ATLANTA—It ended up being a little closer than anyone expected, but the final result remained the same: Alabama stomping its way through the SEC championship and into the College Football Playoff once again, this time over the flailing claws of the valiant-but-not-quite-good-enough Florida Gators.
Put Texas A&M into the playoff. Put Notre Dame into the playoff. Put Coastal Carolina into the playoff. Put them all into the playoff, send them out all at once against Alabama, and they might be able to hang in for a half.
Alabama dismantled the Gators, 52-46, in the cruelest way possible: By dangling hope just out of reach of Florida’s poor, short little alligator arms.
“We found a way to win,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game. “I think the relentless sort of competitive spirit that this team has is something that you don't really make or develop. It's just the kind of people that they are.”
Florida gave it a hell of a try, God bless ‘em. The Gators rebounded from what appeared to be a certain, crushing defeat to keep matters reasonably close in the second half. Florida even had the ball with a chance to win — a tiny chance, yes, but still a chance — down just six points with 16 seconds remaining in the game and 88 yards to go without a single timeout. But as Alabama always seems to do in these situations, the Tide vacuumed up the last of Florida’s soul with a game-clinching sack of the otherwise exceptional Kyle Trask.
It was one of several plays that defined the night: Florida seeing an opportunity, Alabama swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer to shatter hope into shards.
Sometimes you can sum up an entire game in one play. Saturday night, that play came with 6:21 left in the first quarter. The game was tied at 7 apiece; Alabama had scored in less than three minutes, and Florida followed that by scoring in two. The Tide had the ball and were driving when Alabama quarterback Mac Jones made one of his few errors — a pass that Florida’s Trey Dean ripped free on the 12-yard line for a momentum-shifting interception.
Dean turned upfield, and for a moment everything was tilting sideways: Florida was in control! The Gators had life! Hope!
And then crimson vengeance came roaring in.
John Metchie, switching on the fly from wide receiver to defense, absolutely leveled Dean, jarring the ball loose and reclaiming possession for Alabama. It was a hit hard enough to rattle all of college football ... and it put the SEC back on its proper axis.
“He's always on the other end of that,” Saban said of Metchie. “We do circle chase, we do midline, we do stumble bum, stiff arm [drills]. He knows exactly what the defensive players are trying to do to get the ball out because we do it every day. He's the other guy, all right? Tonight he had a chance to strip it out.”
One play later, DeVonta Smith caught a pass in the southeast corner of the end zone — the exact same spot, in the exact same stadium, where he’d caught a Tua Tagovailoa pass to win the national championship three years ago — and Alabama had a lead it would never surrender.
COVID restrictions gave the entire game an antiseptic, clinical air. Band music was piped in, onscreen videos showing scenes of previous years where unmasked fans chomped and cheered. Even the pregame playing of “Sweet Home Alabama” only brought a few cheers ... because there weren’t many Tide fans in the stands to sing the song about the Southland.
But Alabama functions best when it minimizes any distractions, quashes any chaos. Three separate Tide players burnished their Heisman résumés: Jones threw for 418 yards and five touchdowns; Smith caught 184 of those yards and two touchdowns; and MVP Najee Harris posted an astounding five touchdowns, 178 yards rushing and 67 yards receiving.
“This has been a year of lots of disruptions, a lot of abnormal things happening,” Saban said in the postgame ceremony. “The resiliency that our team has shown throughout the season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal. I think it speaks to the togetherness on the team — everybody sort of buying in and doing the things they needed to do to contribute to the team.”
Alabama will almost certainly roll into the playoff as the No. 1 seed, and ought to be a strong favorite over whichever team ends up in the No. 4 slot. And should Alabama find itself matched up against Clemson once again, it’ll find an offense every bit as explosive as Florida’s was on Saturday night.
Alabama can be beaten. LSU proved that last year, and Clemson’s done it twice in the last four years. But it’s rare to see anyone get a lead, much less get too comfortable against the Tide … and a get-hit, hit-back-much-harder game like Saturday night is the reason why.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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