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The No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-0) continued their dominant run, winning their 25th straight game and fifth this season by 38 points or more in a 54-16 beat down of the No. Florida Gators (8-4) on Saturday in the 2016 SEC Championship Game.
Alabama’s win was historic. It broke a 4-4 SEC title game head-to-head tie with Florida, brought it to even with the Gators as each team now has seven SEC crowns, and ensured that UA became the first team since UF in 1993-96 to be kings of the SEC in three consecutive seasons.
There’s more. The 54 points scored by Alabama were the second-most in SEC history, and its 38-point win over Florida was the second-most decisive; only Auburn’s rout of South Carolina in 2010 barely beat both figures. The Gators had the most points scored on them since Nebraska trounced Florida 62-24 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. (A bit of solace for UF fans? It won the national title the following season.)
Here are six things we learned from the Gators’ loss on Saturday.
1. There’s just no comparison: No matter how well Florida played, it was bound to lose this game. Yes, even if the three turnovers and blocked punt return touchdown — more on those later — never happened. Like many teams in the SEC and across the country, the Gators were simply outmatched from top to bottom by the talent the Crimson Tide had on the field. And not just on the first string or due to injuries but because Alabama has recruited and developed players better. The talent disparity between UA and UF in the game was comparable to the margin between Florida and Arizona. That’s not unique for Alabama against an opponent, but it’s still drastic and shows exactly how far head coach Jim McElwain has to go to actually make the Gators a competitive team in the SEC.
2. The offense actually wasn’t that bad: Florida became the first team in 42 days to score a touchdown on Alabama. It opened the game with a 64-yard drive, scored on a 92-yard drive on a two-minute drill in the second quarter and moved the ball down to the goal line on a 64-yard drive in the third quarter (but was unable to punch it in). The three awful interceptions thrown by graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby are obvious eye sores, but you already knew he was a bad signal caller who makes poor decisions. The 24 carries for 43 yards are a product of going up against the nation’s best defensive line. UF was legitimately facing an all-time defense on Saturday. The 16 points scored by the Gators are the third-most posted against the Crimson Tide this season.
McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier were more creative than they had been this season and ensured that the ball got in the hands of their playmakers. Junior wide receiver Brandon Powell had a career-high nine receptions. Junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby caught seven passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore WR Antonio Callaway had six touches, 63 receiving yards and a touchdown before exiting with a hamstring injury. Florida’s offense was not good enough to beat Alabama — few if any are — but it does make you wonder where the hell this was this season, particularly last week.
3. Comedy of errors not so funny: It’s always something with the Gators these days. Appleby opened the game 6-for-7 for 67 yards and 3-for-3 on third down as part of a 10-play touchdown drive. Florida immediately forced a three-and out and just like that it looked like this might be a game. Then Appleby threw an interception with a 40-yard return, followed with a pick six (missing a wide open Callaway) on the next series, and the Gators just decided not to block on special teams as redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend got a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. After all that, Florida held Alabama to -7 yards, and yet, it trailed 16-9.
For the first time all season, UF decided to go for a fake punt and failed miserably. Appleby threw a third pick before halftime by tossing a 50/50 ball up to senior WR Ahmad Fulwood, who is branded as a guy who refuses to use his physical gifts to make such catches. Just like that, Alabama was up 33-9, setting an SEC Championship Game record with 33 points in a half. The Gators outgained the Tide, were 5-for-10 on third down (0-for-12 last week) and doubled the favorite’s time of possession but trailed by 15.
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) December 3, 2016
We could go on about the second half, though that was not so much errors as it was a beaten team simply being outscored 21-0 after failing to convert with four plays from the 2-yard line and allowing a 98-yard touchdown drive on the back of that failure. The game was over in the first quarter and certainly the first half.
4. Nothing wrong with aggressiveness, even when it backfires: McElwain going for it on fourth down, calling a flea flicker, and putting in a fake punt were gutsy moves, the latter of which had not been attempted this season. The timing, though, was questionable. McElwain obviously believed in his defense down near Alabama’s end zone, but it’s the second time in the last few weeks that such a decision has backfired. The flea flicker was simply an awful call considering the Gators were going up against a dominant Tide defensive line that would surely get to the quarterback with ease. The fake punt might have been hit if it was executed properly, but a bad snap, poor effort going for the ball and indecision after it fell into Townsend’s hands made the play call look like amateur hour. Just like Urban Meyer’s fake punt last week against Michigan, some of McElwain’s calls reeked of desperation. And yes, Florida actually was desperate on Saturday. The question remains, just as it was asked with the offensive play calling, why not play to win all season?
5. It’s not all on the coaches: This was here last week, and it remains true. Yes, there are coaches on the Gators who need to be replaced, namely special teams coordinator Greg Nord. But McElwain, Nussmeier and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins did not lose the game Saturday based on their play calls and preparations — and I say that as someone who has criticized McElwain and Nussmeier endlessly this season. Florida moved the ball against a defense that does not let teams move the ball. And it did so with Appleby at quarterback, playing without its starting center and while completely unable to run the ball against a stout front. The defense, as it has before, was strong in the first half and held Alabama back on numerous occasions — but it eventually got gassed due to a combination of a lack of depth (multiple starters injured) and the overwhelming talent and size of the Tide. This game more than any other this season should point out the value of recruiting, an area in which the Gators need to get drastically better on all fronts. Changes need to be made this offseason, and while replacing Nussmeier would be the right move (particularly to go with a younger, more creative coach like Sterlin Gilbert), I’m not so sure you can expect it to happen anymore.
6. A great bowl game still awaits: Florida lost. The Gators were expected to lose. It’s disappointing to fans the way they lost, more so that it will not even give them the boost they needed to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl over Auburn. But Florida will be playing in a very good bowl game and a local one at that. Options for UF right now appear to be either the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tampa against Nebraska or the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31 in Orlando against Louisville. (LSU will play whichever game Florida does not.) There is some belief that bowls and the SEC attempt not to place teams in the same game in consecutive years, which is where the Gators going to the Outback over the Citrus would come into play. Florida’s deserved slot is the Citrus and a meeting with Louisville, though it appears a rematch of the 1996 Fiesta Bowl in Tampa is more likely.