Florida football notebook: Gators confident, on edge entering SEC title game clash with Alabama

By Adam Silverstein
December 18, 2020
Florida football notebook: Gators confident, on edge entering SEC title game clash with Alabama
Football

Image Credit: UAA / Courtney Culbreath

There’s no such thing as a boring season when it comes to Florida Gators football. In 12 years of covering this team professionally — and another decade of watching from afar and as a student — there has yet to be a single campaign where everything went exactly as expected. Combine that with the craziness of 2020 itself, and you’ve arrived at an SEC Championship Game where Florida simultaneously controls and has no control over its destiny.

How exactly is that possible? It’s Gators football. That’s how.

Expectations for Florida were raised massively entering the season due to a combination of redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask’s play in 2019, the abundance of offensive talent returning and a perceived opening in the SEC East with Georgia taking a step back. And it looked like everything was going according to plan for the Gators. Despite an early season loss to Texas A&M — a game not originally part of the schedule — along with a COVID-19 outbreak within the team and a defense that has come nowhere close to playing as demanded by fans, Florida was in control of its playoff fate.

Until it wasn’t. Until it (kind of) was again.

The 37-34 upset loss to previously 3-5 LSU — at home in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — was as inexcusable and disastrous of a defeat as the Gators have experienced in program history. Everything had to go wrong for Florida to lose that game, and it did. Three turnovers from a future Heisman Trophy finalist who had only thrown three interceptions in his prior nine games this season. A thrown shoe not only being called a penalty but giving the opponent an opportunity to hit and then connect on a 57-yard go-ahead field goal. An accurate-as-hell kicker missing a shorter 51-yard attempt at the whistle in response.

All for the Gators to only drop one spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings, giving them an outside chance of making the four-team field if absolutely everything goes right on Saturday — starting with Florida beating Alabama despite entering the 2020 SEC Championship Game as a 17-point underdog.

“I think our guys just take in the adversity we’ve faced throughout the entire year. I mean, it’s been a long year, playing a tough schedule. We had the layoff in the middle of it. I mean, having to deal with reduced numbers because of injuries, being down a bunch at different times. To be honest with you, like I said, our guys have responded well to all the different adversities all year long,” UF head coach Dan Mullen said. “Hopefully, coming off that [LSU loss], we’ll be able to look at some things, get some things cleaned up, look at the things we did well, things we did poorly, opportunities we missed during the course of that game, and come out there and play better.”

And that’s why we are here. It’s the Gators and the Crimson Tide. For the SEC championship. Again. Let’s look ahead to the 10th title tilt between Florida and Alabama.

1. The playoff path: OK so, how exactly would a two-loss Gators team get one of four spots in the CFP? It starts with Florida beating Alabama — clean. Not with a kick return or pick six or some fourth-quarter happenstance but the Gators going into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and definitively taking down the No. 1 team in the nation and best coach in the game. An SEC champion — even a two-loss champion — holds a lot of weight with the CFP Selection Committee, and a victory would give Florida a pair of top-10 wins on the season with one top-10 loss and a fluke defeat on a foggy night for the committee to consider.

But the Gators probably need additional help because the Crimson Tide are not going to be bounced out of the field with one loss. Florida likely needs Notre Dame to beat Clemson a second time — ensuring the ACC does not put two teams in — or Northwestern to beat Ohio State to open that additional spot. Another option would be the Tigers obliterating the Fighting Irish, but it will probably be tough to push Notre Dame out of the four-team field. (Texas A&M and Iowa State are unlikely to factor.)

“To win the SEC East and play in the SEC championship game in a year the first time in history you’re playing ten conference games in the league [is impressive],” Mullen said. “The resiliency to make it there. We’ve played seven straight games after a long layoff due to COVID. Just the resiliency our team has shown throughout the entire course of the season to kind of keep battling, keep coming back, keep making plays. I’m proud of everything they’ve done to give us this opportunity. I can’t wait to watch them go enjoy the moment and go have fun on Saturday in the championship game.”

2. You, again? Florida and Alabama are meeting for the 10th time in the SEC Championship Game, making them the most frequent matchup in this title clash by a wide margin. The Gators and Tide played in four of the first five SEC title games (1992-94, 1996) and met again in 1999, 2008-09 and 2015-16. Florida won three of those first four meetings but is 1-4 since with three straight losses, trailing Alabama 4-5 in these matchups. The Tide are 6-0 overall against the Gators since 2009 with an average margin of victory of 24.16 points. In the three SEC title games, that margin is 23.67.

Working for Florida may be its uniform selection. It is going classic with orange helmets, blue jerseys and white pants, a combination that is 4-1 in SEC Championship Games with four straight wins (1994, 1996, 2000, 2006). Hey, anything helps, right?

The Gators and Tide are both making their 13th overall SEC Championship Game appearances. Florida is 7-5 in its games, while Alabama is 8-4. When not playing each other, each team is 3-0 playing for the SEC title.

3. The Heisman Trophy race: This does not affect the game itself, but it’s especially notable nonetheless as Trask will face two other top-tier Heisman contenders in Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith on Saturday. Trask’s numbers blow out those Jones has put up to such a degree that it is simply absurd that the Tide signal caller has eclipsed the Gators passer as the favorite in betting markets. However, Smith deserves all the praise he has received and more. Smith has 83 receptions for 1,327 yards and 15 touchdowns. There should be no doubt those totals will get juiced Saturday against a Florida secondary and defense that has been burnt by far lesser receivers. Trask’s performance in the first half against LSU put a sour taste in voters’ mouths, allowing Jones to jump him despite having his own unspectacular game.

Perhaps Trask can win back some of that love on Saturday if he takes it to a tough Tide defense, but it’s really Smith who has the greatest chance to run away with the stiff-arm trophy by taking it to the Gators. “Obviously he’s got electric, scheme-breaking speed,” Mullen said of Smith. “He’s a great route runner. He’s a very, very polished football player with running his routes, the discipline of his routes. Then he has hands that he makes some absolutely spectacular catches. I think a pretty good combination. That makes him a very dangerous player out there on the field.”

4. Healthiest, most motivated all season? Mullen remarked multiple times this week that his team may be at its healthiest in 2020. Junior tight end Kyle Pitts, freshman running back Nay’Quan Wright, senior safety Shawn Davis and redshirt senior linebacker Jeremiah Moon are all expected back despite most being listed as questionable. Pitts said this week he expects to be 100%. Florida has not seen a single positive COVID-19 test in weeks. And the Gators have to be motivated considering how much criticism the team and individual players have faced, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

“I think I really like the energy our guys have had this week. I don’t want to say probably the — it’s been a long season, a big grind. We’ve been down so many players at different times during the year. It’s been a challenge,” Mullen said. “But I will say I think the energy level of practice is the highest it’s been in quite a while this week. I think that’s just the excitement the guys have for the opportunity to go play in this game.

Pitts has unfortunately fallen out of consideration for the Heisman, largely due to the fact that he’s missed three games due to injury. But Alabama head coach Nick Saban is perfectly aware of the matchup problems his defense will face on Saturday. “Kyle Pitts, he’s a fantastic player. His size and speed and athleticism, all those things make it very difficult to guard the guy,” Saban said. “He’s a very versatile player. He can play tight end, he can play on the line, he can play off the ball, out as a receiver. They move him around a lot. Creates a lot of issues and problems for you, no doubt. Probably as well as anybody we played against for a long time.”

5. Notes: Trask has been using the 2016 SEC Championship Game backpack throughout his Florida career, refusing to replace the tattered bag until the Gators made it back … Pitts said he was planning to play vs. LSU but the trainers were the ones who pulled his availability; though disappointed, he acknowledged they were looking out for his best interests … Mullen is 0-9 against Saban as a head coach … there will be less than 17,000 fans in Atlanta for the game due to COVID-19 … Alabama leads the SEC averaging 49.5 points per game, while Florida is second averaging 41.2 … the Tide have not lost to an SEC East opponent since 2010

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