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ONCE AGAIN IT’S ALABAMA VS. FLORIDA

SHARE ONCE AGAIN IT’S ALABAMA VS. FLORIDA

They've gotten used to seeing each other at this time of year, which is not to say they take the same path to the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Florida is the perfect team for the MTV generation: high-scoring, swaggering, a mirror of its fun-n-gun coach, Steve Spurrier. The antithesis is Alabama: old-fashioned, defense-oriented, a reflection of the Bear Bryant-schooled coach, Gene Stallings.Now it's time to decide which way is better. Third-ranked Alabama (11-0), champion of the Western Division, meets No. 6 Florida (9-1-1), the winner in the East, for the third year in a row today at the Georgia Dome. They've split the first two games.

"It would say a lot if we could win two out of three against a team like Florida," Alabama defensive lineman Shannon Brown said. "They are so dominant. They've got speed, they've got great athletes. Alabama and people like that are not so fortunate to have the great athletes."

Bryant, the master poor-mouther, would have loved a comment like that. He also would have loved this Alabama team, which doesn't have a bunch of big-name players but has plenty of heart. Four times, the Crimson Tide has rallied to win in the fourth quarter, and the 10 victories over Division I-A opponents have come by a total of only 80 points.

"I'm surprised they didn't slip up somewhere," Florida center David Swain said. "I figured we'd be playing them in the SEC championship game, but I didn't think they'd be undefeated."

Alabama is still in the running for its second national title in three years - a position Florida was supposed to be in as this season's anointed super team.

Statistically, at least, the Gators have lived up to expectations.

The top two quarterbacks in the SEC are Danny Wuerffel, who became the starter at midseason, and Terry Dean, the man he replaced. Jack Jackson has caught 56 passes, including 15 TDs. Freshmen tailbacks Fred Taylor and Elijah Williams have combined for 1,485 yards. Overall, the Gators are averaging more than 45 points per game, second in the nation.

On defense, Florida allows only 16.6 points per game - second to Alabama's SEC-leading 13.6 - and is tough to run against. But the Gators defenders have been burned in two games which defined their season.

Against Auburn, Florida surrendered a last-minute touchdown pass for a stunning 36-33 loss that knocked the Gators out of the No. 1 ranking. Last week against Florida State, Florida took a 31-3 lead into the fourth quarter, only to give up four straight touchdowns for a 31-31 tie.

"Anytime you tie after putting in so much emotion, you're a lot upset," safety Michael Gilmore said. "The true sign of a team that's a winning team ... is the ability to bounce back and focus on the next game."

Alabama hasn't matched Florida on offense, averaging less than 23 points per game, but the Tide's often-criticized line has made steady improvement. Sherman Williams is second in the SEC in rushing (1,242 yards) - and then there's Jay Barker.

The Alabama quarterback has a 34-1-1 record in four years as the starter. "He's a winner," Gilmore said.

Likewise, Barker has a lot of respect for the Gators, becoming friends with Wuerffel and defensive lineman Kevin Carter at a religious retreat over the past three summers. Before departing, Barker always said goodbye to the two Gators the same way: "See y'all in the championship game."