With their loss to LSU over the weekend, the Gators (8-2) have been essentially eliminated from playoff contention. They’ll likely be ranked outside of the top-10 when the committee releases its penultimate rankings on Tuesday, meaning even making a New Year’s Six bowl could be a challenge.
Now Florida has to face a top-ranked Alabama team that is undefeated and has won its last six games by at least 29 points. The Crimson Tide feature what is likely the best offense in the country, and their defense has taken great strides since some early-season struggles.
Still, while Gator fans are down in the dumps and preparing for a lopsided butt-whooping in Atlanta on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, UF’s players and coaches have tried to flush the memory of the LSU loss and look at the Alabama game as a tremendous opportunity. When they held their first practice of the year way back in August, their goals were to first win the SEC East and then the SEC. They accomplished the first goal, and the second one wasn’t impacted at all by the loss to LSU.
“Anybody in the SEC, this is their dream goal and one of the things that people write on the board at the beginning of the season,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “It’s very important to any coach, player, anybody who likes the SEC, the SEC Championship. So, to have the opportunity to be able to play in this is an exciting moment.”
This game has added significance for the Gators’ group of 10 redshirt seniors who were on the last UF team that played in the SEC Championship Game in 2016. Getting back to this game has been a goal for quarterback Kyle Trask throughout his career.
“I’ve actually been wearing the same exact backpack from my freshman year that we got at the SEC Championship, and it says ‘2016’ on it,” Trask said. “I always told myself, ‘I’m not going to switch backpacks until we get back here.’ So, I guess I’ll get to do that this year.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Ventrell Miller said this game is a chance for the upperclassmen to leave their mark on the program. They relish the opportunity to play the role of a heavy underdog.
“It gives you a chip on your shoulder when everybody says you can’t do it,” Miller said. “It’s a challenge to go out and prove somebody wrong. I’m always motivated by that, and I feel like the team is on the same page.”
Redshirt senior offensive lineman Stewart Reese, who faced Alabama three times when he was at Mississippi State, said one of the keys is to not let the Alabama mystique get to them. Because of their incredible run of success under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide often beat their opponents before the opening kickoff. The Gators cannot be intimidated by the crimson and white jerseys or the coach on the other sideline.
“I remember my first time playing Alabama back in 2017, my eyes got so big when I saw them out there,” Reese said. “I was like ‘Dang, I’m really playing Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. Really, I’m doing this.’ It’s one of those experiences [where] you just have to go out there, you just have to step out on faith. Like I said, it’s the SEC Championship; we have nothing to lose. We literally just have to go out there and put it all out on the line.”
Coach Dan Mullen said his team has overcome a ton of adversity this season, such as the loss to Texas A&M, the three-week layoff due to a COVID outbreak, and having to play seven consecutive games without a bye week. He’s hoping that those experiences have toughened his team mentally and will allow them to focus on winning a championship this week.
“I think our guys are going to be excited to go play in this game,” Mullen said. “I expect us to have a great week of practice, have a lot of energy, have a lot of excitement. This is what you work for – the opportunity to go play in this game. I don't know how much of an effect that will have on them.
“Hopefully coming off that loss [Saturday], we'll be able to look at some things, get some things cleaned up, look at the things we did well, things we did poorly, opportunities we missed during the course of that game and come out there and play better next week.”
Pitts expected back
One of the more puzzling and controversial moments on Saturday came moments before kickoff when UF announced that Kyle Pitts would not play. Pitts spoke with the media earlier in the week, went through pregame warmups, and didn’t appear to be injured.
During the game, cameras caught Pitts standing on the sideline looking completely fine. While Florida claimed that he “was scratched by the medical staff due to a lingering injury from the previous game,” some wondered if that was just a coverup for Mullen holding him out against what he perceived to be an inferior opponent.
On Sunday, Mullen stated that Pitts didn’t practice at all last week, and he and the medical staff felt that holding him out was in his best interest.
While Pitts was disappointed to have to watch the game from the sideline, he understands that the coaches and trainers had his long-term future in mind, and he appreciates their concern for his health.
“They know what’s best for me and what’s best for my future,” Pitts said. “I don’t think you can come out at halftime and suit up, so I just had to deal with it.
“Although we do have more games to play, I have more football to play after I leave the university. I trusted their judgment. They knew what was best for me.”
Mullen said he anticipates Pitts being cleared to play this week. While the Gators’ offense piled up more than 600 yards against LSU, there’s no denying that they are a better team when No. 84 is on the field. He’s one of the rare players who can make catches against perfect coverage and adjust to catch poorly thrown passes. That’s a valuable skillset to have, especially in the red zone, where the Gators have struggled in recent weeks.
Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson is excited to get him back into the fold.
“It'll be huge [to get him back],” Johnson said. “He's obviously one of the best players, if not the best player, in America. He did a great job with Kemore [Gamble] and [Keon Zipperer] and those guys in his absence, but anytime you have him, it's a huge plus and a huge addition to our offense. Looking forward to getting a chance to get him back out there.”
Pitts is a nightmare for defensive coaches. You can’t leave him in one-on-one coverage too often, or he’ll shred your defense. However, if you pay too much attention to him, the Gators have plenty of other weapons that can take advantage of favorable matchups.
“He's a fantastic player,” Saban said. “His size and speed and athleticism, all those things make it very difficult to guard the guy. He's a very versatile player. He can play tight end, he can play on the line, he can play off the ball, out as a receiver. They move him around a lot. Creates a lot of issues and problems for you, no doubt, probably as well as anybody we played against for a long time.”
While the Gators have continued to rack up the yards offensively, struggles in the red zone have become a worrisome trend recently.
They scored touchdowns on just two of five red-zone trips against Kentucky in late November. Against LSU, they scored touchdowns on just four of eight red-zone possessions. They also came away empty-handed twice, with a turnover-on-downs and an interception.
“Anytime you play a game like that, it just makes you absolutely sick to your stomach,” Johnson said. “You always replay, ‘What could I have done differently?’ Obviously, there's plays out there to be had. Everybody kind of had a hand in us not playing to the best of our ability. It's really unfortunate and very, very disappointing to come out and put on a performance like that.
“When you leave 22 points in red-zone opportunities and you turn the ball over three times, that's not a recipe for success. You're not going to win many football games playing that way. It's very, very simple being that we had plenty of opportunities to put the game away early and get off to a great start. You talked about starting fast and making plays and touchdowns in the red zone and not turning the ball over, and, obviously, we didn't do that.”
Getting back on track in the red zone this week will be no easy task. The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in red-zone defense, with opponents scoring on just 73.1 percent of possessions. Their touchdown percentage is even lower, at 42.3 percent.
“They got talent on every level,” Mullen said. “They've got their big, physical, athletic defensive line. Their linebackers can cover and run sideline to sideline to make plays. They have play-makers on the back end. They do a good job. They know the system. They've got a very veteran group it looks like. So, it will be a good challenge.”
After giving up 26.4 points per game in their first five games and surrendering 647 yards to Ole Miss, they’ve given up just 7.2 points per game in their last five games. Johnson said Alabama was forced to play a bunch of inexperienced players at the beginning of the season and suffered some growing pains. As they’ve gained experience and chemistry with each other, their enormous talent level has started to take over.
“Just like with anything, with experience, I think you start to get better at what you do,” he said. “Obviously, they have great players, but they're extremely well-coached, and they're well-leveraged as a defense. They're physical at the point. They make plays on the ball. They're a complete defense in terms of obviously their production but their talent level as well.”
- Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson says re-watching that game made him sick to his stomach. They were plays out there to be had, and everybody had a hand in that. They left 22 points on the field in the red zone and turned it over three times. They won't win very many games playing that way. They had a chance to get off to a great start and put the game away, and they didn't do that. They can't let LSU beat them twice.
- Stewart Reese says he transferred to Florida to get back with his original coaching staff; the chance to play in Atlanta wasn't really a deciding factor. He's thinking about coming back next year, and he and his family are going to make the best decision for him.
- Read everything that was said during today’s press conference in the We Chop Chat.