Alabama stops Florida next up Miami?


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It had happened all year, and even

yesterday, despite it being late in the fourth quarter, one knew Alabama's defense would make a play that would change the game.

Call it Team Destiny, or simply call it luck, but No. 2 Alabama seems to have a New Year's Day date with No. 1 Miami in the Sugar Bowl to decide college football's national championship.

Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham stepped in front of a Shane Matthews pass intended for receiver Monty Duncan and returned it 27 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown with 3:16 left in the game as the Crimson Tide defeated No. 12 Florida, 28-21, in the first Southeastern Conference championship game before 83,091 at Legion Field.

If Alabama stays ahead of No. 3 Florida State in today's final regular-season Associated Press college football poll, the Tide (12-0) will play Miami (11-0) for the national title.

But if Florida State (10-1) passes Alabama and moves up to No. 2, the Seminoles would play Miami in the Fiesta Bowl and the Tide probably would play No. 5 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The vote could be close because voters may compare Alabama's narrow win over Florida with Florida State's 45-24 rout of the Gators last week.

"We saw the interception coming, it was just the big play waiting to happen," said Errict Rhett, Florida's running back.

Alabama's linebacker Michael Rogers also picked off a Matthews pass with 2:54 left at the Florida 48 to put the game out of reach.

"The matchup with Miami is the game we've been waiting for," said Gene Stallings, the Alabama coach. "It will be another great matchup for our defense going against Miami."

"You play 12 games and by the end of them, you hope you have won enough to get into a shot for the national championship," said Langham. "Before the game, we knew we were 60 minutes away. Now, we're there."

It was Alabama's defense that put them in the national championship picture. Before last night's game the Crimson Tide led the nation in total defense (183 yards per game), scoring defense (8.0), rushing defense (57.27) and passing defense (215.9).

Florida's Fun-and-Gun offense was effective against the Crimson Tide, racking up 317 yards of total offense. But not even the Gators (8-4, 6-3 SEC), who appear headed to a Gator Bowl showdown with North Carolina State, could stop Alabama's defense from making a big play.

"It wasn't all Shane's fault, the receiver let the defender step in front of him," said Steve Spurrier, whose team was the defending SEC champion. "In that situation, our receiver has to be aggressive and block out the defensive back. We felt that going into the game that if we could've gotten 21 that might have been enough. It wasn't just disappointing to get beat, but it is a disappointing way to get beat."

Langham, who intercepted a pass and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown against Auburn last week, said: "We went into zone coverage and I'm supposed to go into the flat. They had run that route all day, and I was supposed to backpedal. This time I squatted, eased in behind the receiver. I then stepped in front of him, the ball hit me in the hands and it was history after that."

Alabama also had another great defensive series in the quarter. Florida had tied the score at 21-21 with 8:09 left in the game when Rhett made a great cutback on a toss left and went in for the touchdown from a yard out.

Florida, getting two sacks, stuffed Alabama's offense on the Crimson Tide's next possession and Florida took over at the Alabama 40 with 6:15 left in the game.

But on first down, Alabama got enough pressure on Matthews to force him to underthrow tight end Greg Keller at the 30. A draw to Rhett gained only two yards and linebacker John Walters pressured Matthews to throw out of bounds on third down.

"I thought they would at least get a field goal out of that," said Stallings. "We had three series late in the game where our punter hit kicks of about 15, 15 and 17 yards. That put a lot of pressure on our defense, but they've been coming up with the big play all year."

Florida started out great and so did Matthews. The Gators used a three- to five-step drop, and Matthews peppered Alabama with short passes.

In an 11-play, 77-yard drive, Matthews connected on passes of 6, 14, 6, 17, 13 and 5 yards. The last one was a shuffle pass to Rhett for a touchdown that gave Florida a 7-0 lead with 10:03 left in the first period.

But Alabama loaded up its run-oriented offense on the ensuing ** series. Crimson Tide running back Derrick Lassic (117 yards rushing) spinned and weaved for 47 yards on seven carries in a 10-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. Lassic finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run up the middle to tie the score at 7 with 5:07 left in the first quarter.

Midway through the second quarter, Alabama struck again. Jay Barker caught Florida in a blitz and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to split end Curtis Brown with 4:49 left in the half for a 14-7 lead.

Alabama seemed to be on the verge of blowing the game opened when Lassic ran off the right side for a 15-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 5:14 left in the third period.

But Florida wouldn't quit. The Gators answered with a nine-play, 68-yard touchdown drive led by Rhett, who had shuffle-pass receptions of 12, 15 and 6 yards during the drive. Then on second-and-four from the 4, Matthews completed a slant in to receiver Willie Jackson that made it 21-14 with 1:21 left in the third quarter.

Alabama 7 7 7 7 -- 28

Florida 7 0 7 7 -- 21

Probable New Year's Day bowl matchups

+!Bowl/.. .. .. .. .. .... ..Site

Payment.. .. Time.. .... ...TV.. .. .. .. .. .. ...Opponents

Hall of Fame.. .. .. .. ..Tampa, Fla... ..No. 16 Boston College

$1 million.. .11 a.m... ..ESPN.. .. .. .. .vs. No. 17 Tennessee

Cotton.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Dallas.. .. .. .. .. .No. 4 Texas A&M;

$3 million.. .1 p.m... ..Chs. 2, 4 .. .. .. .vs. No. 3 Florida State

Citrus.. .. .. .. .. .. .Orlando, Fla... .. .. .No. 15 Ohio State

$2 million.. .1 p.m... .. Chs. 13, 7.. .. .. .. vs. No. 8 Georgia

Blockbuster.. .. .. .. .. Miami.. .. .. .. .. ..No. 21 Penn State

$1.525 million. 1:30 p.m... Chs. 11, 9.. .. .. .vs. No. 14 Stanford

Fiesta.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Tempe, Ariz... .. .. .. .. .No. 6 Syracuse

$3 million.. .. 4:30 p.m....Chs. 2, 4.. .. .. .. .vs. No. 9 Colorado

Rose.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Pasadena, Calif... .. .. .. No. 7 Michigan

$6.5 million.. .4:45 p.m... Chs. 13, 7.. .. .. ..vs. No. 10 Washington

Orange.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Miami.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .No. 11 Nebraska

$4.2 million.. .8 p.m. .. .Chs. 2, 4.. .. .. .. .. .vs No. 5 Notre Dame

Sugar.. .. .. .. .. .. ..New Orleans.. .. .. .. .. .. ... No. 2 Alabama

$3.8 million..8:30 p.m... Chs. 13, 7.. .. .. .. .. .. ..vs. No. 1 Miami

Payments are per team.

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