ATLANTA - The University of Alabama football team arrived for Saturday's SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome, where the Crimson Tide will face Florida in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
The only other time a conference championship featured the top two teams was last year, with Florida winning 31-20 and going on to win the national championship. At minimum, the rematch appears to be reinforcing the notion that the SEC is clearly the nation's toughest conference.
"Think about it, whether it was last year or this year, you're going to have to beat two of the best three teams in the country to be able to win the championship, which they were able to do last year," Nick Saban said. "We would have to do the same, and we would have had to do the same thing last year. So I don't know how it could get any tougher than that, especially last year, and this year.
"Now, there may be some circumstance, some situation down the road or you might talk about Texas and Oklahoma and they're one-two and they play in their league, so I'm sure they would claim the same thing. But in this moment in time, that's the way it is."
The SEC has captured the last three national titles, and this season set a record for wins against non-conference opponents by going 42-6.
After the bowl season last year, the conference went 43-13.
"The strength of the Southeastern Conference, I think, right now at least in this era is unparalleled," Florida's Urban Meyer said. "I remember back in '06 where we actually got together as a group of coaches and the marketing people and we put on all these bullet points about all the success from the number of players that have the opportunity to go to the NFL, the academic All-Americans, the All-Americans, the non-conference records. I remember looking, we all sat there and went through it and it's amazing that we had to actually battle for maybe the national respect where maybe one of our teams wasn't going to get into the championship game and it's come completely full circle."
This is the seventh time Alabama and Florida have met for the title, with the Gators holding a 4-2 edge. However, Saban is 2-1 in the SEC Championship Game, having won twice with LSU (2001, 2003).
"This is a little bit like a title fight, and you know the other team's going to be pretty good," Saban said. "You know they're going to know how to win or they wouldn't be here. You know they're going to be well prepared and probably pretty well coached.
"Hopefully we learned a few things last year about what it takes to be a champion, what it takes to win a championship."
Red Zone issues
A key statistic that could play a significant role in Saturday's game is red-zone play.
Florida is 10th in the conference inside the 20, scoring 78.6 percent of the time (44 of 56) with 28 touchdowns, while Alabama's defense tops the conference (14 of 20, eight touchdowns).
On the flip side, the Tide is sixth offensively (42 of 48 for 87.5 percent, but just 21 touchdowns), and the Gators' defense is third (17 of 23, 73.9 percent, seven touchdowns).
"I think there is good and bad in the red zone," Saban said earlier this week. "You did something to get it down there. You can start with that, but you also want to finish when you get there and maximize the number of points that you get. They move the ball effectively and have gotten down there, which I think it's a credit to their offensive team. I think it's critical that last year the difference in the game was they scored when they got it in the red zone. I think they scored three out of four times, or maybe four out of five times, but I'm talking about touchdowns. We didn't always do that and it's going to be a critical part of the game as to who can finish in the red zone."
Meyer was a hit with Mrs. Saban
Saban told the story numerous times this week of when he was a head coach at Toledo and Meyer was a graduate assistant coaching linebackers at Illinois State but looking to move back to Ohio. When he called Saban's house, his wife Terry talked to him and told her husband Meyer would be a good person to hire.
"We chatted for about 10 minutes," Meyer said. "I got her; she was sold. She was ready to go. And then I remember telling Shelly, I think she was my fiance at the time, 'Looks like we're going to Toledo.' The phone call never came back. I had her; I didn't get him."
Meyer was then asked what it might have been like to work for Saban, and he compared him to Paul W. "Bear" Bryant, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
"As far as respected coaches in the game, I think anytime you can learn from those type of coaches you're better off," Meyer said.
Injuries and practice report
Saban repeated that sophomore running back Mark Ingram should be ready for Saturday's game.
"Mark is fine and practiced well," he said. "We think he's ready to go. So you don't know when guys go into games with injuries what their situation is going to be right until game time, but we have a good feeling about it right now and I think Mark has a good feeling about it as well."
Ingram was on the field for the Tide's brief walk-through at the Georgia Dome. However, there was no sign of junior running back Terry Grant (abdominal strain).
Saban had an interesting answer about dealing with assistant coaches drawing interest from other schools.
"Well, first of all, you know we want our coaches to advance, and I think that if we have someone on our staff, it should be their motivation to do a good job to be able to create a better opportunity for themselves," he said. "In other words, if you're a coordinator, you can become a head coach. If you're not a coordinator, you could go someplace and be a coordinator and actually gain more responsibility.
"I don't necessarily think that just a move to move sometimes when it's not really an advancement in terms of responsibility is something that you like to see on your staff, because you hope that the people that are there are working to move up the ladder so they can create an opportunity for themselves that will give them an advancement based on their performance and what they achieve and what they do by doing a good job in the job that they're in. Because the issues and the problems are the same everywhere. So we always want our coaches to be able to do that. We want to help them do it. But at the same time we want them to stay focused on what's best for our team and our players right now and this situation because those are all things that can be managed after the game. There's a time and place for all those things. And I don't think today's the right day."
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's name has been mentioned regarding the same position at Florida State and Georgia. Outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri has also been linked to the Seminoles, where former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher is taking over.
Meyer doesn't see much difference between junior quarterback Greg McElroy and last year's starter John Parker Wilson, now of the Atlanta Falcons. "I think certainly in the back half of the year, the middle they relied completely on No. 22, Ingram and the great freshman, Trent (Richardson). Now I think last week their game against Auburn was classic. Development of a quarterback and confidence, and he took that team down there to go win that game. So I don't see a whole lot of difference at this point in the team we faced last year."
Saban on if he still gets nervous before big games: "I get butterflies before every game. I get butterflies before every game that we play. I'm shaking my leg right now and I would be shaking it on any Friday of any given game that we play, because to a coach, you feel like that game that you're playing that day is the biggest game that you have that particular year. It's the most important game because it's the game that you're playing now."
Meyer on Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin's statement that Florida had better players but Alabama has a coaching edge Saturday: "There's no comment."