Rapid Reaction: Alabama captures SEC Championship, makes case for No. 1 seed in Playoff
Alabama’s three Heisman Trophy contenders have taken turns playing — or sometimes sharing — starring roles on the Crimson Tide’s offense this season.
At Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, it was running back Najee Harris’ time to shine.
Harris scored 5 touchdowns (3 receiving and 2 rushing) to set an SEC Championship Game record and Mac Jones threw for 5 scores as No. 1 Alabama outlasted No. 7 Florida 52-46 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Bama likely sewed up the top seed for the College Football Playoff semifinals and seems certain to head to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The Gators made a game of it in the second half but just could not come up with enough stops on defense.
Florida pulled within 6 with 2:07 left, but DeVonta Smith recovered the onside kick and Alabama ran just enough clock to secure their 7th SEC crown under Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide went wire-to-wire atop the CFP rankings going into Saturday and there is zero reason to think that the voters will put coach Nick Saban’s team anywhere but No. 1 when the final rankings are released Sunday.
Alabama led 35-17 at halftime, capped by a quick 8-play, 75-yard TD drive in the final minute of the second quarter. Harris caught a pass from Jones and took it 17 yards for the score with 6 seconds left.
Kyle Trask, Florida’s Heisman contender at quarterback, certainly did his part to keep the Gators in the game. Trask, who threw for 408 yards and 3 scores, ran for another and carried his team on a 75-yard TD drive to start the second half to reduce Florida’s deficit to 35-24.
Then Nay’Quan Wright ran for a 3-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left in the third quarter to cap an 80-yard drive and bring the Gators within 35-31. After Harris recorded his 5th touchdown of the night, UF drove for another touchdown, Dameon Pierce’s 1-yard run, to get within 45-38 with 6:33 left.
Jones broke the SEC title game record for passing yards (breaking Gator star Danny Wuerffel’s mark of 401 in 1996) as the Crimson Tide completed the remarkable feat of remaining unbeaten after 11 games in a season when they faced only SEC opponents.
Jones finished with 418 yards and 5 TD passes.
Harris also broke the career record for rushing touchdowns at Alabama. He came in with 42, tied with Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram, the program’s 2 Heisman Trophy winners. Harris, a senior, hadn’t had a receiving score all season until Saturday, but he had 7 in the 2019 season so it wasn’t like his catching ability was a shock.
Still, his 3 TD catches tied the SEC Championship Game record, which is probably something few would have predicted on a team with a weapon like wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the third member of Alabama’s Heisman-contending triumvirate. Smith had his usual 100-plus receiving yards and 2 TDs, but if it’s possible to call such a performance “quiet” then that was the case against UF.
Harris showed a different side to his game for Bama’s 3rd touchdown, catching a pass out of the backfield and breaking out a neat spin move to duck defensive back Jaydon Hill’s tackle attempt on his way to the end zone. Harris’ 7-yard touchdown reception gave the Tide a 21-10 lead.
Florida’s defense finally got a stop early in the second half, when Kaiir Elam tackled Smith short of the marker on a 4th-down catch. Alabama had scored on 5 of its 6 first-half possessions.
Safety Trey Dean intercepted Jones in the first quarter, wrestling the ball away from tight end Miller Forristal. But the Gators didn’t get to keep the ball because Bama receiver John Metchie nailed Dean and knocked the ball out, leading to a Crimson Tide fumble recovery.
That double-turnover led to Bama’s second touchdown as Jones hit Smith on a 31-yard crossing pattern for a score and a 14-7 lead. UF answered with Evan McPherson’s 40-yard field goal to get within 14-10.
Harris capped Alabama’s opening 70-yard drive with an easy 8-yard touchdown run; he came into the night leading the nation with 22 TD runs. The Crimson Tide showed impeccable balance right away on that first drive: 4 runs for 30 yards, 3 completions for 35 yards and a 5-yard penalty against the Gators.
UF responded on its first possession with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Trask to Kadarius Toney to tie the score at 7. That start by both teams was unsurprising in a matchup of the nation’s No. 5 total offense (Alabama) and No. 8 total offense (Florida).
But Florida had two weaknesses that vexed many Gators fans all season: The lack of a rushing attack and an inability to stop opposing teams on 3rd down. UF came in allowing foes to convert 38.9% of 3rd downs (in fairness, Alabama wasn’t much better at 38.4%) and the Crimson Tide converted 9 of their first 13 chances. And Florida’s running backs were all but invisible in the offense all night.