Much at stake in SEC title game

ATLANTA — Nick Saban and Urban Meyer both took a mulligan in their first seasons.

Saban's debut at Alabama was marred by a four-game losing streak at the end of the regular season. Heck, the Crimson Tide needed a victory in the Independence Bowl just to eke out a winning record.

Meyer's opening season at Florida was more successful, though the Gators still managed to lose three Southeastern Conference games, including a bitter defeat to former coach Steve Spurrier that kept them out of the league championship game.

Even with the best of coaches, it usually takes a year to really get things rolling.

But watch out in Year 2.

Meyer won a national championship his second season at the Swamp, and Saban could pull off a similar feat at the helm of the Crimson Tide — if No. 1 Alabama (12-0) can get by Meyer's second-ranked Gators (11-1) in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday. Clearly, there are parallels in the way a successful program is constructed.

"Players need to get used to you. You need to get an understanding of the players," Meyer said. "There are usually schematic changes that take a little while to get used to. Absolutely. That's truth. That's real."

Saban should know, having been through it before. At LSU, he posted a respectable 8-4 record his first season, but the Tigers lost big to Auburn and Florida and were even beaten by UAB. The following year, they won their first outright SEC championship in 15 years and went on to the Sugar Bowl.

"It's a tough transition year," Saban said. "You're trying to change a culture in terms of the way people do things. It's more difficult for the older players to probably adjust to and adapt to that, and those guys are probably the guys who provide quite a bit of leadership, and are looked to for leadership. It may be the most difficult group to buy in."

But those recalcitrant seniors are only in the way for one season. When everyone reports the following year, a coach — especially the good ones — begins to tighten his grip on the program. He's got another class of his own signees. He's had enough time to win over those who might have been resistant to change, or send them packing.

"The next year, maybe the juniors are sort of more willing to buy in and make the change and change the culture, and provide the leadership that the coach would like to make the changes," Saban said. "Because change is inevitable when you change staffs, but whether you choose to do it or not is a choice."

Those juniors-turned-seniors certainly bought into Saban's program, even though Alabama's regular-season record in 2007 was exactly the same (6-6) as the mark that led to Mike Shula's firing the previous year. In a way, that lack of success worked in the new coach's favor.

"We really didn't do it the way coach Saban wanted us to do it, and we saw the results," Crimson Tide safety Rashad Johnson said. "Once the summer came around, you could just see a different look in the guys' eyes, of the seniors now, and the way that we were working, just trying to get better every week. Everybody bought into the system."

Now, they'll be part of one of the most anticipated matchups in the 17-year history of the SEC championship. For the first time, the game will pit No. 1 vs. No. 2 (at least according to The Associated Press poll) in what essentially serves as a semifinal game for the national title.

The winner will almost certainly claim a spot in the BCS championship game at Miami, while the loser settles for the Sugar Bowl.

Even though Alabama is unbeaten and ranked higher, Florida went into the game as a commanding 10-point favorite. The high-powered Gators are the nation's third highest-scoring team (46.3 points a game) and their 11 victories have been by an average of 37.3 points. Of course, there is that one blemish, a shocking 31-30 loss at home to Mississippi in late September.

While Saban and his players shrugged off the point spread, Florida figures it will wind up on a bulletin board as motivation.

"They're still the undefeated team, still have not lost a game yet," Gators defensive back Joe Haden said. "If I was them, I would definitely use that as fuel."

Alabama hasn't been nearly as dominating, beating LSU in overtime and winning close ones in regulation against both Kentucky and Ole Miss. Then again, that sort of experience may come in handy if the SEC championship is still up for grabs in the closing minutes.

The Tide has won the tight ones. Florida lost its only close game.

"That's a very real concern," Meyer conceded Friday. "We've been doing a lot of extra work at the end of practice on our two-minute offense and those kind of drills."

While Florida clearly has the more dynamic offense, the Gators could be without one of their top weapons as both running back and receiver. Speedy Percy Harvin hasn't practiced all week after spraining an ankle against Florida State last Saturday. He was finally going to test it out during a light practice at the Georgia Dome, but only after all the media had been ushered away.

So it won't be known until kickoff if Harvin will be able to play, or how effective he'll be if he does.

Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa to great fanfare, and it was obvious the fans were on board when 92,000 of them packed Bryant-Denny Stadium for the 2007 spring game, nothing more than a glorified scrimmage.

That first season, the players seemed willing to adapt to a coach who was much more demanding, much more regimented than Shula. They knew he had won a national championship at LSU. They knew he was being paid more than any coach in the country.

But an overtime loss to Georgia soured the mood, and a bitter loss to Saban's old school seemed to split the team wide open. The Tide struggled through an embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe, a sixth straight defeat to rival Auburn and settled for a letdown of a bowl trip to Shreveport, the same spot they'd been the year before.

"There was just a lot of guys buying in and a lot of guys not buying in," Johnson remembered. "It was just conflict amongst the team. It wasn't like confrontations or things like that, but you could just tell that some guys were going to do it their way and other guys were going to do it coach's way. That's not going to work if everybody isn't on the same page and sell out for one cause and be committed to that cause."

All Saban needed was a mulligan.

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