Florida vs. Alabama score, takeaways: Gators’ valiant SEC title effort soiled by mistakes, defensive failures

By Adam Silverstein
December 20, 2020
Florida vs. Alabama score, takeaways: Gators’ valiant SEC title effort soiled by mistakes, defensive failures
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

One of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the Florida Gators football program met its expected end Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta as No. 7 Florida fell 52-46 to the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2020 SEC Championship Game. But while the method of the Gators’ defeat was to be assumed, their gutty and tireless effort to trample the nation’s best team was simultaneously praiseworthy and depressing.

Florida’s defeat at the hands of Alabama was a microcosm of its entire season: an incredible offensive performance crippled by boneheaded mistakes, questionable coaching decisions, untimely miscues and a defense plus one offensive lineman that stood between the Gators and program-changing, national championship-contending greatness.

There’s no question that Florida did itself and its fans proud coming out of last week’s horrendous, unforgivable effort against LSU. The Gators stood toe to toe with a Crimson Tide team that was considered the best in the nation this entire season, coming from behind, responding to nearly every punch and never allowing themselves to be put out to pasture until the final seconds ticked off the clock.

So what went down Saturday night as Florida saw its SEC title and far-outside College Football Playoff hopes slip away? Let’s break it down.

1. Dan Mullen delivered as promised: Gators fans were absolutely starving for offense when Mullen took over the program following the 2017 season, and Florida — both in 2020 and in this game — more than delivered. It posted 46 points and 462 yards of offense, passed for 408 yards, averaged 15.7 yards per completion and saw six different players find the end zone. Redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask, a Heisman Trophy favorite most of the season, passed for three touchdowns, ran for another and scored a two-point conversion. Those 408 yards Trask tossed would have set an SEC title game record if his counterpart on Saturday did not throw for 10 more.

Senior wide receiver Kadarius Toney (153) and junior tight end Kyle Pitts (129) combined for 15 catches and 282 yards receiving with a touchdown haul each. Senior WR Trevon Grimes had 78 yards and a score of his own as all three averaged more than 18.4 yards per reception.

The Gators scored the fifth most points of any team in SEC title game history and the most ever by a losing team (more on that in a moment). Mullen did even not pull out any tricks or press his team’s luck on fourth down to reach these marks. This was simple game planning from him and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. Not everything was executed perfectly and mistakes were made as always, but Florida’s offense did everything it possibly could to win the team’s first SEC title since 2008. If only that was enough.

2. The defense is more than a problem: All those incredible offensive statistics and potential records I just mentioned? In the end, they were meaningless. The 46 points were bested by Alabama’s 52, the 462 yards by Alabama’s 605 … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Talent and disparity thereof is everything in college football, but the Gators’ defensive failures in this game and the entire season about far more than 40-yard dash times and vertical leaps. Far less talented teams play far better defense than Florida because they have discipline, schematic advantages and adaptable play callers, all things that the Gators clearly lack.

Florida committed so many avoidable defensive mistakes — namely penalties on third down – that it was easy to lose count after just the first quarter. There was an offsides on third-and-long, a third-down stop negated by a personal foul and an illegal substitution on another lengthy third down. That was all inside of the first 25 minutes. Alabama eventually scored on all three drives where these massive miscues took place and saw its lead balloon to 28-10.

It’s fair to note that the Tide were unable to stop Toney and Pitts, but the Gators had absolutely no answers for running back Najee Harris (245 total yards, five touchdowns) and WR DeVonta Smith (15 receptions, 184 yards, two touchdowns). Read those lines again. Now read them once more. QB Mac Jones tore apart the secondary, completing 33 of 43 passes for an SEC title game record 418 yards. His lone interception — an incredible robbery by junior safety Trey Dean III — was given right back because Dean did not know to hold the ball tight and was evaporated off his feet by WR John Metchie III.

Florida’s secondary continued to give 7-10 yards of cushion to some of the best receivers in college football. The defense missed tackles at every level. Playmakers were routinely left open due to coverage lapses. There’s an overall inability to get lined up quickly or with any consistency. Oh, and if you think those comments are all about Saturday night, you’re wrong. That’s been the entire season for a defense that has even allowed mediocre-to-poor offenses to put up respectable numbers.

And yes, it all rests on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The problem had been and has again been identified. It was clear as day to anyone watching the game Saturday night, even if they had not watched another Gators game this season. The question is whether Mullen will make the move everyone else knows he must.

3. For better or worse: No coach bats 1.000. So for all of Mullen’s offensive genius, game preparation successes, schematic advantages and player development, it’s time to come to the realization that there are going to be some frustrations with him as the coach. Namely far-too-conservative play calling and questionable game management decisions often made with gut instinct that may not always be on point.

To be fair, just as criticism of Mullen’s commitment to the run — despite his team being able to get anything it wanted through the air — were growing louder Saturday, suddenly Florida started finding holes. In fact, the third-quarter scoring drive that turned the game around ended with runs on six of the final eight plays, including a touchdown by freshman RB Nay’Quan Wright. Does that atone for the earlier drives that were stalled by second-and-long runs and quarterback keepers? Not exactly, but again, this is a give and take.

More inexcusable were two crucial decisions late in the game. Mullen called for a squib kick following a touchdown drive that cut the Gators’ deficit to 45-38 with 6:33 to play. The Tide got the ball in great field position and drove 66 yards in four plays to basically ice the game. Florida then somehow charged back into the end zone in just 1:31, but Mullen inexplicably called a timeout ahead of an untimed two-point conversion despite there only being 2:28 remaining and it being clear UF would be onside kicking and needing all of its clock-stopping tools. That led to the team getting a huge stop but having just 16 seconds instead of about 1 minute on its final possession of the game, one that could have led to an upset victory.

Mullen is not as shrewd of a game manager as Urban Meyer, and he never will be. It sometimes appears as if he overthinks things, though he did make a wonderful call to go for the two-point conversion what he hoped would be the Gators’ penultimate scoring drive. But when you consider how few coaches out there can actually be considered closer to perfect, it’s truly a finite number. Mullen has what it takes to be a national championship winner, even if he may make it harder on himself than it needs to be. It’s just something that fans need to accept and hope improves with time that because the positives far outweigh the negatives.

4. Odds and ends: Florida is now 14-27 all-time against Alabama with seven straight losses dating back to 2009, four in SEC Championship Games … the Gators are 4-6 against the Tide in the SEC title game with four straight losses … under Mullen, Florida is now 6-4 in games decided by fewer than 10 points … the Gators are 5-5 against ranked opponents and 4-4 against top 10 teams under Mullen … UF has scored in 409 consecutive games, an NCAA record

Trask’s 43 touchdown passes are the most for a single season in Gators history, and he is the first Florida QB to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season despite only playing 11 games — all against SEC opponents … Trask beat Rex Grossman’s single-season passing record the same night Toney became UF’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2002 (Taylor Jacobs)

5. What’s next? The Gators played themselves out of the CFP, but their incredible effort on Saturday had the SEC Championship Game exceedingly close until the end and will likely result in them remaining highly ranked in the new CFP Rankings on Sunday afternoon despite being a three-loss team. Florida should remain in the top 10 nationally and earn a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, potentially the Cotton Bowl against Big 12 champion Oklahoma. It will find out around 2:30 p.m. ET when the second part of the bowl selection show airs on ESPN.

Mullen made some postgame comments about Saturday night being the last time the team will play together but did not elaborate. He could mean the Gators are leaning toward opting out of a bowl game as many other teams have this season, though Florida would by far be the highest-profile program to do so. More likely, Mullen is referring to the fact that most of the Gators’ star players will opt out and focus on the NFL Draft.

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