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December 1, 2006

SEC Championship Preview: Arkansas vs. Florida

"Wanna compare the "mighty" gator offense to our "one-deminsional" attack. Ark avg's 4 more pts/game, 65 more total yrds/gm, and 120 more rush yards/gm than the gators did against the head to head competition. I will give that the gators did manage to avg 54 more yds/gm through the air than the hogs. Based on the head to head, I think I like the Hogs chances."
-- HogFanJW on the The Razor's Edge message board on HawgSports.com.

Video Preview | Head-to-Head Breakdown

Chris Leak will go down in history as one of the most productive quarterbacks to play for the Florida Gators.

He already has thrown more completions than any other Florida quarterback. He needs just 65 more yards to pass Danny Wuerffel as the school's career leader in passing yardage.

But there's one area in which Leak falls short.

Wuerffel, Rex Grossman and even Terry Dean won SEC championship games during their Florida careers.

Leak hasn't.

"So many people are interested in passing yardage and a variety of things," Florida coach Urban Meyer said, "but the bottom line is have you taken your team to the championship game in Atlanta. There's been a tradition of great quarterbacks through here in the '90s. If you really study Florida, that's how you're evaluated."

Leak finally has taken the Gators to Atlanta, but he still must close the deal.

His last chance at a conference title comes Saturday when Florida (11-1) faces Arkansas (10-2) in the SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome (7 p.m., CBS).

"That's one of the reasons I came here, to win championships," Leak said. "You come here to compete for them. Just to get one under your belt - especially your senior year - it would be a great feeling. It would be a great way to finish off your senior year."

As the fourth-ranked team in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings, the Gators might not have to settle for a mere SEC championship. If UCLA upsets No. 2 Southern California and Florida beats No. 9 Arkansas convincingly, the Gators have an outside chance of leapfrogging No. 3 Michigan and earning the right to face Ohio State in the BCS championship game Jan. 8 at Glendale, Ariz.

Although the defense has carried Florida to title contention, Leak also has played a major role in the Gators' success.

He rallied Florida from a 10-point deficit to beat Tennessee in an early season game and led a fourth-quarter comeback against South Carolina three weeks ago. Leak struck again last week with a tiebreaking 25-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Baker in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 triumph over Florida State.

"He has an arm that's going 100 mph," Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson said. "He's very accurate. He knows where he wants to throw it."

Leak has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards with 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions this year, but his contributions have gone beyond his statistics.

The fourth-year starter also has shed his soft-spoken ways to emerge as more of a team leader.

"So much of playing quarterback, at least in our opinion, is you're the manager," Meyer said. "You're the coach on the field. You're the director. You've got to get guys lined up. You've got to make sure the offensive line is getting to the line of scrimmage. You've got to take control. You've got to come up with suggestions. You're the guy out there pulling the trigger. Chris came up to me and made suggestions. He never did that before."

That new attitude has impressed his teammates and helps explain why Florida's defensive players have never lost faith in the offense, even though the Gators haven't scored more than 28 points in any SEC games this year.

"Chris has changed a lot," Florida defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. "He's more outspoken now. He really gives his opinion on things. He's more of a leader now. In the past, Chris was kind of quiet about stuff, but he got out of that little shell. Him being more vocal has really helped the team. When a quarterback can speak up and is saying a lot of things, it gives a team confidence."

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The other starting quarterback in this game insists he hasn't lost any confidence despite playing poorly in the Razorbacks' 31-26 loss to Louisiana State last week.

Arkansas sophomore Casey Dick went 3-of-17 for 29 yards against LSU. The Razorbacks wasted a brilliant performance from Heisman Trophy candidate Darren McFadden, who rushed for 182 yards against LSU to bring his SEC-leading season total to 1,485.

The matchup between Arkansas' potent rushing attack and Florida's fifth-ranked run defense has received most of the attention this week, but the Razorbacks won't beat the Gators without a better performance from their quarterback.

"That was probably the worst game I've ever played, to be honest," Dick said. "We'll get things corrected. Come Saturday, we'll be a different ball team."

These two teams have much in common.

Both find unconventional ways of getting their best players the ball. Florida compensates for its lack of tailback production by giving carries to talented freshman quarterback Tim Tebow and wideout Percy Harvin. Arkansas often lines up McFadden at quarterback in its now-famous "Wildcat'' formation.

In at least one respect, however, these teams aren't alike at all.

Florida considers this trip to the SEC championship game long overdue after winning division titles almost annually in the 1990s. Arkansas has never won an SEC championship game and emerged as one of the nation's biggest surprises this year after enduring back-to-back losing seasons.

"It'd be big to bring (the title) back to Fayetteville," Anderson said. "The whole state would be excited because of this. We have a lot to prove this weekend."

So does Leak.

SEC Game of the Week: Arkansas vs. Florida
Arkansas running game vs. Florida run defense: Florida boasts the nation's fifth-ranked run defense and has allowed just 2.7 yards per carry, but the Gators haven't faced a rushing attack that even approaches Arkansas' productivity. McFadden leads the SEC with 1,485 rushing yards, while Felix Jones averages an astounding 7.6 yards per carry. McFadden and Jones combined for 319 rushing yards last week against an LSU defense that ranks among the nation's best. The Gators have an outstanding front four, but this is a game in which they really could use Marcus Thomas. The exceptional defensive tackle was kicked off the team a month ago. Edge: Arkansas.
Arkansas passing game vs. Florida pass defense: Arkansas has run the ball so well this year that it has masked the deficiencies in its passing game. However, the Razorbacks discovered last week you at least need some semblance of an aerial attack to beat high-caliber teams. McFadden actually had more passing yards than Dick in that game. The only Arkansas player with more than 19 receptions is Marcus Monk, who has caught 46 passes for 880 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Florida's ball-hawking secondary includes Thorpe Award finalist Reggie Nelson and cornerback Ryan Smith, who have combined for 12 interceptions. Edge: Florida.
Florida running game vs. Arkansas run defense: Florida coach Urban Meyer said at the start of the week that leading rusher DeShawn Wynn was questionable for Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, but the junior tailback practiced Wednesday. The Gators need Wynn (123 carries, 632 yards) because he's their only tailback with more than 250 rushing yards this season. The lack of a dominant runner has caused the Gators to give plenty of carries to non-tailbacks such as Harvin (30-301) and Tebow (71-399). Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajubutu and defensive tackle Keith Jackson Jr. are two of the main forces in a front seven that has allowed 3.5 yards per carry. Edge: Arkansas.
Florida passing game vs. Arkansas pass defense: Leak has recovered from a midseason lull and sparked the Gators in the fourth quarter of victories over South Carolina and Florida State two of the last three weeks. Leak benefits from a talent-laden receiving corps that includes Baker (54 catches, 872 yards), Andre Caldwell (52-540), Jemalle Cornelius (29-473) and Harvin (20-305). Arkansas has one of the SEC's best cornerbacks in Chris Houston, but do the Razorbacks have enough quality defensive backs to cover all the Gators' receivers? Florida's injury-riddled offensive line must watch out for Anderson, who leads the SEC with 11 sacks. Edge: Florida.
Arkansas kicking game vs. Florida kicking game: Arkansas' Jeremy Davis is only 6-of-11 on field-goal attempts this season, but that still should make him the best kicker on the field Saturday. Florida's Chris Hetland is just 3-of-12 on field goals and has struggled so badly that Gators coach Urban Meyer put the kicking job up for grabs this week. Florida's Eric Wilbur averages 42.9 yards per punt, while Arkansas' Jacob Skinner averages 38.5 yards per attempt. McFadden and Jones have both returned kickoffs for touchdowns this season, while Florida's Brandon James is one of the SEC's top punt returners. Edge: Arkansas.
Arkansas coaches vs. Florida coaches: Perhaps no staff has enjoyed as great a season as Houston Nutt's crew at Arkansas. Nutt has gone from the hot seat to Coach of the Year candidate. Former high school coach Gus Malzahn has confused SEC defenses all year with his creativity in getting the ball in the hands of Arkansas' best players. Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring is a finalist for the Broyles Award that goes to the nation's top assistant coach. Yet I still find myself leaning toward Florida's staff in this matchup because of Meyer's track record. Meyer already has posted an undefeated season at Utah and owns an impressive 7-3 mark against ranked foes while at Florida. Edge: Florida.
Arkansas will win if: If the Razorbacks managed to run the ball against LSU, they should be able to run it effectively against Florida as well. But the LSU game also proved that Arkansas must have at least the threat of a passing attack to beat the SEC's top teams. Arkansas probably will need to throw for about 100 yards to win this game.
Florida win will if: Both of these teams love the big play. Arkansas has put together 26 scoring drives that lasted five or fewer plays, a figure that ranks behind only Hawaii among all Division I-A teams. Florida has 69 plays that have gained at least 20 yards this season. If the Gators have more big plays than Arkansas, they should win the game.
X-factor: Florida's kicking situation. The Gators have to hope this game doesn't come down to whether they can make a field goal in the final minute. If so, they'll be depending on a kicker who has made 25 percent of his field-goal attempts or someone who had just won the job earlier in the week. It will be interesting to see if Florida's kicking woes affect the Gators' strategy Saturday. If the Gators are facing fourth down from Arkansas' 20- or 30-yard line, will they bother trying a field goal or will they go for the first down?
Notes: Florida is making its eighth SEC championship game appearance, more than any other school. The Gators own a conference-high five SEC championship game victories. Arkansas is making its third SEC championship game appearance. The Razorbacks lost 34-3 to Florida in 1995 and 30-3 to Georgia in 2002. Florida owns the nation's toughest schedule based on the records of each of its opponents. Florida's opponents own a combined record of 81-45. Arkansas has the 45th toughest schedule by that measure. Its opponents own a combined record of 70-55. Florida owns an all-time record of 5-1 against Arkansas. The Razorbacks' only victory in this series came in the 1982 Bluebonnet Bowl. McFadden and Jones are the second-most productive rushing tandem in the nation with 203.8 rushing yards per game. West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White average 245 rushing yards per game. ... Jones needs 39 more yards to reach 1,000 for the season. That would give Arkansas two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time in school history. Arkansas has allowed only eight sacks all season to lead the nation in that category. Tebow is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, which is the second-highest of all quarterbacks in the nation. West Virginia's White averages 7.5 yards per carry. Smith and Nelson have combined for more interceptions than any pair of teammates in the nation.
Megargee's pick: Arkansas 27-21
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Arkansas, 24-21
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Florida 21-20
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Florida 17-16
Make your picks on Rivals.com Pick 'Em.

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