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Marching on Atlanta

A dramatic finish won Alabama a spot in the SEC title game, but the Tide will have to play better against Florida

NICK SABAN is known for his drab single-mindedness. So it was to be expected that after clinching Alabama's first SEC championship game berth since 1999 with a dizzying 27--21 overtime victory at LSU last Saturday, the Crimson Tide's second-year coach was in no mood to celebrate. "I'm worried about the next game [against Mississippi State] and the next game [against Auburn]," Saban said. "And now there's going to be a next game after that."

With the win over the Tigers, No. 1 Alabama (10--0) is assured of meeting No. 3 Florida (8--1) for the SEC title on Dec. 6 in Atlanta. If neither team loses before then, the game could serve as a de facto play-in to the BCS championship game. But to beat the Gators, who have won their last five SEC games by an average margin of 37 points, the Tide will need a much better performance than it had against LSU (6--3).

In Saban's long-awaited return to the school that he led to the 2003 national championship (some Tigers fans greeted him with profane chants), Alabama's fourth-ranked defense allowed season highs in total yards (382) and rushing yards (201). In fact, LSU's offense was hindered mostly by the performance of redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Lee, who threw four interceptions; Tide senior safety Rashad Johnson had three picks, the last when LSU got the ball first in OT. On the following play Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson hit receiver Julio Jones for a 24-yard gain that set up Wilson's game-winning sneak.

The close call against LSU marked the most serious test to date for Alabama, which had outscored its first nine opponents by an average margin of 32--13 and trounced its two previous ranked foes, Clemson and Georgia. "For the first time this season we had to play the whole game and win in overtime," said Wilson. "It was great for our team."

The Tide has exceeded expectations this season by relying on a relentless running game that would make Bear Bryant proud. On Saturday tailback Glen Coffee gashed LSU for 126 yards on 26 carries. Alabama's most dangerous weapon, however, is the 6'4" Jones, a gifted freshman who repeatedly beat Tigers defenders to the ball, finishing with 128 yards on seven catches.

While Jones was a blue-chip recruit last winter, Florida will go into the SEC championship game with more coveted athletes on both sides of the ball. Alabama is unbeaten largely because it feasts on opponents' mistakes while minimizing its own (though the LSU game was filled with uncharacteristic miscues). "Our players weren't as focused [against LSU] as they need to be in the future," said Saban.

He'll have that fixed by the time the Tide heads to Atlanta.



LEADING RECEIVER Johnson's third interception against LSU came in overtime.