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September 29, 2006
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Every year schools in major college football conferences trumpet the strength of their respective leagues - and inevitably compare themselves to the Southeastern Conference.
This weekend offers a not-so-subtle reminder that, in reality, there just is no comparison.
Where else but the SEC can teams with the tradition and power of Alabama (3-1) and Florida (4-0) ? with their "Roll Tide" yells and sexy coeds wearing Houndstooth hats and the Gator Chomp and fierce intensity within The Swamp ? clash in a big conference game and it still be practically considered a break in the schedule for one of the teams?
Fifth-ranked Florida, which rallied to defeat rival Tennessee two weeks ago, is beginning a four-week stretch that features games against the Tide, No. 9 LSU, No. 2 Auburn and No. 10 Georgia. Rival Florida State, ranked No. 19, still looms in the season finale.
With that pothole-filled road waiting, the Gators can ill afford to stumble against Alabama lest their SEC and national championship aspirations sustain considerable damage.
"Florida is unique," second-year Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "We have three (rivals) that are tremendous, and then we play Alabama. That's a rivalry, too.
"At Georgia, that atmosphere is like none other, and Tennessee and Florida State ? each one's unique. These (Florida) players get three (rivalries) and even more than that because the passion is so strong in this conference."
Alabama, which would be unbeaten if not for a kicking game meltdown against Arkansas a week ago, knows this all too well. Facing Florida is a major headache, and another loss would virtually eliminate the Crimson Tide from the SEC West race - especially with Tennessee, LSU and Auburn remaining on the schedule.
"I think every one of us realizes the kind of football team we are playing," Alabama coach Mike Shula said. "We are playing in their stadium, it is going to be loud and we have to play our best game of the year just to have a chance."
For the Tide, that will likely require serious improvement in a stagnant running game. Alabama has managed a pedestrian 149 yards per game, and that includes a 219-yard outburst against Louisiana-Monroe. Hyphenated opponents usually translate to a statistical spike.
"We do feel like it helps if you have the ability to run the football in this conference," Shula said. "You can take over a game if you have the lead and the ability to run the ball. It keeps the defense off balance a little bit because they're not just rushing the passer the whole game. We've struggled, but we will continue to run the ball and we feel that will help us in the passing game."
"There's been some times where there wasn't much room to run," Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader said. "There have been other times when maybe we should've gone right and we went left. Then there's some times where he's been tripped and I can't figure out why we have so many legs in the way."
Quarterback John Parker Wilson, receivers Keith Brown and DJ Hall and an excellent defense have helped Alabama compensate for its running problems. The Tide defense and passing game face severe tests against Florida, which ranks among the nation's top 10 in total offense and defense.
Gators quarterback Chris Leak has barged into Heisman Trophy contention by completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,066 yards and 12 touchdowns. Leak has a stable of able receivers in Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius, Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin - Rivals.com's top-rated recruit in the Class of 2006.
Although defensive tackle Marcus Thomas - who leads the Gators with three sacks - is suspended, Ray McDonald, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey can all bring pressure. Free safety Reggie Nelson has three interceptions.
The Gators might also have the additional motivation of getting revenge for last season's 31-3 blowout loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But even that doesn't put Alabama at the top of Florida's list of enemies.
"For old-time Gators, who are 50- or 40-plus it's Georgia," Meyer said. "For new age people it's FSU, and then you have to beat Tennessee."
And somewhere along the way comes a traditional power like Alabama, that's battling to stay in the championship race.
That's why the SEC remains college football's most demanding conference.