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Florida Gators developing an Alabama-like SEC lore

ATLANTA — On its own, the game is practically perfect.

It is No. 1 vs. No. 2. It is Heisman candidate vs. Heisman candidate. It is a rematch of last year's conference championship, and it is a de facto semifinal for the BCS national championship game next month.

So, yeah, today's Southeastern Conference title game between Alabama and Florida is pretty much everything you could want on a college football Saturday. And yet, I can't help thinking there is even more hiding in the background of the story.

It has nothing to do with Tim Tebow or Mark Ingram. And it doesn't concern Urban Meyer or Nick Saban. It is more about legacies and birthrights. Or maybe expectations and traditions.

For people of a certain generation — and that would probably be any generation that involved the 1960s and '70s — Alabama is the quintessential SEC program. Just as Southern California defined the Pac-10, Texas ruled the old Southwest Conference and Oklahoma reigned over the old Big Eight.

There was a time when Alabama owned the SEC, and hardly anyone bothered to argue the point. In the 1960s, the Tide won four SEC championships, something no other program had pulled off in a single decade. Alabama upped it to eight SEC titles in the '70s.

This was the program of Joe Namath and Lee Roy Jordan. The program of Bart Starr and Ken Stabler. The program with more national titles than any school in the South. But, mostly, this was the program of Bear Bryant. His is as big a name as any in college football.

When he passed away in 1983, Bryant's funeral procession stretched several miles, several hundred vehicles and thousands of bystanders along the interstates. The First United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa could not handle the crowd, and so audio of the funeral service was piped in to Baptist and Presbyterian churches down the road.

Even when Alabama struggled to maintain its standing in the years after Bryant's death, there was no real threat to its aura as the SEC's most celebrated program. Auburn had a run for a while. LSU and Tennessee had their moments, too.

But nobody in the SEC came close to touching Alabama's level of dominance.

Until now.

Until Florida.

Since 1990, the Gators have been on a run that is unmatched in SEC lore except for Bryant's Alabama teams of the '60s and '70s. The Gators have won eight conference titles and three national championships, and established themselves as the SEC's finest.

Florida may still trail Alabama in sheer numbers, but the impact is hard to ignore. It must be difficult for Alabama fans to act with any sense of superiority knowing the Gators have won four times as many SEC titles since 1990.

It must be painful to recognize Ingram would be called the finest player in the league were it not for Tebow. To know Saban would be considered the SEC's resident genius if Meyer were not in the same neighborhood.

"We sort of know that the expectations at the University of Alabama are relatively high, relative to the tradition that they have there and the passion that they have there," Saban said Friday. "I would probably even go as far as to say our fans think that's unique, and they're proud of that.

"But the fact of the matter is there's a lot of passion in a lot of other places for their football, too. And we understand that all the love we get is conditional on one thing: And that's that we win the game."

Perhaps, for a time, it was possible to dismiss Florida as a fad. To say it was an invention of Steve Spurrier. Or a cyclical oddity. But Florida's dominance over Alabama and the SEC has now spanned coaches and decades.

These teams have met six times previously in conference championship games, and the Gators have won four. Another win today would mean Florida has won more SEC titles than any other team in consecutive decades, something no school has done since — you got it — Alabama in the '60s and '70s.

You almost wonder whether the Gators losing is as attractive as the Tide winning to folks in Alabama. You have to understand, in some parts of the South, football is more than a game. It is a lifestyle. An identity.

And, in Alabama, that identity has been unchallenged for a very long time. The Tide has not been perfect. There have been missteps along the way, and an interloper or two has occasionally made life uncomfortable.

But Alabama fans have always been able to hold on to the past as a kind of security blanket. They've always been able to point at history whenever times got rough.

Today, Florida is threatening that image. It is challenging that perception.

Another victory against Alabama, another SEC title, another shot at the national championship could go a long way toward creating Florida's own aura in the conference.

You might even say, it would signal a changing of the Tide.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Florida Gators developing an Alabama-like SEC lore 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 10:46pm]
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