Kyle Pitts squatted in the corner of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium end zone, Gators helmet in hand, staring as Alabama swarmed the field to celebrate winning the SEC Championship that Pitts so desperately wanted to win at Florida. 

Perhaps Pitts was also reflecting, spending a few final moments in a Florida uniform in what he knew, given the heartbreaking result, would be his final game as a Gator. Maybe there were some regrets: the disappointment of missing Senior Day and watching your team lose its final game in The Swamp, the unfortunate, illegal hit in the Georgia game that cost him 2 1/2 games of his spectacular senior season.  A bit of reflection is normal in the end. 

Whatever Pitts was thinking about, the tight end left his heart and guts on the field in Atlanta on Saturday night. 

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Not even the great Nick Saban could scheme a way to slow Kyle Pitts in the end. The Tide tried everything: jamming him, putting fellow NFL first-round lock Patrick Surtain II on him, triple covering him. It didn’t matter. He simply couldn’t be stopped — not for four quarters. Alabama did a nice job of containing him in the first half, but Pitts feasted as Florida rallied in the second half. Pitts finished the SEC Championship game with 7 receptions for 129 yards and one spectacular, absurd touchdown catch, first finding space and then outleaping 3 Alabama defenders.

Florida got the ball back, but when they did, it was too late, and the Gators’ furious rally fell short. By late Sunday morning, Pitts had declared for the NFL Draft and opted out of Florida’s bowl game, a New Year’s 6 Cotton Bowl matchup against Big 12 champion Oklahoma. In a heartfelt Twitter note to Florida’s coaches, his teammates and fans, Pitts declared that he’ll “always be a Gator.”

Pitts will also always be a Gator great. 

There wouldn’t have been a rally Saturday night — or a trip to Atlanta — without Pitts, who etched his name into Gators lore with a junior season that saw him catch 43 passes in only 7 1/2 games and tally 12 touchdown receptions. An NFL tight end in a college uniform, Pitts made 23 explosive plays in his 43 receptions — the highest explosive play ratio in college football in 2020, just ahead of DeVonta Smith. 

He also closed the regular season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player in college football, with his 96.2 grade a full point higher than Mac Jones, who placed second. He finished his sterling Florida career with a clean 100 receptions for 1,502 yards and 18 touchdowns. Of his 100 career receptions, 47 went for “explosive plays.” He’s a lock to be a consensus first-team All-American, and he’ll earn a brick outside of Florida’s football building for the accomplishment. He’s also a lock to earn the distinction of greatest tight end in Gators history, no small feat at a school that’s had multiple All-Americans come through The Swamp at the position. 

The numbers and accolades are nice, but what Pitts ought to be remembered for at Florida is for giving the Gators a scare factor again. 

Not since Percy Harvin roamed the sidelines in The Swamp did Florida feature a player as frightening and taxing to opposing defenses as Pitts. Like Percy before him, Pitts was the riddle every defense had to try to solve, even if there wasn’t really a solution. The greatest players that come through programs attain that standing: the guy you have to account for on every snap even if there’s no accounting for them in the grand scheme. It’s tough to say where Pitts ranks on the list of all-time Gator greats. Tight end is a unique position and ranking players across generations is even more difficult than figuring out where a tight end is situated in the pantheon of all-time great players. What’s clear, however, is that Pitts is on that list, a special talent who keyed a program turnaround and helped propel a program with no offensive identity when he arrived into one of the nation’s most fearsome offenses and a destination for blue-chip tight ends when he left 3 years later. 

Florida will miss Pitts against the Sooners, whose improved defense helped them shake off a 1-2 start and capture the program’s 6th consecutive Big 12 title by winning their final 6 games. The Sooners are 1-3 in their last 4 bowl games against the SEC, but 3 of those defeats came in the College Football Playoff, with Oklahoma actually victorious in their last New Year’s 6 game against an SEC foe (a 35-19 Sugar Bowl rout of Auburn to close the Bob Stoops era in January 2017).

Kyle Trask and the Gators offense are still dangerous without Pitts — but the Gators aren’t the same — and as such, the game loses a bit of its luster, both as a litmus test for Oklahoma’s improved defense and a farewell for a special group of Gators seniors, including Trask and Kadarius Toney. 

There will be time for Florida to worry about the Sooners over the next 10 days. For now, the focus should be on celebrating the inimitable Kyle Pitts, who helped make Florida football fun again.