Florida's furious comeback falls short against Alabama, but Gators see who they can be
For a while on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in Gainesville, it felt like old times in The Swamp, a throwback Saturday to the halcyon days of Spurrier and Meyer when it wasn’t just Alabama that ran this magnificent college football conference.
It felt like the Florida-Alabama of old. The building buzzed before the game, the student side bleachers shook, and the alumni side roared to life. When Gainesville’s favorite son Tom Petty’s anthem “I Won’t Back Down” blared from the stadium speakers as the third quarter came to a close, the sold-out crowd of 90,000-plus sang their hearts out, knowing their Gators had a chance to do what so few thought would happen all week: Beat No. 1 Alabama.
It wasn’t to be, of course. The Crimson Tide’s defense, shredded by Florida’s versatile run game all afternoon, came up with a huge stop on a zone read on a 2-point conversion with 3:10 remaining, holding on to a 2-point lead that would ultimately be the difference in the 31-29 outcome. Florida’s defense would have a chance to get the Gators the ball back with time to win the game late, but they came up empty against an Alabama run game they had bottled up most the afternoon. When Emory Jones and the Florida offense finally did get the ball, they had time for just one play, and it ended the same way last year’s SEC Championship game ended — with an Alabama sack.
It was the latest close call for Dan Mullen against Alabama, who has now come within a touchdown of beating Nick Saban the last 3 times he’s squared off against the greatest college football coach who has ever lived.
Saturday’s game felt different, however, and not just because of the electric atmosphere in Gainesville, which welcomed Alabama for the first time in over a decade. It felt different and not just because The Swamp felt different — a throwback environment to the great Spurrier and Meyer Swamps of old.
It felt different because true to the Tom Petty anthem, the Gators didn’t back down. They could have, quite easily. They could have quit when Alabama stormed to a 21-3 first-half lead, slicing apart Florida’s defense like butter on 3 first-quarter possessions. They could have quit when Emory Jones missed a wide-open Xzavier Henderson early and threw behind him for an interception instead — his 5th in only 9 quarters as the Florida starting quarterback. They could have rolled over when they lost their best run-blocking offensive linemen, Stewart Reese, to an injury while attempting to claw their way back into the game.
Instead, Florida fought. They fought their way back from an 18-point deficit and nearly erased the largest Alabama lead since the “Cam Back,” only to fall a yard short of a potential overtime on a 2-point conversion late.
Would Florida fans need to talk of fight and heart and moral victories if they had buckled their chin straps for 60 minutes, instead of 45? Probably not. Todd Grantham’s early game plan, to play soft coverage while also only bringing pressure on third downs, was malpractice. It allowed Bryce Young to get comfortable, deliver the ball on low-pressure throws to his playmakers in space and make throws with a numbers advantage when the Gators brought predictable third-down heat. The result was Alabama converting every third down in the first quarter and dominating the game’s opening frame so extensively that they could win despite scoring only 10 points the rest of the way. The Tide finished the game 7-of-13 on third down; those numbers included only 3 conversions in the final 3 quarters.
Whatever you think of the rest of the game, if you believe, like Nick Saban or Steve Spurrier do, that building a champion is a process — then there is plenty to take away –Mullen needs to ask serious questions about whether Grantham is the man to lead his program’s defense to the next step as time marches forward. That is true regardless of the fact that Grantham, to his credit, made the adjustments that were necessary to slow the Tide’s offense for much of the game’s final 3 quarters.
Despite the atrocious start, Florida fought. It’s the fight — and the things it learned about itself in the fight — that Florida can take with it the rest of the season. For example, Florida outscored Alabama 26-10 over the game’s final 45 minutes, a tally that included a remarkable 11-play, 99-yard touchdown drive where the Gators absolutely manhandled the Crimson Tide’s marvelous front 7, rushing for 63 yards on 6 attempts. If there were questions about Florida’s offensive line entering the game, there are answers leaving it, including the fact that new left tackle Richard Gouraige, a former blue-chip who waited until late in his sophomore season to start, is a magnificent football player. Gouraige collected 3 pancake blocks and held his own in the run game, despite being matched up frequently with the likes of Will Anderson and Phidarian Mathis. On the evening, the Gators’ offensive line paved the way for 245 yards rushing and 4 rushing touchdowns, numbers nearly good enough to pull off a stunning upset. Nearly.
Florida also learned promising things about its new starting quarterback. Nick Saban praised Jones in his postgame radio remarks and with good reason. After a rough first quarter, Jones, forced to play exclusively due to Anthony Richardson’s hamstring injury, steadied the ship — and his football team — throwing accurate passes and both making and extending plays with his legs. His 282 total yards and a touchdown weren’t good enough to win, but in just the 3rd start of his career, he proved he can go toe to toe with the national champions.
Florida also learned its revamped front seven can play football. Playing without captain and star middle linebacker Ventrell Miller, the Gators were tremendous up front, getting pressure with four throughout the game and fitting run gaps beautifully in limiting Alabama to just 3.1 yards per rush and 91 yards rushing. Does the secondary need work? Absolutely. But they won’t see a better group of receivers again this season until the Cocktail Party and have over a month to work out those rough edges.
Finally, The Swamp was The Swamp — a broiling hot, scary cauldron of sound that forced several Alabama procedure penalties and gave the Gators a much-needed lift throughout the afternoon. It wasn’t enough, in the end.
Dan Mullen is 0-11 against Nick Saban, in the end, and 0-1 in the SEC for the second time in his tenure. Florida has now lost 8 consecutive games to Alabama, which learned plenty of lessons of its own Saturday, including the valuable lesson that their young quarterback is plenty good enough to lead them to a win in a brutal environment on a day the run game doesn’t do much to help.
It was a Saturday in the SEC about lessons learned and resilience showed, on either side of the football. And for Dan Mullen, it was an encouraging reminder of how close his program is and a heartbreaking reminder of how far it still has to go, all at once.
Will Florida build on this, declining to take solace in a moral victory and focusing, instead, on playing Alabama one more time this December? Or will the Gators falter, losing to teams that lack their talent but consistently play with the grit and resolve we saw Florida flash for the final 3 quarters on Saturday?
Time will tell. If Florida builds on it, there could be a few more Saturdays in The Swamp this year that feel like old times. Except with Florida winning. And wouldn’t that be the true throwback?