D’Angelo: Florida Gators can’t overcome slow start, lose shootout to Alabama in SEC title game
We entered Saturday knowing no matter what happened in the SEC championship game Alabama was going to the College Football Playoff, either Mac Jones or Kyle Trask would have a Heisman moment, Florida was playing for a New Year’s Six Bowl.
What we know now: Alabama will enter the playoff as the No. 1 seed after hanging on in a 52-46 shootout, Crimson Tide quarterback Jones probably will have to fend off Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to hoist the most prestigious trophy in sports, Gators coach Dan Mullen can refocus his lobbying on a New Year’s Six Bowl and not the playoff
Because Florida found out it takes some semblance of a defense to beat a team with three of the most talented offensive playmakers in the country.
Alabama won its 28th SEC title by overwhelming a Florida defense that has lived on the edge all season. Trask, and the Gators offense, received little help from the defense as it tried to match the Tide’s offense score for score.
Jones, running back Najee Harris and receiver DeVonta Smith made sure of it.
"You’re coming into this game, there’re 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 defensively in the first half on third down with opportunities to get off the field and we had some penalties.
“All that’s disappointing, obviously. But our guys continued to battle all the way to the end.”
On the verge of being blown out, Florida turned to Trask to keep the Tide within reach. The Gators fought back to give itself a chance to pull off a miracle in the final seconds before Trask was sacked on the final play of game inside the Gators 10.
“No one in the world gave us a damn chance,” Trask said. “We believed in ourselves. We just ran out of time.
“We were clicking on offense, we were rolling pretty good. (If) we go down and score, we kick the extra point to win the game. If we had just had a little more time we’re sitting here as the SEC champions.”
Florida now has one more shot to change the narrative for a season that saw it supplant Georgia at the top of the SEC East and hang with Alabama, but could end on a sour note.
The Gators (8-3) have dropped the final three games of the season twice since 1979, the last time under Jim McElwain in 2015. A loss in the bowl game and Florida enters 2021 on a three-game losing streak, including one as nearly a four-touchdown home favorite to LSU.
As it is, this is the first two-game losing streak since midway through the 2018 season.
A bowl victory and the Gators can spin this as progress. To win an SEC championship you have to play in the championship game. The Gators got there for the first time in four years and the first time under Mullen and hung with the most dominant team in the conference for much of the last decade.
“We want a lot more than getting here and showing up and our focus will be on getting here next year and win this game," Mullen said. "That will help and that will give us great focus going into the off season.”
Mullen praised his team for battling through eight consecutive weeks of SEC games. Florida was one of 10 SEC teams that played 10 regular season conference games with the reworked schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The season’s been emotionally draining,” Mullen said. “Hard to say teams have gone through what we’ve gone through. That was our eighth consecutive SEC game. It’s amazing the emotional and physical pull that takes on your body for the players.
"Coaches, we’ll be fine. We’ll get this program back ... on path to try to get here next year to compete for championships on a consistent basis.”
And Florida at least closed the gap with Alabama (11-0). The Gators entered having lost its last six games to the Tide by an average of 24.7 points. This game appeared headed in that direction early but quickly tightened. Florida three times had this as a one score game in the fourth quarter but never was able to overtake Alabama as the defense once again proved to be the undoing of this team.
Florida did not stand a chance with Todd Grantham’s defense trying to stop Steve Sarkisian’s offense. We’ve seen Grantham abused verbally by Mullen on the sideline this season. On Saturday, Sarkisian’s offense abused Grantham’s defense with 605 yards and 83 plays. Almost every time Florida got close; its defense could not get off the field.
Coming in as a 17-point underdog, Florida needed to play a near perfect game. And the Gators were far from it in the first half, digging an 18-point hole. The early mistakes were killers. Four of Alabama’s first five touchdown drives were kept alive with penalties on third down and one on a fumble that came after Alabama’s lone turnover of the game was negated. Trey Dean, who intercepted the Jones pass, gave it right back, fumbling on his return.
But even without that Gator aid, Alabama was not going to be stopped. The Tide’s balanced attack featured the best receiver and running back tandem in the country. Smith and Harris accounted for all seven of Alabama’s touchdowns, Harris with five of them, three through the air.
Smith entered the game as the sentimental favorite to crash what appears to be a three-man race for the Heisman between Jones, Lawrence and Trask, but Harris was every bit as unstoppable.
Harris totaled 245 yards, 178 on the ground. Smith caught 15 passes for 184 years. Jones spearheaded it all by throwing for 418 yards and five TDs.
Still, the Gators never seemed out of this game because Trask, who threw for 408 yards - 153 of those to Kadarius Toney - and accounted for four touchdowns, three passing, proved he’s worthy of a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist.
Mullen hinted there could be opt outs before the bowl, saying this was the last game “this team, as a whole” will play together.
And Trask, who said he’s looking forward to playing one more game in a Gators uniform, had a message for the rest of the SEC East.
“This team is going to continue to get back to Atlanta,” he said.