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December 4, 2008
SEC Championship: Start fast or finish behind
Watch: SEC Championship preview
Alabama and Florida have gotten this far by dominating teams early and rarely putting themselves in any serious trouble. Florida has outscored teams 160-10 in the first quarter, Alabama 123-20.
Saturday's game could come down to which team continues its trend of taking an early lead.
"It's going to be huge to start fast," Alabama center Antoine Caldwell said. "That's the way we approach every game. The fast starts are always crucial, and it will be no different in this game. We'll definitely have to start fast and start early."
How huge is it? Consider the way both teams have capitalized on their ability to get the early jump on an opponent.
Alabama (12-0) has trailed for a total of 23 minutes, 11 seconds this season. Florida (11-1) has been behind for 15:38 and all that came in the 31-30 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27.
"That's what we've been thriving on, just coming out and playing our hardest at the beginning of the game," Florida cornerback Joe Haden said. "That sometimes takes the life out of the other team.''
Florida and Alabama have used different methods to get off to their fast starts. Alabama has pulled ahead early by relying on Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram to run behind one of the nation's top offensive lines. Florida has a more explosive offense with reigning Heisman winner Tim Tebow at the helm, but the Gators also have benefited from big plays by their defense and special teams.
Brandon James' 78-yard punt return gave Florida an early 17-0 lead in a 30-6 triumph over Tennessee. Florida blocked two punts in the first quarter of a 63-5 victory over Kentucky. Brandon Spikes' 12-yard interception return opened the scoring in a 56-6 rout of South Carolina.
"All around, they are the ideal team," Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas said. "They are the type of team that you would want to have."
The fast-starting nature of Alabama and Florida should reward whichever team takes the other out of its comfort zone. In the only game Florida trailed all year, it lost. The only time Alabama was behind for at least six minutes, the Tide needed to go to overtime before winning at LSU.
But the recent history of this game suggests a fast start doesn't necessarily mean all that much. The winning team in the past two SEC title games has trailed in the second half. Florida coach Urban Meyer pointed out in a teleconference this week that the Gators blew a 17-7 halftime lead in the 2006 championship game before rallying for a 38-28 victory over Arkansas.
"I think a fast start is going to be a critical part, but it's not the only part," Meyer said. "There are 60 minutes of football. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Don't be surprised if Florida gets a head start in this marathon. After scoring on its opening drive in six of its first nine games, Alabama has failed to cash in on its first drive in each of its past three contests. Alabama has outscored its past three opponents by just 15-14 in the first quarter, while Florida has led by at least 11 points at the end of the first period in each of its past four games.
That's not necessarily devastating news for Alabama. Seven games into the season, Alabama actually was getting outscored 78-55 after halftime, but the Tide have spent the past month developing into much more of a second-half team.
In its past five games, Alabama has outscored opponents 96-13 after halftime. Three weeks ago, the Tide trailed Mississippi State 7-5 midway through the second quarter and ended up with a 32-7 victory.
Perhaps that explains why Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson disputes the notion that Saturday's game will come down to which team starts fastest.
"I think the first quarter is important, but not nearly as important as the third and the fourth quarter," he said. "What we talk about all the time as a team is the fourth quarter, the end, the second half.
"Getting off to a fast start helps out a lot, getting points on the board early and putting the other team in a situation where they're doing things they don't want to do. But finishing the game and staying strong the rest of the game is the key."
Still, the team that doesn't start fast Saturday might not get the chance to finish the season the way it wants.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.