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Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Florida head coach Jim McElwain pose for a photo with the trophy at the press conference for the Southeastern Conference Championship NCAA college football game, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
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Mark Wiedmer

ATLANTA — In late January of 2008, Alabama football coach Nick Saban thought he'd handed the opportunity of a lifetime to Jim McElwain.

"He was the offensive coordinator at Fresno State and I was offering him the offensive coordinator's job at Alabama," Saban said during the Southeastern Conference championship game coaches' luncheon Friday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency. "What's there to think about, right? Well, it took me three days to talk him into it."

Countered McElwain with a wide grin: "It took me three days to realize it wasn't a buddy of mine in Montana busting my chops."

This is the light-hearted side of today's SEC title game, which will play out for the 23rd consecutive year inside the Georgia Dome and the 25th straight season overall.

And if both men may secretly believe that Friday's 24-point spread favoring the top-ranked Crimson Tide is about right — "There's only been a couple times so far that I've become violently ill watching (Alabama tape)," McElwain joked earlier in the week — they also both know anything can happen in a single game.

"Regardless of the success we've had this season, the legacy for this team lies in what they do ahead, in this next game and any opportunity they get to play beyond that," Saban said during Friday's news conference.

"That's how this team will get remembered. If Florida wins the championship, then that's what they'll get remembered for. Our players will have to, whether it's next year, two years from now, five years from now, whenever they tell their kids they'll have to say, 'We went undefeated, but we lost the SEC championship game.'"

Yet despite that remote possibility — Florida was a double-digit underdog at LSU two weeks ago and won to claim the SEC East — there seems little doubt that McElwain and Saban have maintained a close friendship long after McElwain left the Tide following the 2011 season to become the Colorado State head coach. He took the Florida job two seasons ago.

"If it wasn't for (Saban) taking a chance on some kid from Montana, I wouldn't be where I am today," said the 54-year-old McElwain, who grew up in Missoula.

Said Saban to McElwain when he left the Tide for Colorado State after helping Bama win it all in 2009 and 2011: "Whatever you do, you've got to be who you are when you do it."

McElwain is different. While he wore a conservative gray suit, white dress shirt and orange-and-blue striped tie to the luncheon, he also showed up without socks.

For as much as he talks to his team about "having an opportunity to be great," he also instructs them "to have a great time doing it."

Counter this with a clip of Saban in preseason camp grousing during a drill, "This is why you get beat. Don't talk about it. DO IT!"

Of course, all of this comes as these two terrific programs — this is their ninth meeting in the SEC title game, including the first three games in 1992, 1993 and 1994 as well as a repeat of last year's matchup — close out the Georgia Dome's magnificent run, which began with Florida's 24-23 win in 1994, still one of the top two or three games in the event's first 24 seasons.

"(The SEC title game) set the SEC apart," said McElwain, who was an Eastern Washington assistant during the game's early years. "It brought into focus what the best conference is. You're in the hub of college football. That's what the South is. That's what the SEC is."

Saban's introduction to the game was more intimate. Though Tennessee fans won't recall it with much joy, Saban brought his second LSU squad to the Dome to face the No. 2 Vols, who had just upset Florida in Gainesville.

"I don't know how we even got in the game," Saban recalled Friday of that three-loss team, one of those defeats coming in Knoxville.

"And Tennessee was a great team. Well, we get down 14-nothing, then we have a fourth-and-inches on our own 29. In one of the dumbest things I've ever done as a coach, I go for it and we don't make it. Somehow we win, but I can't get over that call. I couldn't believe I could make such a dumb call. Right about then, our seniors pull me aside in the locker room and say to me, 'When you went for it on fourth down, that's when we thought that you thought we could win the game.' I'll remember that for the rest of my life."

McElwain and Saban seem as if they'll remember coaching together for the rest of their lives.

When the Florida coach listed all the things his Gators must do to be competitive today, Saban smiled and said, "His musts are the same as our musts."

Hearing that, McElwain said, "And you thought I never listened (as a Tide assistant)."

To which Saban responded, "I did accuse you of that a couple of times."

And when McElwain answered a question about his wife Karen by replying, "The true head coach of the Florida Gators is my wife," Saban fired back, "So that was my true offensive coordinator at Alabama. She did make some great calls."

All kidding aside, calling this one seems easy. Make it Bama 31, Florida 6.

But whatever the outcome, coaches everywhere would do well to listen closely to McElwain's favorite memory of last year's titlle-game loss to Bama.

"Just to see our guys walk into the Georgia Dome during last year's walk-through," he said. "The look in their eyes. The joy in their hearts. They'd made it."

No matter what happens today, that's a feeling six other SEC East teams will never experience this 2016 football season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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