See ya later Florida Gators: Tide rolls on in SEC title thriller

Only one team stands between the Tide and a trip to the Natty. But Alabama can’t afford to let its guard down.

Saturday night, Alabama escaped the chomping jaws of the Florida Gators to win their ninth SEC conference title under head coach Nick Saban.

Fighting until the very last second, the Crimson Tide set up a College Football Playoff semifinal against Notre Dame on Jan. 1. This win is a testament to the team’s relentless spirit, which was present well before the season started.

Back in September, players and coaches discussed the disappointment of last season. Heartbreaking losses to LSU and Auburn fueled the team’s desire to get back to the “Alabama standard.” That standard? Winning championships. 

The path to the SEC title was not easy, as the Tide faced all SEC opponents in a COVID-19 ridden season, but that didn’t matter. It’s Alabama football. People expect the Crimson Tide to win. The players want to win. So Alabama did what any winning team does: They overcame adversity and focused their eyes on reclaiming glory. 

Florida, despite losing to a kicker whose eyes can pierce through fog, posed a steep challenge for the Crimson Tide. In a press conference early last week, head coach Nick Saban discussed the obstacles Florida would present. 

“Florida is a very challenging team,” Saban said. “One of the best offensive teams in the country in a lot of different ways in terms of touchdowns, scoring points, pass offense, really good quarterback, really good mismatch players on the perimeter.” 

Alabama looked up to the challenge, as they were able to move down the field on the first, with running back Najee Harris scoring his first of two rushing touchdowns. Alabama couldn’t afford to get comfortable. Florida answered immediately, with Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney zooming past cornerback Malachi Moore for the touchdown. 

The first drives by both teams set the tone for the game: a pound-for-pound slugfest. Florida had the firepower to compete with Alabama offensively and looked to do just that. But Alabama had a different idea. 

Despite Florida’s ability to move the ball effectively with motions and screens, the Gators only managed to score 17 points. Alabama kept the Gators off the field, having nearly double the time of possession Florida had. Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith and running back Najee Harris had two touchdowns in the first half respectively. It looked like Alabama delivered the knockout blow. Florida, however, was not out quite yet. 

“They certainly showed a lot of competitive character to come back into the game and keep fighting to get back in the game,” Saban said. 

Florida weathered the first-half storm and made the game competitive in the third quarter. The Gators scored fourteen unanswered points, led by the duo of quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts. The Gators were able to go back to what worked well for them on the first drive: motions and screens. The defense, trying to find ways to stop the offense, started making costly errors, which kept the Tide’s defense on the field.  

Despite the errors, the Tide kept pushing. Alabama made key stops that prevented Florida from scoring. Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle discussed the fight the defense put forth in a press conference after the game. 

“We had to drop our you-know-what and, you know, man up today,” Battle said. “It was a tough game and I like how we finished today.”

Florida tested the limits of defensive coordinator Pete Golding’s defense and while the Gators were able to create some cracks, the Tide’s defense never shattered. Alabama’s offense would regain footing in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Gators 17-15. Then, a sack by linebacker Christian Harris drove the nail in the coffin. Unable to reset for another play, Florida players, coaches and fans watched as Alabama ripped away their playoffs hopes. 

Emotions were, of course, high for both teams. Disappointment and feelings of “what if” were evident for Florida. For the Crimson Tide, every member of that team showed gratitude and humility toward the SEC title. Alabama running back Najee Harris discussed what it meant to be SEC champions once again. 

“To have these [SEC Championship] hats on, it’s an honor because we, at first, didn’t know if we were going to play or not,” Harris said. 

An offseason filled with question marks and off-field issues guided Alabama back to the top of college football. From speaking out against social injustice to navigating COVID-19 outbreaks, this team was tested all year. 

The new year will present a new challenge to a team that’s embraced every curveball thrown their way. They’ll be up against Notre Dame, a team that’s been seeking revenge since 2012. The key? Don’t underestimate the Fighting Irish.

Despite how people feel about their playoff worthiness, Notre Dame snagged a win from Clemson. Alabama can’t afford to look past the semifinals. They must do what they’ve done all season: stay in the moment and finish the task at hand.