Alabama coach Nick Saban has coached for 14 years and won a national championship. Florida coach Urban Meyer is in his ninth season and has won two of the last three national titles. And none of that mattered Friday. On the eve of the game that's being called the de facto national championship semifinals between No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama, both coaches said they'd be less than truthful if they said they weren't nervous about today's game.
"Being a part of it, I am a little bit overwhelmed," Meyer said. "When you start talking about the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators, playing for the Southeastern Conference title, 1 vs. 2 and the right to go play for the national championship, you're probably lying if you are not a little overwhelmed by the whole deal. But our job is not to be overwhelmed, it's to focus on how to go play the football game."
Saban said today's game is no different than any other — he's nervous.
"I get butterflies before every game that we play," he said during the news conference. "I'm shaking my leg right now. And I would be shaking it any Friday of any given game that we play, because to coach, you feel like that game that you're playing that particular day is the biggest game that you have that particular year."
Meyer: Dunlap devastated
While his teammates prepared to play in the biggest game of the season, junior DE Carlos Dunlap spent the week dealing with the aftermath of his arrest early Tuesday morning. Dunlap was arrested on DUI charges and later suspended from the team indefinitely. Meyer said Dunlap is suffering from his mistake. "I met with his family, and Carlos is just under a 3.0 student (at a) great university," Meyer said. "I told you he takes care of his business. This is very uncharacteristic of him. He made a horrible decision. He apologized. I am very close with his family, and he is devastated."
Florida and Alabama are among the nation's worst teams this season at converting touchdowns in the red zone. Florida has 28 touchdowns on 56 trips inside the red zone, which is tied for 90th nationally. Alabama has scored 21 touchdowns in 49 red zone trips, which is tied for 112th nationally.
"We've had some times in the past when we haven't been able to convert like we would like to, but we know how important converting in the red zone will be in this game," UF quarterback Tim Tebow said. "We have to take advantage of those opportunities."
What might have been
Meyer and Saban will face each other today as head coaches, but 20 years ago, it was Meyer who was trying to get a helping hand from Saban.
"I think it was 1989," Meyer said. "I was a linebacker coach, and I made this clear, too, not a very good linebacker coach, at Illinois State University. I wanted to move back to Ohio. And somehow, some way, there were no cell phones. I got a phone number and someone said call Coach Saban. I called Coach Saban, and his lovely wife (Terry) picked up the phone, and we chatted for about 10 minutes. I got her; she was sold. She was ready to go. And then I remember telling (Meyer's wife) Shelley — at the time I think she was my fiancee — 'Looks like we're going to Toledo.' The phone call never came back. I had her (Terry); I didn't get him (Saban)."
With all the talk about special teams, particularly Florida return man Brandon James and Alabama's record-setting return specialist Javier Arenas, one key factor may have gone under the radar this week: UF's Chas Henry, who has punted 29 times this season for a 42.7 average. Only two punts have been returned for positive yards — 13 yards allowed. And 13 have been inside the 20-yard line. In 11 of 12 games, the Gators have allowed zero punt return yards. That could be a critical factor against Arenas, the former Robinson High standout who owns the SEC record for career punt returns. "Special teams is going to be a very big part of this game, and we've spent extra time on that this week preparing," Meyer said.
Ribs or oranges?
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley will once again engage in a friendly wager over the SEC Championship Game. If Florida wins, Riley will have to send Crist a rack of ribs from Tuscaloosa's famous Dreamland Bar-B-Que. If the Tide wins, Riley will be receiving some oranges.
"I look forward to joining Gator fans across the Sunshine State root for another hard-fought victory," Crist said. "I'm also looking forward to my friend Gov. Riley delivering another rack of ribs to Florida. Go Gators!"
"You play football for all of the games, but these are the ones that really mean the most. … Games like this, that's what's special and that's what you remember the most."
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow on the significance of today's game