Florida wrap-up: Tide took Gators’ best shot, but lives for another day

 

There’s a quote attributed to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards about music and musicians, and rising to the level of the performance, and as closely as can be remembered at this hour, it goes like this: Any band, on any given night, with the right song and the right crowd, can be the best band in the world for that moment in time.

Florida was almost that band Saturday, coming oh-so-close to knocking off what is potentially Nick Saban’s greatest Alabama team yet, and certainly his greatest offensive team. But in the end, Florida ran out of notes to play.

Alabama’s 52-46 win in the SEC Championship Game was the culmination of at least two weeks of planning for Florida – which, unfortunately for the Gators, involved a last-minute loss to an LSU team that the Gator staff simply overlooked. Florida’s national title hopes went down a foggy drain last Saturday, but there was still a conference championship to be won if it could have gotten past Alabama.

It’s unclear what effect an Alabama loss would have even had on the playoff committee. Maybe Clemson would become the No. 1 seed, but the Tigers don’t have Alabama’s explosiveness on offense and while Clemson has a good defense, it isn’t the best one Brent Venables has commanded by far. Ohio State may not even make the field at 6-0, much less have risen to a No. 1 ranking. Neither Notre Dame nor Texas A&M have any shot at the top spot.

All that was on the line, really, was the hardware and the pride, and Alabama came ready to show one and take home the other. That’s just what Alabama did.

The play of the night sort of told the story all in the span of less than 30 seconds. Mac Jones threw over the middle to Miller Forristall, a pass that wasn’t his greatest piece of work, but also one Forristall should have fought harder to retain. While the stat sheet will have it forever marked as an interception, it was more of a catch and then a takeaway by Florida safety Trey Dean. But after a 19-yard return by Dean, Alabama’s John Metchie appeared as if he had been teleported into the play a la “Star Trek,” and exploded into Dean’s left shoulder. Dean fumbled, Alabama got the ball back and scored on the next play. Dean spent a few minutes on the sidelines counting the circling bluebirds.

This was, in a nutshell, the Alabama team that has developed over the second half of the season. Hard-hitting, unselfish, spreading both the work and the rewards. And when center Landon Dickerson went down late in the game to an apparent serious knee injury, the outpouring of sideline support and love toward their emotional center – who is also the emotional center of this team’s spirit – was a moving, spontaneous moment.

All the emotional platitudes wouldn’t mean anything at all, of course, were it not for the fact that Alabama is just plan good at the game. While Texas A&M argues over being included in the College Football Playoff despite a blowout loss to Alabama and only nine total games played, the other options aren’t exactly endearing. Clemson certainly belongs, but trying to figure out what are the best options out of a group of teams including Texas A&M, but also Notre Dame, Ohio State and Cincinnati is sort of like arguing over what constitutes “the good paper towels.” For that matter, Florida might still lay claim to being one of the four best teams in the country.

And for that, Dan Mullen should still be proud, given that Florida just didn’t have a championship defense, or even a reasonable facsimile of one. Mullen hit the jackpot on offense, with a veteran, late-blooming quarterback, an NFL-quality wide receiver (along with two or three good supporting cast members) and a tight end that figures to be a decade-long playmaker at the next level. Unfortunately, he wasn’t gifted a game-changing running back, an offensive line that could really move the ball on the ground, or especially a defense that ever rose above the level of a good-sized speed bump.

But his greatest sin was treating the LSU game like it was some kind of vacation tour, and with three losses, the Gators are out of it no matter how dangerous they are on offense.

Alabama won this game mostly because it had a better offensive plan and more offensive weapons. It chewed clock when it needed to, and went fast when it was necessary. Florida’s offense put up 462 total yards, but only 54 of those were on the ground, and the Gators averaged just 2.1 yards per carry when it did run. Only when the Gators got inside Alabama’s 5 did the running game make an impact.

There will be a next year for Florida, but Gator fans have to wonder when Mullen will stop making mistakes, or at the very least put away the sour grapes when talking to the media. Mullen is now 0-10 against Nick Saban, but there are a lot of coaches out there with similar numbers. There is a both a wide and dissimilar gulf in professionalism between Mullen and many of his peers, though. Pregame guarantees of victory, digging at Alabama by saying Clemson was the best team in the country (the SEC office won’t appreciate the lack of intraconference loyalty, there), or his in-game antics after Dickerson’s injury and the subsequent penalty for taunting against one of his defensive linemen. Despite not being a young pup anymore, Mullen has a lot of growing up still to do, and next year, he’ll have to do it with almost none of the offensive firepower he enjoyed in 2020.

Alabama moves on. There will be holes to fill, but also potentially the return of Jaylen Waddle to look forward to. Alabama can also hope for good news in the case of Landon Dickerson, fleeting as those hopes might be. In a year as crazy and desperate as 2020 has been to everyone, both in and out of sports, it might be OK just this once to ask for a little something extra around Christmas.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Florida:

1. Somehow lost in the Heisman Trophy debate, Najee Harris’ performance was what won the game on offense. This is to take nothing away from a record-setting SEC Championship Game performance from QB Mac Jones, or another superlative outing from WR DeVonta Smith, but without Najee Harris’ multiple second- and third-effort runs, Alabama probably loses this game. Florida ran the ball, as a team, 26 times for 54 yards. Take out a pair of gimmick plays Florida ran using backup QB Emory Jones, and it falls to 30 yards on 24 carries. Najee Harris rushed for 178 yards on 31 carries by himself. He scored twice on the ground and another three times on receptions.

While the SEC Offensive Player of the Week will likely go to LSU’s Kayshon Boutte and his 300-plus-yard explosion against Ole Miss, Harris’s grunt work is what put Alabama over the top in this game. The difference in the potency of Alabama’s running game, in the times when it absolutely had to be able to run the football when it wanted to, compared to the last couple of seasons is the biggest substantive difference in the Alabama offense in 2020.

Alabama quarterbacks have been putting up nitro-charged numbers ever since Lane Kiffin came to work as offensive coordinator what seems like a dog’s age ago, but the running game, especially over the last couple of seasons, felt tacked on. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian bucked recent trends at Alabama, and made Najee Harris the focal point of the offense rather than rotating backs in service of being a decoy (or a complementary part, at best) to whatever the quarterback was doing. It has paid off, and it paid off handsomely Saturday night in Atlanta.

2. Florida’s WR unit had Alabama’s number from the start. There were several references made during the game about how Alabama recognized it would be on the wrong in of a mismatch between the Florida wide receiver corps and its secondary and linebackers. Unfortunately, like most things football-related, Nick Saban proved to be correct. Alabama’s safeties were completely overmatched in this game. Brian Branch and Malachi Moore, the two true freshmen who had improved so significantly from the beginning of the year until now, reverted to showing their (lack of ) age and experience.
Jordan Battle had probably his worst game in two months. There was really nothing to do besides keep working the plan, because DeMarcco Hellams’ skillset didn’t lend itself to this kind of opponent, either. At corner, Josh Jobe ran hot and cold and probably served as evidence to him that he needs to return for his senior year. Fellow junior Patrick Surtain II fared much better on the other side, although he did either lose a ball in the lights or just fail to pick it up outright, resulting in a long touchdown reception by Trevon Grimes.
Throw in TE Kyle Pitts, who caught 7 passes for 129 yards, and it was a tough night for the Bama secondary. Kadarius Toney finished with an additional 8 catches for 153 yards, and Alabama is just happy that both of them will apparently be moving on to the NFL Draft.

3. The Bama front played top-notch football. The rest of the defense, less so. Alabama had some new wrinkles for this game, the most prominent of which was probably playing the two Jack linebackers on the same side of the formation, next to one another. On several plays, Will Anderson Jr. could be seen playing weakside defensive end, while Christopher Allen would line up next to him as a stand-up rusher, as Alabama had apparently identified the right side of the Florida offensive line as a weak point.
Alabama also rotated in Ben Davis more often than usual, and Drew Sanders got his first significant playing time since the first month of the season. It was all in the name of keeping the starters fresh, as Alabama was trying anything it could to affect Kyle Trask.
The rest of the defense, though, had issues, and Trask was able to pick apart the middle of the defense, especially when it was forced to deal with Pitts at tight end. Dylan Moses played well against the run, but was targeted and abused in the passing game. Christian Harris was thankfully good to go after a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the Arkansas game last week, and made enough plays – including the sack that ended the game – that it begs the question why Moses and not he has the bigger role when Alabama is in dime with a single-LB look. Alabama finished the night with 5 sacks in addition to shutting down the Florida running game. Half the defense appears to be fixed; can the other half be fixed by the time the playoffs start?

4. Alabama won the special teams battle, and Charlie Scott saved his best moment for when it mattered most. Alabama held Florida’s dangerous return teams to only minimal impact, and PK Will Reichard matched Evan McPherson shot for shot. On the flip side, DeVonta Smith had one nice punt return, although the curious selection of TE Jahleel Billingsley as the primary kickoff return man in this game paid no dividends. What did, however, was DeVonta Smith’s presence on the second line of the kickoff return team, as he adroitly handled both a squib kick and Florida’s final kickoff, an onsides attempt. And then, there was punter Charlie Scott. Scott had done a commendable job with the position after taking over for true freshman Sam Johnson early in the year, but hadn’t really been called upon to deliver a clutch kick. That changed in a big way Saturday when Scott was asked to punt with about 25 seconds on the clock and delivered a high, long, directional punt that pinned Florida to its own 12-yard line and left time for ultimately just one play. Alabama’s special teams have been steadily improving all year and this was a mistake-free outing.

5. The OL has set the table for 11 weeks now. It will be a different place-setting going forward. The loss of C Landon Dickerson cannot be overstated. He is the glue that holds the unit together, and is no worse than Alabama’s fourth-best offensive player (with Jaylen Waddle out), behind DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones and Najee Harris. Alabama was able to survive Waddle’s loss, but cannot survive another from the list of skill positions above, and it may not be able to thrive with Dickerson out, either.
Alabama’s offensive line did just enough to keep Mac Jones out of trouble Saturday, while paving the road for Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. to travel. But Dickerson was the guy who started all of it on every play. If his knee injury proves to truly be serious, then Alabama will have to move forward with one of four new options at center. Chris Owens briefly started at center last year when Dickerson was still at guard, and it was Owens who replaced Dickerson on Saturday night. But Owens struggled a year ago, and has struggled again this year when playing inside (although he has developed into a useful tackle).

The player Alabama fans have been wanting to see for a couple of years now has been Darrian Dalcourt, but while Dalcourt certainly has Dickerson’s aggressive streak, he has occasionally struggled with shotgun snaps, which can’t happen. Seth McLaughlin has gotten into a couple of games late, and while he has played well, he’s smaller than the others listed and doesn’t have a lot of game experience to draw upon. The darkhorse candidate would be guard Emil Ekiyor Jr., but Ekiyor has become a key component of the offense at right guard, and Alabama would risk weakening two positions, not just one. In addition, unless Kendall Randolph were to then get the start at right guard – thereby weakening the tight end group in the process – Chris Owens would probably start there anyway.
There are no good fixes for this problem, outside of hoping for Dickerson’s injury to be something he can live with for a month. Otherwise, Alabama’s inside running game will suffer, as might also the pass blocking – at precisely the point in the season in which it could least afford to.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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