Florida outgained Alabama 83-38 in the first quarter. Later, receiver Antonio Callaway returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to give the Gators a lead.
But then the dam broke.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide had seen enough, scoring 27 unanswered points en route to a 29-15 rout for their second Southeastern Conference championship in a row.
Alabama (12-1) pummeled No. 18 Florida (10-3) into the Georgia Dome turf, clinching a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals and winning coach Nick Saban’s fourth SEC title with the school.
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“I don’t think anybody really thought after the Ole Miss game this team would wind up here,” Saban said. “To be honest with you, I had some questions in my mind as to whether we’d wind up here.”
Many are asking similar questions about the Gators.
Although Florida certainly earned the right to play Saturday, the Gators also showed how much farther first-year coach Jim McElwain’s rapid rebuild needs to go.
“I don’t think there were a lot of people around the country that thought we’d play in this football game,” he said. “But they never backed down.
“We’re a program on the rise. We’re a program on the build.”
Alabama running back Derrick Henry, named the game’s MVP, likely locked up the Heisman Trophy with 189 yards on 44 carries, and yet the Tide’s suffocating defense was the story.
After McElwain warned everyone all week about Alabama’s “creatures,” the Tide’s loaded defense harassed the Gators all afternoon.
Florida’s offense continued its late-season swoon, surrendering five sacks, rushing for just 15 yards and going a ghastly 0 for 11 on third down.
The Gators gained just a single yard in the second quarter. Then they barely managed to double that total (2) in the third quarter.
“They took it to us a little bit,” McElwain said.
Quarterback Treon Harris’ struggles continued, as the sophomore was 9 of 24 for 165 yards with one touchdown and an interception. In between a pair of perfect 46-yard bombs, Harris completed a pass to himself, tossed an interception and threw seven balls to air.
Florida’s lone offensive touchdown was a garbage-time score by wideout C.J. Worton, a South Dade product who made a sensational 46-yard catch to snap UF’s streak of eight straight quarters without an offensive score.
The game was mostly a defensive grudge-match early until Callaway, a freshman sensation from Miami Booker T. Washington, put the Gators on the board with an electric punt return — the longest in SEC Championship Game history.
But then the Gators fell apart.
Although the Gators defense did its best to hold Henry & Co. in check, Florida’s quarterback and special teams imploded, and McElwain’s “week of discovery” quickly turned into a dark day.
Austin Hardin had a field-goal attempt blocked for the third consecutive game, and Florida’s sensational punter Johnny Townsend had a punt blocked for a safety.
The last time UF had two kicks blocked in the same game, former coach Will Muschamp was fired the very next day.
“I think the shock and awe of their size and speed might have got them a little bit,” McElwain said.
Alabama’s offense didn’t get going until late in the first half when quarterback Jake Coker uncorked a 55-yard pass to freshman wideout Calvin Ridley, who beat All-American defensive back Veron Hargreaves III on the play. Two plays later, Henry dove into the end zone to get the Tide really rolling.
Alabama poured on the points in the second half, adding a field goal and two Coker touchdown passes, including a ridiculously athletic 32-yard reception by ArDarius Stewart.
Coker finished the day 18 of 26 for 204 yards, adding 23 yards on the ground and proving to be the more useful running quarterback.
Still, Florida never broke.
The Gators, likely destined for a spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, had their chances early, strip-sacking Coker in the first quarter but failing to recover the fumble.
Later, Hargreaves nearly snagged a key interception, and Florida did nothing with a Henry fumble.
In the end, there were plenty of “what if’s” for the Gators, but McElwain loved the heart, effort and experience for his team.
“It’s all part of the discovery of this football team,” he said. “The taste of being here, you can’t put a price tag on that because the thirst to get back becomes oh so great.”
Added Callaway: “We’ll be back.”