TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference’s two stingiest defenses will take the field in the league championship game.
That’s no coincidence.
No. 1 Alabama has kept its end zone off-limits for more than a month and been practically impenetrable to running backs. No. 15 Florida has only given up a few more points per game and flummoxed opposing quarterbacks.
With defenses like that, it doesn’t matter so much that neither team so far has a 1,000-yard rusher and their passing games have been statistically middle-of-the-pack. Both defenses feature highly rated NFL prospects like the Tide’s Jonathan Allen and the Gators’ Jalen Tabor.
"It’s kind of like a minor league NFL game," Florida quarterback Austin Appleby said. "There’s going to be first-rounders and NFL players all over the field. This is what it’s all about in the SEC."
The Tide hasn’t allowed a touchdown in 13-plus quarters, dating all the way back to October 22 against Texas A&M.
A star-studded group led by defensive end Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick leads the nation in limiting scoring (11.4 points per game), rushing (68.7 yards) and total defense (246.8 yards). Alabama’s numbers in all three categories are significantly better than last season’s national championship team.
It’s certainly the most opportunistic defense nationally, having allowed 12 touchdowns and scored nine .
"I feel like we’re the best, but we have to go out there and prove it every week," Allen said. "We have the mentality we have to go out there and suffocate and dominate the offense we go against."
It’s worked well so far.
Allen and Foster are two of five finalists for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy given to the nation’s top defensive player. Allen has even drawn some buzz as a Heisman Trophy contender with two defensive touchdowns and seven sacks.
Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton’s response when asked which Tide defender he’d nominate for such an award: "The defense."
"I would take all 11 guys because, I mean, when all 11 guys do their job and get a win that’s what matters the most," Hamilton said.
Florida’s defense has been afflicted with injuries to key players, including defensive linemen Bryan Cox Jr. and Jordan Sherit, safety Marcus Maye and linebackers Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis — all expected to miss the game.
Led by cornerbacks Tabor and Quincy Wilson, the Gators still rank among the nation’s best in pass defense (third), scoring (fifth) and total yards allowed (sixth).
Florida’s defense has remained formidable but the injuries have taken a toll, including in last weekend’s 31-13 loss to Florida State. At their best, the Gators allowed 43 rushing yards to South Carolina, 149 total yards to Kentucky and a paltry 53 total yards against North Texas. They also held LSU, which Alabama shut out, to 10 points.
An Alabama offense led by quarterback Jalen Hurts, tailback Damien Harris and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart poses a bigger challenge.
Tide tight end O.J. Howard remembered the challenge of facing Florida in last season’s SEC championship, which Alabama won 29-15.
The same offense went on to score 38 points against Michigan in the playoff semifinals and 45 in the title game against Clemson. Howard called the Gators "fast, explosive, very productive."
"Those guys are the best defense we played last year overall, honestly," he said. "I think they’ve got a couple of guys banged up this season, but that defense is one of the best defenses we will face since LSU."
The Tigers held Alabama to season-lows of 10 points and 323 yards.