On the ride up from Gainesville this morning/afternoon one thing was increasingly clear. Gator Nation is excited about the chance to play for the SEC Championship. I took five hours to get here, and over all 320 miles or so I was either passing or being passed by cars decked out in Orange and Blue. In town, at the hotel, there are Gators as fans as the eye can see.
And that’s as it should be. Florida may have taken trips to Atlanta for granted when the Gators made it to the first five SEC Title games (3 in Atlanta), but after just two appearances in nine years and none in the past five, there’s renewed enthusiasm about being in the big game.
It’s also interesting to see as the game draws near more and more pundits are backing away from their Arkansas picks of earlier in the week. It seems as people think about this one, it’s clear the contest could go either way depending on how certain key individuals and/or units perform.
It is from that perspective that I am going to list the six more important Gators for the SEC Title game OTHER than Chris Leak. There are the guys who I think have to play big in order to send the Gators to the Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Siler —– Brandon has had a very good, but not great season in 2006. He has been a consistent performer week in and week out but he has not made as many big plays as he did last year when he topped the nation with seven fumble recoveries. Against a power running team, no player is more important than your middle linebacker. If Siler has a big game, the Gators will be in very good shape.
Cornelius Ingram —– Arkansas will rush five almost every pass play and they will play man just about as often. Nobody is better equipped to exploit man coverage than is Ingram. Chris Leak is becoming more comfortable looking for Ingram as evidenced by ten catches in the last three games after just ten in the first nine contests. The Hogs will have a heckuva time finding a match up that works here. Ingram should have his best game.
Carlton Medder —– Razorbacks defensive end Jamaal Anderson leads the SEC with eleven quarterback sacks. His ability to put pressure on Leak has to be a huge part of their defensive game plan. Medder must be stalwart and help provide Leak with enough time to attack the Arkansas secondary.
Brandon James —– The kick coverage numbers for Arkansas are pretty good, but they have given up a kickoff return for a touchdown as well as a 30-yard punt return. James couldn’t get anything going against FSU last week, but talking with him this week he seemed very excited about something they may have spotted in preparations. A big play in the return game could be a major momentum changer.
Joey Iijas —– No, I’m not kidding. Arkansas is tops in the SEC and third in the nation in kickoff returns with a 26.6 average and two touchdowns. Florida is next to last in the conference in kick coverage largely because of poor kickoffs. The Gators have only had nine of 63 kicks result in touchbacks which gives teams far too many opportunities to spring returns. This is a match up that favors the Hogs in a big way, but Iijas can change that with a career best night.
Ray McDonald —– He’ll play inside and out and he has to be effective in both places. Florida would be a big favorite in this game with a healthy Marcus Thomas, but he wont be here. Ray Mac has played the most football of any of Florida’s senior linemen, so I’m choosing him as the guy who must have a big day.
Obviously you kid list of bunch of guys here, be it someone to get Florida’s running game going to safeties who must tackle well, but looking at the way these teams match up there are the six-pack of Gators that can make the biggest difference in determining whether or not the Gators claim the crown.