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SEC Championship Preview: Alabama’s ready to retake the crown

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Though Alabama already has 23 SEC championships, the next one is always the most significant.

The Crimson Tide is no stranger to playing in high profile games. With a fan base that is unsatisfied with anything short of a national championship, every game carries a lot of weight. So in some ways, this Saturday’s SEC Championship contest against Missouri is no different than any other weekend Tide players put on the Crimson and White — it’s a must-win.

“(P)laying in this league, you play in a lot of big games and this is just another one of them,” said Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones. “It just so happens this just has more stakes on the table… But you can’t let it overtake your mind. You’ve just got to approach it like any other game.”

But no matter how much the preparation stays the same, for many players — especially the ones with less experience — it’s hard not to feel the anticipation and excitement build as the goal of a dream season inches closer to becoming a reality.

“I think everybody understands the magnitude of the game, I think everybody understands the consequences of the game one way or the other,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

But outside of that, Saban is sick of talking about it and ready to get his team on the field in Atlanta.

“You know, I’ve been getting asked that question ever since we started playing SEC games,” Saban said. “When we played Florida, ‘What’s the magnitude of this game? How big of a game is this?’ Then the Ole Miss game, ‘How big of a game was that?

“Every game we’ve played all year it’s the same question, so I’ve got the same answer: It’s the most important game because it’s the next game. And it’s the next game that has an importance because of what the players have created for themselves, and they’ve created a great opportunity to play against a great Missouri team.”

While Saban respectfully refers to Missouri as “great,” Alabama shouldn’t have any problems with the Tigers. They may have won the SEC East this season, but they also lost at home to a 4-8 Indiana team and were on the wrong side of a 34-0 blowout against Georgia.

The Tigers’ offense is operated by dynamic quarterback Maty Mauk, who has the ability to do some damage with his legs, but it lacks the firepower of many of the other teams Alabama has played. It even lacks the star power of last year’s SEC East champion Missouri squad. 2013 standouts like wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, running back Henry Josey, defensive linemen Kony Ealy and 2013 co-SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam are all no longer on the team.

Mizzou does, however, have a solid front seven who excel in the pass rush. But if Alabama can protect quarterback Blake Sims, the Crimson Tide should win handily and with a lot less drama than in recent weeks.

Alabama should also get the majority of its players back from injury, with the exception of linebacker Denzel Devall, who has only just returned to practice after weeks of recovering from an ankle surgery.

The one concern is that the Crimson Tide have sometimes played poorly away from Bryant-Denny stadium this season, and have a tendency to get off to a poor start. Even in the Georgia Dome — a neutral site — in Week 1, the team started slowly before finishing well.

This team has grown into something special over the course of the season, though, and with its second trip to the Georgia Dome this year, appears to be ready to claim its spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

“I think the team has great resiliency, I think they have great competitive character, and I think that probably starts with the leadership on the team,” Saban said. “Sometimes when the chips are down, it’s brought out the best in all these guys.”

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