To beat a No.1-ranked Alabama team that had won every game this season by at least 15 points, the Gators needed to play a clean game on both sides of the ball. They needed to make the Crimson Tide work for everything they got to have a chance.
Instead, they gave away some freebies, and those mistakes ended up being the deciding factor in the No. 7 Gators’ 52-46 loss to Alabama (11-0) in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Saturday night.
“I think everybody’s extremely disappointed,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “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.”
Defensively, Florida (8-3) gave up 605 total yards and 7.3 yards per play. They allowed the Crimson Tide to convert nine of 15 third downs. Alabama running back Najee Harris gained 245 total yards and scored an SEC Championship Game record five touchdowns. Still, they had some opportunities to get off of the field in the first half – and squandered every single one of them.
An offside penalty on third-and-10 on the opening drive of the game helped lead to an Alabama touchdown. Safety Trey Dean intercepted Alabama quarterback Mac Jones deep in UF territory on the second possession and returned it past the 30-yard line. However, he was blasted hard and high by John Metchie, which forced a fumble that was recovered by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. Jones and Smith connected for a wide-open 31-yard score on the next play. An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty by Zachary Carter negated a three-and-out and led to a touchdown on the next drive. An illegal substitution penalty contributed to a touchdown on the next possession.
“Just myself as a person who is emerging as a leader, I take that on myself to lead the guys in the right way, hold myself to that standard where I can’t let those things happen. Therefore, my teammates won’t let those things happen,” linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said. “It all comes from leadership, people demanding the right things in practice every day. Seeing those things happen, it makes you more urgent to get things fixed and get things correct.”
After UF’s offense cut the lead to 28-17 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, the defense allowed Alabama to march 78 yards for a touchdown with just six seconds left in the half. The defense was much better in the second half, yielding just 239 yards and 17 points. By then, however, the damage had already been done.
“You’re 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 defensively in the first half on third down with opportunities to get off the field.”
The offense, meanwhile, had to settle for a field goal on its second possession of the game after quarterback Kyle Trask overthrew an open Justin Shorter on a go-route. After the defense made its first stop of the game early in the third quarter, the offense punted after just four plays. Trask lost a fumble after he was sacked by Will Anderson early in the fourth quarter, which led to a Crimson Tide field goal.
“It’s just a tough loss,” Trask said. “We worked extremely, extremely hard for this game. We prepared like no other. We were clicking on offense. We were rolling pretty good. We just ran out of time.
“You love [games like this]. That’s why you play football, is to play in games like these. No one in the world gave us a damn chance. We believed in ourselves.”
Poor time management also hurt the Gators. While Trask rushed for a 1-yard score on their final possession of the first half, he had an opportunity to bleed the clock and not leave the Crimson Tide much time to work with. Instead, the ball was snapped with close to 20 seconds left on the play clock. Alabama used that additional time to respond with a touchdown. After Trask threw a 22-yard touchdown to Kyle Pitts to cut the lead to 52-44 with 2:07 left, Mullen called his second timeout and opted to go for two. While the subsequent two-point conversion was successful, burning the timeout essentially forced them to recover an onside kick to have a chance. They failed to recover it, and they got the ball back on their own 12 with 16 seconds left. Trask got sacked by Christian Harris, and the game was over.
“That was a bad job by me [that] we had to use that timeout there,” Mullen said. “Would have loved to have that timeout and given us an extra 40 seconds of the ball to try to get the and-one touchdown.”
If any one of these aforementioned plays had gone differently, Florida is probably celebrating its ninth SEC Championship right now. Instead, despite a frenetic second half that saw the Gators outscore the Crimson Tide 29-17 and roll up 249 yards of offense, the Gators and their fans are left to wonder about what might have been.
While there are no moral victories at a program like Florida, Mullen said he was proud of the way his players fought through adversity and battled until the very end, not just on Saturday night but throughout this wacky season. He thinks this game will serve as a great motivator and lesson for his returning players. Other than Brenton Cox, no one on the 2020 Gators had ever played in a championship game before.
“To be here was great for our guys,” he said. “Obviously, we want a lot more than just getting here and showing up. That’s what we control. Our focus is going to be getting here again next year, then competing to win this game. I think that will help and that will have great focus for us going into the offseason.”
Added senior receiver Kadarius Toney, who caught eight passes for 153 yards and a touchdown: “I think it should set the tone for the next few years to come because these guys are going to know the standard, know what it takes to get there. It should just drive them to go harder.”
Mullen has identified the trenches as an area where the Gators need to improve. Alabama averaged 4.7 yards per carry and gave up two sacks. Florida averaged just 3.5 yards per carry without sacks factored in and also gave up five sacks.
“We got to get a little better upfront on both sides of the ball,” he said. “You look, they’re a little more physical, I think, at the line of scrimmage than we were. We got to get a little bit better upfront.”
As you might expect following a heartbreaking loss of this magnitude, Mullen said there will be plays and decisions that he’ll replay in his mind for a while and wish he had a redo on.
“There’s a lot,” he said. “The little mistakes we made during the game, how do we get that stuff fixed? How do I make sure that we’re not making the little errors in the game that cost us the game?”
Those will be the million-dollar questions this offseason.
The Florida-Alabama bout came down to a handful of decisive plays. The Crimson Tide made every one of them, and that’s why they’re the SEC Champions.