Alabama-Florida stakes lack finality

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - It's still comfortably warm most days in the Deep South, and already top-ranked Alabama and No. 7 Florida are set to tangle in a battle of the Southeastern Conference's reigning powers.

The timing and scene are different than usual, and so is the scenario. Rub out all the hype and anticipation, and you're left with a huge SEC game that won't really settle much of anything.

The loser of Saturday night's clash at Bryant-Denny Stadium presumably won't be knocked out of the national championship picture, and the winner earns no guarantees - unlike the past two SEC championship games.

It's big, just not point-of-no-return big.

"The timing of the game is a little bit different, but it's still very important," Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. "Obviously without a victory on Saturday, we're going to have a harder time getting to where we want to be."

Well, not necessarily. The Gators (4-0, 2-0 SEC) and Tide (4-0, 1-0) still could meet for the league title.

"The last several years, it seems like these two teams find ways to win games," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "We better be locked and loaded. Everybody has to be on point. All-in is something we talk about. Everybody has to be all-in, that means everybody has to have excellence to have a chance to go win this game."

If both teams were to win their remaining games - hardly a sure thing in a league with five teams ranked in the top 15 - that's exactly what will happen. Now, that game could be for a national championship shot.

And there likely won't be a bigger challenge in between. These two teams have made a habit of winning big games the past few years and accounted for the past two national champions, though Alabama is a nine-point favorite this time.

McElroy is practically an old hand in this kind of game. Florida's John Brantley knows well the view from the sidelines in the big ones from when Tim Tebow was running the show.

Clearly the quarterback battle has changed, too.

McElroy came into last year's game regarded as the offensive caretaker. His assignment: Don't make mistakes and get the ball to the Tide's playmakers. Instead, he was the MVP, outshining Tebow and leading Alabama to a 32-13 win in what he regards as perhaps his best college game.

Alabama went on to win the BCS national title game over Texas with McElroy mostly handing off to Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. But Florida defenders know better than most that the Tide's offense starts with those runners but doesn't stop there.

There's also McElroy and favored target Julio Jones, among others.

"Everyone knows that Alabama has two of the best running backs in the country and they're always going to get a lot of attention," Gators defensive end Justin Trattou said. "We definitely don't take for granted their quarterback, and they have some big-time threats at receiver that we're going to have to focus on and prepare for this week."

Shaky for a while, Brantley and the Gators seemed to hit their stride last week with a 48-14 romp over Kentucky that included a Tebow-like performance by freshman Trey Burton. He accounted for a school-record six touchdowns, mostly as the quarterback in the Wildcat formation.

Brantley will face a young secondary that has been targeted for some big plays - and made some of their own. The Tide's eight picks is second in the SEC, and sophomore safety Robert Lester has four of them. He swiped two of Ryan Mallett's passes at Arkansas last weekend.

Tide coach Nick Saban said he thinks Brantley has improved each week, but also thinks Burton's Wildcat success brings additional challenges.

"The guy (Burton) is a very good player," Saban said. "It does create some problems, but it creates more problems when you've got one guy who can do it all because you have to defend it all, all the time. This guy is a very good player. Brantley is a very good passer, so the combination of those two guys does present some issues and problems."

That's just for starters. Speedy tailback Jeff Demps, the Gators' leading rusher, is expected to play after re-injuring a bruised left foot against Kentucky.

He provides a contrast to the power running of Ingram and Richardson, who have combined for eight touchdowns, even though Ingram has only played in two games because of a knee injury. But, like Alabama's defense, Florida has only allowed one rushing touchdown. The Gators are giving up just 94 yards a game on the ground.

"We're starting to click as a team, I think," Brantley said. "We're starting to find our identity. I think it's getting back to where we were last year when we came out firing."


AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.


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