help the Vols build some momentum as they gear up for next week's game with Kentucky and the 2009 season. If Crompton performs poorly, he might not get another chance. After all, Fulmer already has indicated redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman will get at least some playing time against Vanderbilt.

  • Who's hot
  • Alabama QB John Parker Wilson has four touchdown runs in his past three games. Alabama FS Rashad Johnson has five interceptions in his past five games. Florida WR Percy Harvin has scored at least once in every game he has played this season. He has scored two touchdowns in four of his past five games. Florida QB Tim Tebow has seven touchdown passes, six touchdown runs and no interceptions in his past three games. Florida SS Ahmad Black has picked off a pass in four consecutive games. Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno has rushed for at least 100 yards in five of his past six games. Georgia WR A.J. Green has caught a game-winning touchdown pass in back-to-back games. LSU WR Brandon LaFell has four touchdown catches in his past four games. Ole Miss RB Cordera Eason has rushed for at least 104 yards in back-to-back games. South Carolina LB Eric Norwood has seven sacks in his past three games. Vanderbilt QB Chris Nickson has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception in his past two games. Vanderbilt CB D.J. Moore shares the SEC lead with six interceptions. He picked off two passes on defense and caught two touchdown passes on offense last week in a 31-24 victory over Kentucky.

  • Who's not
  • Since rushing for 108 yards against Vanderbilt, Auburn RB Ben Tate has gained just 151 yards on 42 carries in his past five games. Georgia kicker Blair Walsh has gone 4-for-10 on field-goal attempts in his past five games. LSU's 40-31 victory over Troy last week marked the seventh time this season that Tigers QB Jarrett Lee has thrown an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Mississippi State RB Anthony Dixon has gained just 74 yards on 26 carries over his past two games. South Carolina RB Mike Davis has gained 168 yards on 70 carries in his past five games.

  • What they're saying
  • "We have playoffs in every sport in the world, I think, except college football. I used to say, 'How can we be right and everybody else be wrong?' I just think with the president pushing it, and he said he would push it, I believe something could happen. I think it was a very popular statement he made. Like he said, everyone who follows college football is for it. He hasn't met anybody yet against a playoff."
    South Carolina's Spurrier, discussing President-elect Barack Obama's support for a college football playoff.

    "I think [Obama] ought to call us so the head coaches can figure out how to get the price of gas down. I'm just kidding when I say that. I've never been for the playoff. I think it's a long season. They're student-athletes. Although the BCS has always been controversial, it's added a lot to the excitement of college football throughout the season. I think it's at an all-time high as far as fan support and as far as everybody being competitive."
    Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino

    "I can't lie. I had a few tears running down my face. It just really felt good to finally get to that point where you're bowl eligible. We've been here for a long time, and we've been working hard for a lot of years. It feels good to be at this point, but it's funny. I'm here at this point now, but I'm still not satisfied. The ultimate goal is to have the best possible record."
    Vanderbilt WR George Smith, to VandySports.com about the Commodores becoming bowl eligible.

    "Classmates and fans ask me all the time to stay and that kind of stuff. But I won't even think about it till after the first of the year, when I sit down with my family."
    Georgia QB Matthew Stafford, to UGASports.com about whether he would enter the NFL Draft after the season. Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno also has indicated he's undecided.

    "It's obviously not totally fair, the way it's done. But it is what it is, and everybody knows what the circumstances are. We know what the circumstances are."
    Alabama coach Nick Saban, to The Birmingham (Ala.) News about the BCS.

    "To be honest, if I was in the stands, I probably would have left, too. It was cold. The team looked like they were about to get murdered. I probably would have left, too."
    LSU WR Demetrius Byrd, to The Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate about the thousands of fans who left the LSU-Troy game early. Tiger Stadium was about two-thirds empty by the time LSU rallied from a 28-point deficit to beat Troy 40-31.

    "They seem vulnerable at times. It feels like we can get them. We've just got to go out there confident and play hard."
    Ole Miss DE Kentrell Lockett, to The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger about the Rebels' game Saturday at LSU. The Tigers have beaten Ole Miss six consecutive times.

  • Etc.
  • Arkansas QB Casey Dick has set a school single-season record with his 187 completions, but he isn't assured of starting the Razorbacks' game Saturday with Mississippi State. Dick is competing with his younger brother, Nathan Dick, for the starting job. Alabama CB Javier Arenas set a school single-game record with 153 yards in punt returns last week during the Tide's 32-7 victory over Mississippi State. Arenas also increased his career punt-return yardage total to 1,146 to set another school record. Alabama's 12-game winning streak is tied with Texas Tech and Utah for the longest current streaks in the nation. Florida has scored at least 42 points in five consecutive games, matching the two longest such streaks in school history. Florida also reached the 42-point mark five consecutive times in 1996 and 2001. With a game Saturday against The Citadel, the Gators seem likely to get 42 again. Florida's 346 rushing yards against South Carolina last week were the most by a Gators team since they gained 309 rushing yards against Florida A&M in 2003. Florida hadn't rushed for 300 yards in an SEC game since tallying 308 yards against LSU in 1996. Florida has outscored opponents 199-26 in the first half. Florida is the only team in the nation ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense and scoring defense. The Gators are fifth in scoring offense and fourth in scoring defense. Georgia's 17-13 victory at Auburn last week improved the Bulldogs' record in opposing teams' stadiums to 30-4 during Mark Richt's coaching tenure. Ole Miss' 59-0 shutout of Louisiana-Monroe last week marked the Rebels' largest margin of victory since a 69-7 triumph over Southern Miss in 1969.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 |

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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