ATLANTA — Back in those dog days of August, when the players were just reporting for two-a-days and no school is beyond dreaming of a title, this was the game everyone has circled on the schedule.
Before anyone had taken a snap, Florida and Alabama had already been penciled in for a rematch in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Well here they are, having survived the gauntlet of 12 grueling games apiece and three months of expectations, scrutiny and pressure with not one slip-up between them.
The Gators vs. the Crimson Tide.
No. 1 vs. No. 2.
The game EVERYONE wanted to see.
"It's always in the back of your mind," Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain said. "We want that rematch. They put us out of our run for the national championship last year, and we haven't forgotten."
This is the second year in a row the teams have been 1-2 when they clashed for the SEC championship, though the roles were reversed in 2008. Alabama was undefeated and sitting on top, while Florida had clawed its way back up to second spot after an upset loss to Ole Miss.
Both teams made it through unscathed this time, marking one of those rare times in sports when not one, but two teams do everything that was projected of them.
Win big. Win close. Win them all.
"We had a plan to go to the SEC championship. That's the whole goal. That's the mindset for the whole team," Florida defensive back Joe Haden said. "Now we're all sitting here undefeated, (playing for the) SEC championship. We win this, we go on to the national championship."
Basically, it's a national semifinal game, a most enticing crumb thrown to all those proponents of a playoff system. The winner heads to Pasadena for the BCS championship. The loser likely to the Sugar Bowl.
There's plenty of motivation on both sides. Florida is going for its second straight national title and third in four years, the perfect capper for Tim Tebow's brilliant career. Alabama is eager to make up for a 31-20 loss to the Gators in last year's SEC championship game, its perfect season snatched away in the final 15 minutes.
The Tide went to the fourth quarter clinging to a three-point lead, but Tebow rallied Florida to a pair of touchdowns.
"We always pride ourselves on dominating the fourth quarter," McClain said. "This defense, if everybody does their job, the defense takes care of itself. If everybody would have just done what they had to do in the fourth quarter instead of getting caught up in the moment, I think we would have been fine."
No complaints about the defense on either side this season.
Florida has allowed the fewest points in the nation (9.8 a game), Alabama the second fewest (10.8). The Gators also have given up the fewest yards (233.1), the Tide is right there with them in the No. 3 spot (233.9). From Brandon Spikes to Terrence "Mount" Cody, it's hard to envision either team scoring very many points.
"Really good athletes all over the place," Haden said.
Then again, how many times do a pair of Heisman Trophy contenders get a chance to go head-to-head at this point in the season?
Florida will send out Tebow, its too-good-to-be-true quarterback. Alabama will counter with Mark Ingram, a dynamic runner with more than 1,400 yards on the ground. This will be like a three-hour-plus campaign commercial, both players making their final pitches for college football's top individual award.
Tebow already has one Heisman, becoming the first sophomore to capture the trophy two years ago. If he can win again as a senior, he'll join Archie Griffin as the only two-time winner of the award.
Amazingly, given its championship-filled, Bear-ingrained history, Alabama has never produced a Heisman winner. Ingram could be one big performance away from ending that drought, though he might not be at full strength. In last week's nail-biting win over Auburn, he was held to 30 yards rushing and went out on the final drive with a hip injury.
Tide coach Nick Saban said Friday that his star runner was able to practice this week with no major problems and should be good to go.
Florida took a big hit during the week that had nothing to do with anything on the field. Junior end Carlos Dunlap, one of the team's best pass rushers and defensive MVP of last season's BCS title game, was charged with driving under the influence early Tuesday. He won't be allowed to play against Alabama.
"He is devastated," said coach Urban Meyer, who met with Dunlap and his family after the player's arrest. "He made the comment he didn't want to hurt his teammates. A very poor decision."
In a part of the country where college football is king, Florida and Alabama are the gold standard. With a heritage that ranges from Bear Bryant in that houndstooth hat to Steve Spurrier throwing it all over the field in the "Fun 'n' Gun," these are two programs where championships are expected, losing just isn't tolerated.
The Tide's success is more long term – it won the very first SEC title in 1933 and now stands at 20, the bulk of them won during Bryant's quarter-century reign. Alabama's last SEC title was 10 long years ago, and the faithful are getting restless for another.
"We sort of know that the expectations at the University of Alabama are relatively high," Saban deadpanned.
Florida has been the SEC's dominant team since Spurrier guided the school to its first conference title in 1991. The Gators now have nine trophies in their case.
"The history is phenomenal," Meyer said. "When you start mentioning those names and you start talking about the Alabama Crimson Tide and Florida Gators playing for the Southeastern Conference for the right to play for the national championship, you're probably lying if you're not overwhelmed by the whole deal."