Alabama outduels Florida for 29th SEC Championship

The Florida Gators spent the entire offseason dreaming of payback against the Georgia Bulldogs, who had beaten them three straight years. The Gators realized that dream— but then they learned just how far they still have to go.

Mac Jones threw for 418 yards and five touchdowns, Najee Harris added 178 yards and a pair of scored on the ground and Alabama outgunned Florida, 52-46, in the SEC Championship Game. It’s the Crimson Tide’s seventh straight win over Florida, with four of them coming in SEC Title Games. The win also upwardly adjusts Alabama’s all time advantage over Florida in the SEC Title Game to 6-4.

With the victory, Alabama all but locks up the #1 seed in next week’s College Football Playoff. Florida, ranked #7 coming into the game, will settle for its third straight New Year’s Six Bowl appearance, likely either right back in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati or in Dallas to face Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

The game was billed as a clash of offensive juggernauts, and it more than lived up to that billing. The two teams combined for well over a thousand yards and 98 points— the second most in SEC Championship Game history. But Alabama scored first, early and often, and never trailed en route to their 29th SEC Title.

That’s not to say Florida didn’t have its chances.

Alabama scored first, but Florida came right back with a 51 yard strike from Kyle Trask (who finished with 408 yards of his own) to Kadarius Toney. The Crimson Tide was driving to take the lead on its next possession when Jones threw an interception to Trey Dean. But on the return, Dean was popped by John Metchie and the ball came out. Alabama receiver Devonta Smith recovered, and moments later Jones hit Smith for the score.

The Tide appeared to put some real distance between themselves and the Gators the rest of the first half with three straight touchdown drives in the second quarter, each of which covered 70 yards or more, whereas all Florida could muster was a short TD run from Trask. Along the way, Trask overthrew an open Kyle Pitts on what could have been a huge play, and Florida’s defense got a third down stop… only to give Alabama a free first down on a hands-to-the-face penalty on Zach Carter. That all staked the Tidesmen a 35-17 lead at the break.

To its credit, Florida came out swinging in the third quarter. Trask lobbed a bomb to Trevon Grimes that went for 50 yards and a touchdown to cut the deficit down to 35-24, and the Gator defense began making stops. First, Florida stopped Alabama on downs when Kaiir Elam dragged down Smith short of the sticks on a crossing pattern; the Gators couldn’t score to draw any closer and had to punt, but then Florida’s defense stopped Jones and the Bama offense again and forced a punt. And this time, Florida could move the ball, as Trask directed a 12 play, 80 yard touchdown drive that ended with NayQuan Wright punching it in to close within four.

That set the stage for a wild fourth quarter in which both teams traded blows, but Alabama always remained a step ahead. The Tide drove 75 yards on ten plays and returned its lead to eleven points. Florida appeared in big trouble when Trask was strip sacked by Will Anderson and Alabama’s Tim Smith fell on it. But Florida’s defense again stiffened and forced a field goal. Sensing its last chance, Florida then drove the length of the field on nine plays, setting up a short Dameon Pierce touchdown run to cut the lead to 45-38.

Back came Alabama with a fifteen yard scoring strike to Smith, who cut inside of an overly generous cushion against Marco Wilson and trotted in for the score. Now with zero margin for error, Trask guided Florida down the field once more, finding Pitts for a 22 yard touchdown strike— and then punched it in himself on the two point conversion to draw Florida within 52-46. But that two point conversion came at a heavy price. Mullen was forced to burn a timeout to avoid a delay of game, as Florida couldn’t get lined up in time to run it.

And having burned another timeout on that drive, the Gators were left with just one when the onside kick failed and two minutes showing on the clock. Florida did force a punt to turn the ball back over to Trask with one final shot, but he was blitzkrieged by linebacker Christian Harris with ten seconds left to seal the Gators’ fate. And thus, the championship hopes of one of the greatest offenses to ever play at Florida were no more.

On the whole, the Gators had nothing to be ashamed of. The offense stood toe to toe with the presumptive favorite to win the national championship, and the defense— despite clear handicaps and limitations— shook off a horrid first half to play respectably in the second half. Those are signs of strength that will be pointed to this offseason as the benchmarks to match and exceed in order to reach that championship level that Dan Mullen preached about in his introductory press conference just over three years ago.

But this team was ultimately doomed and defined by its weaknesses, namely Wilson (who gave up the killer late touchdown), Jean DeLance (who got baked on the costly strip sack) and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s ill-fated scheme. And on a larger scale, this team was defined by Mullen’s failure to remove them from positions of power, where their actions had negative consequences on the team. It was, in one form or another, Mullen’s unwarranted loyalty to those people that allowed them to continue to not get their respective jobs done.

And it’s what Dan Mullen does to address this that will ultimately define how the rest of his tenure will play out in Gainesville.