CECIL HURT: Familiar foes Alabama and Florida face off to cap strange season

Cecil Hurt
Tidesports
Florida head coach Dan Mullen talks with quarterback Kyle Trask (11) during the Gators' game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, December 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Late Saturday night, Alabama was relieved to have the final regular-season game over. A win in hand, relatively unscathed and holding a perfect 10-0 record , the Crimson Tide was ready to move on. When you are in a rhythm like Nick Saban’s team is right now, sometimes it is best just to keep dancing to the music.

Florida, on the other hand, must be wondering what had just happened. From holding its destiny in its hands – or jaws, if you prefer – the Gators were looking at possible exile from the College Football Playoff, even if they upset Alabama and win the SEC title.

Would a two-loss Florida supplant Alabama, with the mightiest metrics in all of college football, even with a head-to-head upset? Did Greg Sankey’s commendable commitment to playing the games that were on the schedule cost his league an outside shot at having two College Football Playoff participants, even while the ACC and Big Ten were gerrymandering their schedules to protect their contenders?

Let’s be clear: Florida should have beaten LSU anyway, even without Kyle Pitts, even with shoes flying through the fog. LSU deserves credit for a great effort, but it has a depleted roster and Florida still couldn’t maintain dominance on the lines of scrimmage.

So where does that leave the Gators, psychologically speaking, as they head to test Alabama in Atlanta?

“You’d have to ask them,” Saban answered with a shrug on the SEC Zoom call that started the week of championship-game hype. “I really don’t know. I feared that our players might be looking forward to the SEC Championship Game in terms of playing up at Arkansas, and I was really pleased that (they were not). We didn’t start out great, but we played pretty well in the game.

“I think it’s a challenge for any coach with any team when you’re in that situation. But I can’t answer that for them.”

More:Three things we learned about Arkansas in a 52-3 home loss to No. 1 Alabama

As for his own team’s motivation, Saban is less about CFP seeding and more about bringing another SEC title to Tuscaloosa. 

“It’s an honor, and having been in this game in the past I think this is one of the best venues in college football,” Saban said. “Certainly the opportunity to play a very, very good Florida team, probably one of the top teams in the country, one of the top 10  teams in the country, maybe even better than that. Obviously on offense, they’re the No. 1 passing offense in the nation, and they’ve got some great skill guys.”

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban looks up at a replay at Arkansas Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. [Photo by Kent Gidley, University of Alabama]

That passing offense, especially with Kyle Pitts back from whatever sidelined him against  LSU, is the nagging doubt in Alabama’s mind. It will be the most diverse air attack that Alabama has faced all season – or at least since the Ole Miss game, which is not at all comforting for Crimson Tide fans. Trask seemed uncharacteristically ill at ease against LSU, but may not stay that way in consecutive weeks. There will at least be some intrigue because of that, far more than there has been for the past six weeks, even against Auburn and LSU. 

Evan Neal should be back on the Alabama offensive line, which will help. The defense has been steadily improving. To paraphrase Gene Stallings’ words from 1992, when Alabama was getting ready to face Florida in that first SEC Championship Game at Legion Field, the Crimson Tide is 10-0 but hasn’t won anything yet. It will take another week of focus to change that.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt

Cecil Hurt