Gators confident despite tall task against Alabama
Kyle Trask is one of just five players from the last Florida football team that made it to the SEC Championship Game.
For the past four years, he’s worn the same backpack from that game as motivation to return.
“It says ‘2016’ on it,” Trask said. “It’s getting a little beat up, I'm not going to lie. Luckily we got the chance to go back this year. It can finally get replaced.
“I always told myself I'm not going to switch backpacks until we get back here.”
The No. 7 Gators (8-2) are back to Atlanta on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, CBS) against top-ranked Alabama (10-0), which has won the SEC just once (2018) since that 2016 victory over UF.
This time around, Trask is looking to bring more than a backpack home. He can deliver Florida its first conference title since 2008 and hand the Tide their first loss to an SEC East team since 2010 (at South Carolina against Steve Spurrier).
“It was a great team that made it to the SEC championship in 2016. We just didn't end up getting the win, needed to execute better,” said Trask, a true freshman that season. “This team right now is just so explosive. We're going to put our best foot forward and try to get this SEC title for the University of Florida.”
If that happens, Trask might need to clear out some shelf space at his place.
In addition to the SEC crown, the Heisman Trophy will likely be decided in Atlanta as well. The game features two elite quarterbacks in Trask and Alabama’s Mac Jones, both of whom are considered frontrunners for college football's most prestigious award.
“It’s a matchup against two great teams with two great quarterbacks,” Jones said of facing Trask. “He'll probably tell you the same thing: it's about everybody else, it's not just about the quarterbacks.”
Both offenses, which led the league in several statistical categories, have dynamic playmakers at the skill positions. Gators star tight end Kyle Pitts is expected to play after sitting out against LSU, a game in which wide receiver Kadarius Toney recorded a career-high 249 all-purpose yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said having to play Florida will be the “ultimate challenge” for his defensive unit, which has made significant strides in recent weeks but hasn’t played an offense of this caliber.
“Florida is a very challenging team,” Saban said. “They're the No. 1 passing offense in the nation. They've got some great skill guys. Quarterback Kyle Trask does a fantastic job. Kadarius Toney is a mismatch player with 62 receptions. Pitts is a tough mismatch player.
“I think what Dan does is he really utilizes his personnel well, moves people around, tries to create mismatches with formations and motions and shifts. Makes it difficult for the defense to adjust. ... I think he's probably one of the best play callers in the country.”
Like Saban, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his hands full against Alabama’s offense. The Tide are No. 1 in the SEC in total offense, yards per play, passing efficiency and scoring offense, averaging 53 points in their last four games.
“I think they're one of the most dynamic offenses that I've had the opportunity to face,” Grantham said. “I would fit this one in with LSU last year. I think there's a lot of things that make them very productive. They can win games a lot of different ways.”
In addition to Jones, Alabama boasts the nation’s leading wide receiver DeVonta Smith (1,327 yards) and one of the best FBS backs in Najee Harris. He ranks first nationally with 22 rushing touchdowns, but was held to 46 yards rushing on 14 carries in his last outing against Arkansas.
Florida faces a tall task in trying to limit their production, especially big plays by Smith, though linebacker James Houston is confident in Grantham’s game plan.
“We got some schemes in there to kind of stop both those two guys,” Houston said of Harris and Smith. “They're the majority of their offense, 22 and 6, so we've got a couple of things in place to kind of slow them down a little bit.
“They got other dudes as well on offense that we prepare for and that we're ready to adjust to if they start making plays as well. … We’re not too much focused on what their ability is, but where our ability is to stop them.”
Can Florida’s defense make enough stops Saturday? That will likely decide the game, because Trask & Co. should be able to keep pace with the Tide’s scoring output. Alabama is favored by 17.5 points, but the Gators don’t consider themselves underdogs in this matchup.
“I’ve never really gone into a game thinking this team is much more talented or this player is much better than me,” Houston said. “I know what I got. I know what we got. And I think we can go whip your butt.
“We got playmakers that can match up with them. Alabama, they get five-stars and whatnot. But I mean, we get five stars, we get four stars, we get three stars that play like five stars. Now let’s go show it.”
Multiple UF players echoed Houston’s comments, such as linebacker Ventrell Miller and receiver Trevon Grimes, and it’s clear this team isn’t lacking confidence despite their loss to LSU. With oddsmakers counting them against Alabama, the Gators have a chip on their shoulder and one final shot to make their case for the College Football Playoff.
“They got a lot of talent. There's a reason they're the No. 1 team in the country,” Mullen said of the Tide. “Our guys think they're pretty good players, too. Our guys are competitors. These guys have worked for this opportunity. They want the opportunity to go play on this stage.
"Our guys responded well to that A&M game. Now it will be interesting to see how we respond to this one with the opportunity to play in the SEC championship. I will say I think the energy level of practice is the highest it's been in quite a while this week. I think that's just the excitement the guys have for the opportunity to go play in this game.”
What: SEC Championship Game
Who: No. 1 Alabama (10-0) vs. No. 7 Florida (8-2)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850