Five takeaways from SEC Championship Game: Florida can't stop Alabama

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun

ATLANTA — Trailing top-ranked Alabama by three scores at the half Saturday, No. 7 Florida rallied to make it a four-point game entering the final period. 

UF’s defense pitched a shutout in the third quarter and Kyle Trask led his unit on a pair of touchdown drives, cutting the deficit to 35-31. 

The Gators, however, couldn’t get any closer Saturday. 

The Tide took a two-score lead early in the fourth quarter, and then Trask turned it over with a sack fumble on the ensuing series. Florida held Bama to a field goal and scored two more times, but that lost possession proved costly. 

Behind monster performances from Mac Jones, Najee Harris and DeVonta Smith, Alabama (11-0) outlasted the Gators (8-3) to win the SEC title with a 52-46 victory. 

“I thought we showed a lot of character,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “We're always going to battle, fight and play for four quarters. That was an excellent football team we played, a lot of talented players on their team. Give them credit. 

“I think everybody's extremely disappointed. We wanted to win the game, expected to win the game. A little bit somber (in the locker room). It's probably the last time this team ever plays together. That's a tough deal.”

Highlight reel:The biggest plays from the SEC Championship Game

Here are five takeaways from the game:

Alabama running back Najee Harris scores a touchdown against Florida during the SEC Championship Game on Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Trask vs. Jones

In a duel between the nation’s top quarterbacks, Florida’s Kyle Trask and Alabama’s Mac Jones put on a show in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Both quarterbacks eclipsed 400 yards passing and threw multiple touchdown passes, combining for 826 yards and nine total scores. Jones put up better stats, finishing with 418 yards, five touchdowns and an interception on 33 of 43 passing. 

He tossed four scores before the break, setting the championship game record for TD passes in the first half. 

After back-to-back games with 400-plus yards passing, Trask threw for 408 yards and three scores on 26 of 40 passing. He had a one-yard rushing touchdown and picked up a few first downs with his legs, carrying the ball 10 times (excluding his five sacks).

With his 50-yard touchdown to Trevon Grimes, Trask became UF's single-season record holder for passing yards. He also tied Tua Tagovailoa for the third-most touchdown passes in a season in SEC history. 

“No one in the world gave us a damn chance. We believed in ourselves,” Trask said. “It’s just a tough loss. We worked extremely, extremely hard for this game. We prepare like no other. We were clicking on offense. We were rolling pretty good. We just ran out of time.”

Harris, Smith go off

Linebacker James Houston said during the week that he felt Florida had devised some schemes to slow down Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris.

They did not work. 

Smith recorded a career-high 15 receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns, becoming Alabama’s all-time leading receiver in career yards. He did most of his damage in the first half, finishing with 113 yards and a key 31-yard touchdown early in the game. 

Harris rebounded from a 46-yard outing against Arkansas — his second lowest output this year — with his fifth 100-yard game of the season. He rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. 

Harris also had a huge second quarter as a pass catcher, hauling in three touchdowns after entering the game with zero from the regular season. He totaled five receptions for 67 yards. 

Like Smith, Harris rewrote the Alabama record books against the Gators and became the school’s all-time leading rusher in career yards and touchdowns. 

“They were a good challenge,” Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said of Harris and Smith. “Definitely two good players in their own right. They made plays.”

So do Pitts, Toney

So do Pitts, Toney

After sitting out against LSU, UF star tight end Kyle Pitts was cleared to play Saturday and made his presence felt. 

He hauled in seven receptions for 129 yards, almost identical numbers to his last game at Tennessee (128 yards on seven catches). With his 22-yard score late in the fourth, Pitts set the SEC single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (12). 

“He's shown he's the best tight end in college football,” Mullen said of Pitts. “A dynamic play-maker all over the field. You can play him inside, play him outside, a great blocker. … He worked his tail off even to be able to play. Then he comes out and has a huge game.”

Toney posted his third-straight 100-yard game and his fourth in the last five, leading the Gators with eight receptions for 153 yards and a 51-yard touchdown. He caught three consecutive passes of 39, 8 and 27 yards on Florida’s last drive of the first half, setting up a score. 

Toney is now 16 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season. He will be the first UF receiver to hit that mark since Taylor Jacobs in 2002. 

“It was very exciting just to be here,” Toney said of playing in Atlanta. “This is my first year actually having this experience, embarking on this journey with these guys. It's kind of exciting. 

“It just didn't come out the way we wanted it to. You can look at it that way, but as far as getting to it, it was pretty neat.”

Flags on third down

Florida’s defense committed some costly penalties in the first half to keep Alabama drives alive. 

The Tide went right down the field on their opening possession, but faced a third-and-10 from the UF 29. Gators defensive tackle Marlon Dunlap jumped offsides prior to the snap, a killer flag. 

Bama barely moved the chains with Smith’s five-yard reception, which would have been well short of the sticks without the penalty. Instead of forcing a field goal attempt, UF gave up a 19-yard touchdown on the ensuing snap.

A personal foul by Florida’s Zachary Carter late in the first quarter kept Alabama’s drive alive after a third-down incompletion by Jones. He then converted three third-down attempts to start the second quarter, with the final one producing a 7-yard touchdown catch by Harris.

“They got first downs on penalties,” Mullen said. “Defensively in the first half on third down with opportunities to get off the field, we have some penalties to not get off the field.”

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UF loses turnover battle

Alabama leads the league in turnover margin, but the Gators lost the turnover battle by their own doing Saturday. 

UF safety Trey Dean III picked off Jones in the red zone on Alabama’s second series, but fumbled on the return. Jones threw a 31-yard TD to Smith on the next play.

Trask’s sack fumble was the final nail in the coffin, but it could have been much worse for the offense. Florida dodged two fumbles at the 1-yard line on Toney’s catch and the keeper by Trask. 

“Coming into this game, there's things you have to do to win,” Mullen said. “Win the turnover battle. We didn't do that. We made a bunch of mental mistakes that really hurt ourselves.”


What: College Football Playoff Selection Show

When: Noon