The SEC Championship halftime statistics suggested a competitive contest. Florida had put up 19 more total yards, quarterback Austin Appleby spun a couple of touchdown passes to cap time-consuming drives against the nation’s best defense, and the Gators even returned a blocked extra point the length of the field for two points.
But Florida trailed by 17 because, well, Alabama.
The Crimson Tide, which won the 25th SEC title game 54-16 on Saturday, will be the top team when the College Football Playoff semifinal round is announced Sunday. The lineup after Alabama is installed as the favorite is the reason to tune in.
Will Ohio State, which watched the Big Ten championship game from the players’ lounge or somewhere else besides the sideline, hold its No. 2 spot from last week?
Washington looked impressive in Friday’s Pac-12 title game victory over Colorado and the Huskies could jump beyond the fourth spot they held in the previous ranking.
But with Alabama knocking nearly every opponent silly this season, and ultimately the Gators on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, taking down the Tide will a major upset no matter what the bracket reveals.
Former coach Gene Stallings, who guided Alabama to the first SEC championship a quarter-century ago, believed he had a handle on things in a pregame interview.
“In order to beat Alabama, you’ve got to control the football,” Stallings said. “You can’t afford to move the ball 80 yards against Alabama, the way they’re playing defense. Defensively, they’re an outstanding football team.”
Stallings was right. The problem was, Florida did just that Saturday. The Gators opened the scoring with a 10-play, 64-yard drive that consumed more than five minutes. Halloween was more than a week away the last time Alabama had surrendered a touchdown — Oct. 22 against Texas A&M.
Florida ended the half with an even more jaw-dropping drive, covering 92 yards in 3:23. Such ball control and execution just doesn’t happen to Alabama.
Maybe the Tide was bored after putting up 33 points in between the Florida scores. They had intercepted Appleby three times in the first half, with Minkah Fitzpatrick returning his 44 yards for a touchdown.
A blocked punt also was returned for a score. After that score, Alabama still didn’t have a first down and had had minus-seven yards of total offense. Florida blocked and returned the extra point, but Alabama led 16-9.
Still, Florida’s touchdown drives could provide scouting tape encouragement to whoever is aligned with the Crimson Tide in the CFP. The Gators aren’t exactly an offensive wonder, ranking 13th in the SEC and 114th nationally in total offense. In splitting outcomes with LSU and Florida State, the Gators averaged 238 total yards. That number was surpassed Saturday on their first drive of the second half.
Against the Seminoles, Florida went 0 for 12 on third-down conversions. On the first one the Gators faced Saturday, they converted a 3rd and 13, and added two more third-down successes on the way to the touchdown.
Florida opened the third quarter with another long drive but couldn’t crack the end zone on four plays from the 2. Alabama’s defense hasn’t been considered bend-but-don’t-break, but it was here.
In the playoffs, can it be broken, or at least can an opponent not commit an abundance of turnovers and put the game in the hands of freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts?
Hurts was mostly ordinary against Florida, which because its defense exists in the same conference as Alabama, doesn’t get the recognition. But the Gators excel on that side of the ball. Take away the points set up or scored by turnover, and through three quarters, Alabama’s offense had 17 points and 289 yards.
And a 40-17 lead.
The national championship is Alabama’s to lose.