Florida gave Alabama all they wanted for 60 minutes, but fell just short in a 52-46 loss in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators stayed focused and didn’t give up after falling behind 35-17 at the half, and kept the game within one score for most of the final 20 minutes.
The first half really decided the game, as the Gators suffered from some incredibly bad luck and self-inflicted wounds that proved deadly at the end. After watching Bama march right down the field on it’s opening possession, Florida responded in kind with it’s own scoring drive ending in a long TD pass from Kyle Trask to Kedarious Toney. Toney was unstoppable the entire first half, and the Crimson Tide had no answer for him despite trying various coverages. Alabama responded with another drive into Florida territory, and this is where things started to go off the rails. Trey Dean made a terrific interception of a Mac Jones pass, ripping the ball from the intended receiver. As he ran the ball back, though, he was blindsided by a tackle and fumbled the return right back to Bama. You could just feel what would happen next, and it did. The very next play, Jones found a wide-open DeVonta Smith for a TD, and the Gator defense could never really find their footing the rest of the half. Bama stretched their lead out to 28-10, helped some more by the Gator defense with two drives extended by 3rd down penalties after Florida actually made some stops. This forced Trask to abandon the running game (which was, again, no factor), and he and his receivers fought valiantly the rest of the game. Florida scored to close the score to 28-17 with only 1 minute left until halftime, but that was too much time left for this bad Gator defense. Dan Mullen’s clock management (or lack of) really hurt, as the Gators could have run off at least 20 seconds before scoring, maybe only enough time for Bama to get into field goal range. Instead, Todd Grantham left his indelible mark on the game and his entire Florida tenure, rushing only 3 and allowing Jones all the time he wanted to pick apart a porous Gator secondary, finally hitting RB Najee Harris for a touchdown with only 6 seconds remaining. Harris was unstoppable all night behind the Crimson Tide’s NFL-equivalent O-line, racking up 5 TDs rushing and receiving. Overall the Gator defense played hard – the hardest it has all season – but playing hard doesn’t necessarily equate to playing well. Too many missed tackles, some ill-timed penalties that put them right back on the field after getting 3rd down stops, and continued busts in coverage leaving wide open targets for Jones. WR DeVonta Smith totaled 15 catches and 2 TDs of his own, possibly cementing a Heisman Trophy in the process.
Florida, to it’s credit, never gave up, and closed to 35-31 at the end of the 3rd quarter. The defense had it’s best stretch of play all season, shutting the Tide out the entire quarter. The Gator offense found it’s rhythm and unleashed Kyle Pitts as the Bama defense focused more on slowing down Toney. Sadly, the defense couldn’t maintain that level of play, and Alabama controlled the 4th quarter, always having an answer when the Gators tried to get close. On the Gators’ last scoring drive Mullen again screwed up, calling their second timeout before the 2-point conversion. I have many issues here: (1) No need to try for 2 there, as you would still need to score another touchdown to tie (or go for the win). Miss the conversion there, and the best you can do is tie. (2) Calling the time out cost Florida at least 40 seconds of game time after Bama recovered the on-side kick, so the offense would have had closer to 1 minute left instead of 20 seconds. (3) Trying the on-side kick is a very low percentage move; kick the ball away so if you’re really going to give the offense only 20 seconds to produce a miracle, at least give them the ball closer to midfield instead of inside their own 10-yard line.
Another terrific offensive performance wasted by bad defense and unnecessary self-inflicted wounds. That’s the story of the 2020 Florida Gators – what could have been.
It’s a shame that the media was fawning all over Jones during and after the game. Of course he has great numbers – look at the NFL talent around him. Now compare that to the mediocre O-line and weak running game supporting Trask, and look how he shredded the Bama defense all night and kept his team close to the number one team in the country. He had to make throws on the move and under duress many times, and also had much smaller windows to throw into. And yet he did it, just like he has all of 2020. The loss to LSU likely cost him any realistic chance to win the Heisman, but there is no more outstanding player this season than Trask. I will say that DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, and Kyle Pitts are all equally outstanding, and one of these four should win the trophy.
Florida remained 7th in the CFP rankings – massive respect for a 3-loss team. The Gators were rewarded for their good season with a 3rd straight New Year’s Six bowl, this time the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. It will be a short turnaround time of only 11 days, and I hope the team doesn’t mail in an uninspired effort and goes out in style. As of now only Pitts has opted out of the game, and I certainly understand why, as he has fought through injuries the last month of the season and will be a top 10 NFL Draft pick. I’ll be back with my preview of that game next week.