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Tide, Gators defensive stars take center stage as SEC title game nears

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Alabama's Rolando McClain and Florida's Brandon Spikes have more in common than they know.

They played as freshmen, started every game as sophomores and had to be nudged into leadership roles as juniors. They are finalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to college football's top linebacker, for the second straight year and could be first-round NFL draft picks in April.

They are the indisputable stars of two of the best defenses in the nation.

They also could play key roles when the top-ranked Gators and No. 2 Crimson Tide meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game with a spot in the national title game at stake.

Sure, most of the focus will be on Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Alabama running back Mark Ingram, two Heisman Trophy hopefuls who have carried their teams all season. But McClain and Spikes are the ones tasked with stopping them, or at least slowing them down.

"He's our leader. As he goes, we go," Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "The leadership he brings every game, he keeps everyone pumped up and you want to play with Spikes."

Spikes' importance could be magnified. Carlos Dunlap was arrested early Tuesday and charged with driving under the influence, and coach Urban Meyer said the star pass rusher won't play Saturday.

While the Gators praise Spikes, the Crimson Tide say the same about McClain. A 6-foot-4, 258-pound junior from Decatur, Ala., McClain has 96 tackles, 11 quarterback hurries, four sacks and two interceptions this season.

That's just the stuff he does after the snap. He's even busier as opposing offenses break the huddle, line up in formation, change plays and start moving people around.

"Their linebacker, No. 25, is a very intelligent player who makes a lot of calls for their defense," Tebow said. "You can see that just from watching film. He gets them in and out of checks. They have a lot of different checks that they go based on what the offense is doing. They always try to put themselves in a good defensive play, kind of like our offense does. There could be some checks going on in the game."

During a crucial, third-down play in a tight game against Auburn last week, McClain broke the defensive huddle, lined up in his spot, walked to the line of scrimmage to talk to a teammate, then crept back into position and started waving his right hand. He went back to the line, put a hand on Lorenzo Washington's backside as he told him something and then turned around and moved cornerback Ali Sharief farther right.

The Tide stopped the Tigers for a 2-yard loss.

"No. 25 is a guy that runs the show," Meyer said, summing up McClain's role as well as anyone. "They have checks for everything. They show pressure from here, you change the formation and they come from the other side."

Although McClain has always had a knack for getting his teammates aligned properly, helping keep them focused and motivated was another story. Until this year.

"I've been making calls and checks on the defense as soon as I got here," McClain said. "But leadership-wise, I've been a leader. I've just been accustomed to leading by example more than being vocal. For the most part this year, I've been a real vocal leader.

"It's something that coach Saban needed. He needed me to step up, so I did it for the betterment of my team."

Alabama and Florida rank near the top of every major defensive category in the nation. Scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense, the Tide and Gators dominate them all. And McClain and Spikes are big reasons why.

Spikes, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior from Shelby N.C., has 53 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions this season. He missed time early because of an Achilles' tendon injury and sat out most of two games because of a strained groin. His importance was obvious when he played only a series against Arkansas on Oct. 17.

With Spikes in the game, the Razorbacks lost 8 yards. Without him, they ran for 141 yards, threw for 224 more and nearly shocked the Gators in Gainesville.

"He's big, he's fast, he's very athletic and he's very instinctive," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He understands very well how they do what they do. He's an outstanding playmaker, but he's a physical tough guy. I think he does a good job of directing their defensive team, being the leader of their team as well as being the guy that has outstanding ability to make big plays. He makes a lot of them."

Spikes also had to be coaxed into a more vocal leadership role at Florida. Nowadays, though, there's no shutting him up. He talks trash as well as anyone on the field. He backs it up, too. And it's not always derogatory or inflaming.

"Spikes is probably the funniest player I've ever played with," safety Ahmad Black said. "Last year, with (Mississippi offensive tackle) Michael Oher, we get the biography about each player. He called him by his middle name, called him Jerome, like on the TV show 'Martin.' He used to say, 'Jerome in the house,' so Spikes was messing with him the whole time."

McClain and Spikes also are fiery players, maybe even to a fault.

McClain drew a personal foul penalty in the opener against Virginia Tech for taking an unnecessary shot on an opponent near the goal line. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was tacked on when he bumped one of the officials stepping in.

Spikes was suspended one game for his highly publicized eye-gouging incident against Georgia.

Both players apologized for their mistakes. Neither one is considered dirty. But they can be nasty, and might need to be Saturday.

"You see tons of similarities between Rolando McClain and (Spikes)," Alabama tight end Colin Peek said. "Both very big middle linebackers who are so versatile, who do a variety of things to help their defenses win one-on-one battles or just sort of will them to get a team three-and-out."