In prelude, there was nothing about Saturday’s SEC Championship game remotely resembling the great Atlanta football festivals of yore.
Not the date of the game – two weeks later than normal.
Not the time of the game – for the first time in nearly 20 years kicking off in prime time rather than late afternoon.
Certainly not the feel of the game – none of the usual loud public reverie swirling around Mercedes-Benz Stadium from fan bases drunk on winning seasons. The tailgating lots largely deserted. The stands dotted with followers rather than overflowing, a sadly incomplete pointillist landscape.
But, then, the ball was put in play, and it all began to look terribly familiar. Alabama takes the lead. Alabama holds lead. Alabama wins – this time unleashing a firehose torrent of offense while surviving a pretty-fair country offense on the other sideline. The final, Crimson Tide 52, Florida 46.
While the game was closer than those in Vegas foresaw it – Alabama was a 16-point favorite – the result held no more surprise than the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We’ve seen this one too many times to be caught off-guard. Utterly unstoppable when it mattered most, Alabama claimed its seventh SEC championship since 2009 and its sixth in the past nine years. This stadium’s only been opened since 2017, and Bama already has a 5-0 record here. The Crimson Tide is now 15-1 in Atlanta during the Nick Saban Era. It just won its 31st consecutive against an SEC East opponent.
It never seems to get old for Saban. In fact, to hear him immediately after the game, no SEC championship has ever meant more. “This is the best, this is the absolute best,” Saban said on the network postgame interview. “I absolutely love this team, I love all the adversity they had to overcome and resiliency that they went through to be able to do this.” The unbeaten, top-ranked Crimson Tide now points toward the New Year and the college football playoffs.
Alabama’s never given up as many points in winning one of these games as the 46 that Florida scored Saturday. The Gators put up 462 yards of offense, almost all in the air. But the Crimson Tide’s own beautiful offensive proficiency hid all defensive flaws.
“You have to know when you come in to play these guys that you’re going to have score (a lot) to win,” Saban said.
This game was billed as a possible Heisman Trophy tiebreaker between Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and his Florida counterpart Kyle Trask. And indeed, both played up to the billing, each throwing for more than 400 yards.
Count the Florida quarterback as beaten but unbowed. “If we just had a little bit more time, we’re sitting here the SEC Champions,” Trask said. “No one in the world gave us a damn chance. We believed in ourselves.”
That script evolved, however, throughout the night. By the end there appeared a need to strip the Heisman down for parts to distribute pieces of it to all those worthy on the Alabama roster.
Running back Najee Harris gets the legs: The game’s MVP, he finished Saturday with 179 rushing yards on 28 carries, another 67 yards receiving and five touchdowns through ground and air. Needing one rushing touchdown to break the Bama career record co-held by Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram (42), Harris opted to shatter it.
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith gets the hands: How about 15 catches for 184 yards? With his third catch of the night, a 24-yard gain, he rewrote Alabama’s career receiving yards record, passing Amari Cooper.
Jones can have the rest. He finished completing 33 of 43 for 418 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.
The field was filled with dynamic skill producing absurd numbers. Florida had a pair of 100-yard receivers (Kadarius Toney 153 and Trevon Grimes 129). The Gators heralded tight end Kyle Pitts had another of his trademark soaring catches in the end zone. But Alabama had just a little bit more.
Florida’s best chance early may have come and gone with six-plus minutes left in the first quarter. With the score tied 7-7 – these offenses drove for a combined 143 yards in just the first five minutes – Florida safety Trey Dean wrestled the ball away from Alabama tight end Miller Forristall. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But on the return, Dean was blasted from the blind side by receiver-turned-avenger John Metchie and fumbled the ball back to Bama. “He might convert to the defensive side of the ball after that hit,” Alabama safety Jordan Battle said of Metchie. The Alabama defense could have used some reinforcing Saturday.
On the next play, Jones found Smith oddly undefended for a 31-yard scoring pass that made it 14-7 Crimson Tide.
This was a game sure to create deep and lasting trauma for any defensive back playing in it. Both secondaries were shocked and awed.
Case in point, the close of the first half. With 2:28 left in the half, Trask found Toney for explosive completions of 39 and 27 yards, then Trask burrowed in for the final yard to conclude a four-play, 75-yard drive.
But the quickness of that score allowed Alabama 64 seconds. It required only 58 of those to travel 78 yards. Jones to Harris over the middle for 17 yards and a touchdown made it 35-17 Alabama at the half.
“Coming into this game, there’s things you have to do to win,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Win the turnover battle. We didn’t do that (two turnovers to Alabama’s one). 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. Gave up that drive at the end of the first half. All that’s disappointing, obviously.”
Give the Gators credit for a second-half second wind. They stopped Alabama drives not once, but twice, in the third quarter. Holding Bama scoreless in the third quarter allowed the Florida offense to throw a momentary yet healthy scare into the Tide. Trask found Grimes for a 50-yard scoring pass with less than two minutes gone in the quarter. And after battering away for 12-play, 80-yard drive, Florida only trailed by four entering the fourth quarter.
But there, the Tide turned. It unleashed Harris, who ran for 40 of the 75 yards of a touchdown drive, including the last 1-yard plunge, to build the lead to 42-31. On the following possession Alabama linebacker Will Anderson jarred the ball loose from Trask, the Tide recovering on the Florida 10. The Gators were able to limit the damage to a field goal, but that rebuilt the Bama lead to 45-31.
Ultimately, the winning score came with just less than five minutes to play, Harris gashing the Gators on a pair of long runs and Jones-to-Smith – hardly a combination as common as the names – struck once more for a 15-yard scoring pass.
There was a little holding on for dear life from there. “They were an on-side kick away from having a chance to win,” Saban said. It wasn’t an entirely comfortable win for the big favorite, but a win nonetheless. The Tide rolls on.