GAINESVILLE — When Florida and Alabama meet Saturday in the SEC title game, the two schools will represent the epitome of excellence. Over the past two regular seasons, they have one loss between them.
Including bowls, Alabama has won 24 games over the past two seasons, tied with Texas and Boise State and fewer only than Florida's 25 among I-A schools, and tied for most in school history. This is the second straight year the Crimson Tide has finished the regular season 12-0. Florida has won two of the past three BCS titles and has a nation-high 22-game win streak.
But not so long ago, it was a different story. From 1997-2007, Alabama had four coaches and five nonwinning seasons. And Florida lost five games in each of the three seasons after Ron Zook replaced Steve Spurrier, prompting UF to fire Zook midway through 2004.
The rise back to the top has been well-crafted by coaches hired specifically to bring the programs back to glory.
Now the biggest challenge: sustaining that excellence. And based on potential defections to the NFL of talented juniors and the departure of the most successful senior class in SEC history, the Gators' supremacy might be coming to an end.
"This conference in the future will look more and more like the rest of the conferences (in the nation)," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "Florida, I think, went all-in with (coach) Urban Meyer, and Alabama reacted smartly and went all-in with Nick Saban. And I think the rest of the conference is now adjusting, and I think they are coming on strong.
"Tennessee will be a power within two years. LSU is not going away. I think there are more athletes to recruit and the style of play in college football is going to make for more, I call it randomness in the game."
As Miami, Florida State, Southern Cal and other elite programs can attest to, getting to the top is one thing. Staying there is altogether different.
"Everybody knows programs are always on the move," Meyer said. "You're either getting better or you're getting worse. That's why this recruiting is so phenomenal. It's so important. What you do is try to continue. We all know when you have good recruits, at some point, they leave. And we've just got to keep building."
Coach Pete Carroll knows about building — and rebuilding. For seven of the past nine seasons, USC has finished among the top four in the nation, including two national championships. That streak will end this year.
"I think it's always a challenge to say, 'Okay, now across the board because you're good, you can win for a long time,' " Carroll said. "I think it's an enormous challenge.
"It's very unique when you get the opportunity to do it, and it doesn't happen that often. When it does, it's basically because of the stocking of really good players who can come in and step up to the opportunities."
During the 1990s, Florida State and Florida dominated the national college football scene. Florida won six conference titles and one national championship and played in another title game.
Florida State won two national championships under coach Bobby Bowden, who retired Tuesday after 34 seasons. From 1987-2000, FSU won at least 10 games and finished among the top five in the final Associated Press poll.
"I remember when we were on that streak, there were so many times where we went into that last game and finally won the 10th game or finally got a ranking to 4 or 5. You say, 'Golly, we got by again,' " Bowden said last week. "It's one of those things, you know it can't last forever. It just can't last forever. That's the thing I try to bring up with our people.
"The great teams of the past, Southern Cal, Alabama, Texas, yeah, they're on top today. But 10 years ago, everybody was stomping them. (In 2000), Southern Cal didn't even go to a bowl. Texas had their down years. It goes like that. You simply cannot stay there forever."
To expect the Gators and Tide to continue their current run is also unlikely, coaches and analysts said.
"I think what both have accomplished in the last two years is out of the ordinary. It's extraordinary," CBS analyst Verne Lundquist said. "To go 31-1 (in the SEC), I think the talent level is going to get spread around, and I think we're going to see challenges to this kind of record."
Florida and Alabama are already assembling what many expect to be another top-10 recruiting class. Carroll said that's key to sustaining a championship-caliber program.
But Florida and Alabama fans should enjoy this ride. Most likely, it won't last.
"I think it's extremely hard to maintain it for a long period of time, and I think it will remain that way," Carroll said. "There are issues: transition of coaches, transition of players and then the elevation of the teams around you. All of those factor in to keep it from where you can just stay on a dominant footing."
Times staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report. Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]s.com. Follow her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.