ATLANTA – Early Friday afternoon, more than a day before No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama would clash down the street at the Georgia Dome, Kirk Herbstreit was knocking out segments for ESPN's myriad platforms.
He was sitting on the set of "College GameDay," with crowds clad in crimson or blue gathering on the periphery – security keeps them out of the camera shot. Across Centennial Park here, someone was blasting the Alabama fight song, full throttle.
We're far from the typical rowdy campus environs that a College GameDay appearance stamps as home of a big game, yet the significance of the pending matchup was palpable amid the downtown skyscrapers.
The game technically is for the SEC championship, but it's being dubbed a national semifinal game – the winner all but assured a spot in BCS title game next month in Pasadena, Calif. Around here the one thing fans of both teams agree on is that this might as well be for the national title. After all, the SEC champ has won the last three BCS crowns.
For Herbstreit and millions of college fans it also serves as the return of the big game. This has been a bizarre and quiet season – lacking the traditional run of upsets, poll jostling and must-see games. Instead we've seen blowouts, referee controversies and speculation about the Notre Dame coaching job, not exactly riveting storylines.
Just two weeks ago, the top nine teams in the BCS standings were three touchdown-plus favorites or enjoying a late bye week.
The sport has been starved for something interesting to happen.
So this – Gators and Tide, 1 vs. 2 – is a reminder of what makes college football so great.
"I kind of equate it to Christmas Eve," Herbstreit said. "Every year I've been on [GameDay] there have been upsets in September, October and November; it's been kind of a revolving door.
"[This season] has been a lot of ho-hum kind of matchups," he continued. "We [haven't] had the great, intriguing, dramatic matchups. We've been treading water almost for the last five or six weeks.
"So you finally get here, it's like, 'OK, now we're going to find out about Alabama and Florida.' "
The game's been pointed to for 12 months, a potential rematch of last year's SEC title game won by Florida.
It became obvious these were the two best teams in the conference on Oct. 10, when Florida knocked off LSU and Alabama dominated Ole Miss. Since then everyone's been biding their time and avoiding upsets – even the usually conservative coaches, Florida's Urban Meyer and Alabama's Nick Saban, have admitted to thinking a little ahead.
The past two seasons, the teams have a combined record of 48-2 against the rest of the country, including a perfect 24-0 this year. Each boasts a Heisman candidate in Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and Tide running back Mark Ingram. The coaches are icons. The programs are historic. And the SEC has proven through the years to be the best conference in America.
"In this moment in time, that's the way it is," Saban said.
No wonder CBS expects double-digit ratings for the 4 p.m. ET kickoff Saturday.
If nothing else college fans should flock to the television because they've been waiting months for just this kind of game.
It's been a weird season, with the super teams spread out nationally. Only the SEC has two of the six premier, unbeaten clubs (UF, Bama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati and Boise State). As such, the top six haven't played each other and have proved so much better than anyone in their leagues that the challenges have been minimal.
That might have been expected for No. 6 Boise in the Western Athletic Conference, but not for No. 3 Texas in the usually mighty Big 12. Just a year ago the conference offered up a weekly clash between national contenders Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. This year, it's been dullsville.
Compounding the unlikely circumstance, there is the unintended consequence of the BCS. The system rewards record above all, which severely has cut the number of strong nonconference games. With little incentive to schedule tough, programs have chosen cupcakes instead.
Only one of the six unbeatens has a victory against anyone else in the top 10 – Boise over No. 7 Oregon way back on the opening night of the season.
This is one season when every week hasn't been a playoff.
At least, however, the season will end with a bang. Two powerhouse teams, with tons of talent playing a high-stakes, winner-take-all game.
It's college football again.
It's why fans were pouring into Atlanta all afternoon, driving around waving flags, screaming slogans and admitting quietly that they're as nervous as can be about the game. In some ways, the nerves are worse when you've had almost two months to think about the game.
"I'm shaking my leg right now," Saban said, although with the caveat that he gets just as nervous before every game, like the one two weeks ago against Chattanooga.
No one believes that, though.
The Big Game is here; you can feel it in the air.
- Kirk Herbstreit
- College GameDay