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Five things to know about SEC Championship Game, Florida vs. Alabama

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun

No. 1 Alabama (10-0) vs. No. 7 Florida (8-2)

TV: 8 p.m. Saturday, CBS.Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850. Favorite: Tide by 15.5 points (according to BetMGM).

Live updates:Follow along with our coverage of Florida Gators vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

1. Heisman up for grabs

The SEC won’t be the only race decided Saturday night. This year’s Heisman Trophy winner should emerge from Atlanta, with multiple candidates on display. The frontrunners are Florida quarterback Kyle Trask and Alabama QB Mac Jones, and whoever leads their team to victory will likely take home the Heisman. Trask leads the country in passing yards (3,717 yards) and touchdown passes (40), while Jones ranks first nationally in QB rating (203.9) and second in completion percentage (76.4). The go-to targets for Jones and Trask are also in contention. Alabama wideout DeVonta Smith tops the FBS with 1,327 receiving yards and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts ranks No. 4 with 11 receiving touchdowns despite missing three and a half games, including the last one. “You could argue there are four potential finalists,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Thursday of the Alabama-Florida matchup. “I’d add Kyle Pitts.”

More:No shortage of comparisons between UF's Kyle Trask, Alabama's Mac Jones

2. Opposite trends on D

The Gators and Tide are comparable on offense, but their defenses have been trending in opposite directions. Both units surrendered more than 40 points on Oct. 10, with Florida falling 41-38 at Texas A&M and Alabama surviving a 63-48 shootout against Ole Miss. The Tide have given up 17 points or less in their last six wins, including just a field goal Saturday for the second time in four games. UF had a stretch of three straight weeks with less than 20 points allowed, but that ended last Saturday with LSU’s 37-34 win. It marked the fourth time an offense has scored 35 points or more against the Gators this season (Ole Miss-35, A&M-41, Arkansas-35). Aside from the Ole Miss game, no team has put up more than 24 points on Alabama. “Saturday will probably be the ultimate challenge for our defensive group,” Tide coach Nick Saban said Thursday.

3. UF still in playoff hunt

The loss to LSU, as bad as it was, didn’t knock the Gators out of College Football Playoff contention. The selection committee only dropped them one spot to No. 7 in the latest rankings Tuesday, leaving the door open for Florida to still make the playoff with an upset win over top-ranked Alabama. The Tide will be one of the four teams no matter what, but UF could join them as a nine-win SEC champion over a two-loss conference champion in the Big 12 (Iowa State or Oklahoma) or a six-win conference champion in the Big Ten (Ohio State) or Pac-12 (USC). “We’ll think about that on Saturday night after we win,” Mullen said Thursday, raising eyebrows with that comment. “I think LSU made it when there were only two teams with two losses. It was back in one of those years with the BCS (2007).” 

More:Gators confident despite tall task against Alabama

4. Saturday’s game questions

•Who will emerge from Saturday’s game as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner?

•Will Kyle Pitts play, and does he produce his third 100-yard receiving game?

•Can the Gators limit DeVonta Smith, who leads the nation in long scrimmage plays?

•Can UF win the turnover battle against Alabama, which leads the SEC in turnover margin?

•Can Florida's offense win the red-zone battle and score touchdowns inside the 20?

Click back Sunday for Abolverdi’s answers

Abolverdi’s pick:

Alabama 45, Florida 31

5. Key matchup

Florida’s red-zone offense vs. Alabama’s red-zone defense:

The Gators had a nightmare in the red zone against LSU, turning it over on downs on their opening drive and throwing a pick at the 15. They also settled for a pair of field goals on two of their eight trips inside the 20, missing out on 22 potential points. UF must score touchdowns in the red zone Saturday if it’s going to keep up with Alabama, which ranks first in the SEC in scoring offense. The Tide also leads the league in red-zone defense, allowing opposing offenses to score 73.1 percent of time. Of the red-zone 26 possessions, Alabama has given up just 11 touchdowns (42.3 percent). That’s nearly 23 percent better than the league’s second-best red-zone defense (Kentucky, 65 percent). The Gators, meanwhile, rank No. 2 in the SEC in red-zone conversions, scoring on 93.9 percent of their trips inside the 20 (49 of 53). The only offense with more red-zone touchdowns than Florida (37) is Alabama (41).