During Florida's first offensive drive, there was a slight glimmer of hope that this would be a close game. Quarterback Austin Appleby took the Gators right down the field and found wide receiver Antonio Callaway in the end zone to make it 7-0 Florida.
After forcing Alabama to a very rare three-and-out, Florida had a chance to jump on the Tide and seize momentum. That did not happen at all.
Appleby was picked off on the first play of the second drive by Shaun Dion Hamilton, who returned it to the Florida 12-yard line. The Gator defense would hold and force a field goal.
Three plays into the third drive, it looked like Florida was still in control. That notion quickly evaporated though, as Appleby threw an interception right to Minkah Fitzpatrick. When I say "right to", I mean this pass was way behind intended receiver Antonio Callaway.
It was the most blatant interception I had ever seen. Fitzpatrick gladly accepted his early Christmas present and ran it back to the house to put the Tide up 10-7.
Back at it again for a fourth drive, Florida moved a total of two yards from their 25-yard line and decided to punt after six plays. Johnny Townsend, the most reliable player on this team, came out to punt as usual. What happened next shocked me.
As Johnny prepared to boot the ball, Bama's Derrick Gore broke through the line and blocked the punt. The football was quickly scooped up by Josh Jacobs and ran in for a Tide touchdown. For the second straight year, Alabama had blocked a Florida punt in the SEC Championship.
Before Florida could even recover from that blocked punt, Jabari Zuniga turned right around and blocked kicker Adam Griffith's extra point attempt! David Reese scooped it up and took it the distance for a two-point conversion! It was now 16-9 Alabama.
This had to be the first time in college football history that two kicks had been blocked back-to-back and resulted in points for both teams. After a wild first half, Nick Saban and company would stop messing around.
Alabama put up 17 in the second quarter to score a record 33 points in the first half of the SEC Championship. An overmatched Gator offense tried to keep up, but a third Austin Appleby interception midway through the second quarter didn't make it any easier.
Right before the half, however, he was able to find someone in a Gator uniform as he hit tight end DeAndre Goolsby in the end zone to cut the lead to 33-16. This capped a 10-play 92-yard drive, by far Florida's longest of the game. It would also be Florida's last score in the contest.
Appleby finished the game completing 26 of 39 passes for 261 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He took four sacks and accounted for -32 rushing yards. Had he thrown one more pick, Appleby would have tied the record for interceptions in an SEC Championship Game.
Looking at Florida's ground game, their performance in this game was the worst it has been all season. On 30 attempts, the Gators had zero rushing yards. Of course, this doesn't surprise me when potential NFL first-rounders like Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster are lining up on defense for Alabama.
In the receiving corps, Brandon Powell led all Gator wideouts in receptions with nine grabs for 59 yards. Behind him was Florida's leading yard-getter in DeAndre Goolsby, who totaled 91 yards on seven catches with a touchdown. Rounding out the group was Antonio Callaway, who tallied 63 yards on four receptions with a touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, a battered Florida defensive unit allowed 372 offensive yards to the Tide. Disregarding the pick-six and blocked punt, the defense truly only allotted 40 of Bama's 54 points.
That may not make Gator fans feel any better, but keep the following in mind. Had those two plays not happened, Florida would have entered the half only trailing 19-16. It's not for me to say whether or not Bama would have pulled away, but a three-point deficit is much more easier to approach than a 17-point one.
Over half of Bama's scores came on the ground. Running backs Bo Scarborough (two), Josh Jacobs (one), and Derrick Gore (one) all managed to register a touchdown on the ground. Scarborough led the pack with 91 of the Tide's 234 rushing yards.
Had Bama's passing game been fully clicking, they could have reached 60 or 70 points in this game. Florida was able to limit the Tide's freshman phenom quarterback, Jalen Hurts, to 11 of 20 passing for 138 yards and a touchdown. They were even able to bring him down twice as Marcell Harris (one), Keivonnis Davis (0.5), and CeCe Jefferson (0.5) accounted for the Gator sacks on the day.
In addition to a sack, Harris recorded seven tackles (six solo) and broke up a pass. His efforts were good for second most among Gator players, tied with senior linebacker Daniel McMillian. The leading tackler for Florida was nickelback Chauncey Gardner. Making his second consecutive collegiate start, the true freshman racked up nine tackles (0.5 TFL) with one pass breakup.
Some other Gator notables on defense were linebacker Kylan Johnson, defensive lineman Keivonnis Davis, and linebacker Jarrad Davis. Both Johnson (2 TFL) and Davis (0.5) had five tackles while Jarrad Davis shocked many by even playing in the contest.
Battling an ankle injury, J.D. started the game at linebacker and finished with four tackles. On behalf of Gator Nation, I can say that his gutsy performance was much appreciated.
On a more disheartening note, defensive lineman defensive lineman Taven Bryan was ejected from the game during Bama's first drive of the fourth quarter. The reasoning was because he body slammed running back Josh Jacobs to the ground when making the tackle. Bryan was assessed a personal foul before being promptly ejected from the SEC Championship.
In the special teams unit, kicker Eddy Pineiro had no field goal attempts for the first time since the Tennessee game on September 24th. Despite having no field goal opportunities, the redshirt sophomore nailed both of his extra point attempts and sent all three of his kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks.
In the punting realm, it was more eventful than usual. In addition to a blocked punt, the Gators tried to run a fake punt from their own 33-yard line with the score 23-9 in the second quarter. This blew up about as much as anyone could have expected it to.
Johnny caught the ball (which wasn't even initially intended for him) on the run, but Alabama's Anfernee Jennings was waiting there to wrap him up. It was an 11-yard loss, but ultimately did not hurt the Gators as Bama missed the ensuing 40-yard field goal.
When Johnny was allowed to punt, he sent off four balls with an average of 54.2 yards per punt. He sent three punts over 50 yards with his longest being a 62-yarder. He pinned the Tide inside their own 20-yard line twice. He also got his hands dirty a little bit as he made two tackles in the game.
In the return game, Florida had no punt returns and six kickoff returns. Mark Thompson returned one kickoff for 21 yards while Chris Thompson ran back a total of five kickoffs for 124 yards.
Alabama's victory marked their third consecutive SEC Championship and seventh in school history, tying them for the most with Florida. This game was about what I expected. The offense was ineffective and the defense did the best it could to douse the flames. Special teams... was just a complete circus at times.
A miraculous win would have meant the first Sugar Bowl berth since the 2012 season for the Florida Gators, but instead it's another in-state bowl game. This time the now No. 17 ranked Gators will be heading to Tampa as they take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4) in the Outback Bowl.
Hmm, this seems familiar. Florida loses bad to Florida State, then gets routed in the SEC Championship by a stacked Alabama team, and now plays a Big-10 opponent in a Florida-based bowl game. Oh boy. This sounds a lot like last year, when Florida concluded their season with a humiliating 41-7 loss to the Michigan Wolverines in the Citrus Bowl.
What I'm alluding to is that I do not like Florida's chances in this game. Iowa is on a three-game winning streak that includes an upset win over then No. 3 Michigan (10-2) at home, a 28-point road shutout of Illinois (3-9), and a 30-point Senior Day beatdown against Nebraska (9-3). The Gators, meanwhile, have not even managed to reach 20 points since November 12th against South Carolina (6-6) on Senior Day.
This will be the fourth ever meeting between these schools and third ever in the Outback Bowl. Florida leads the series 2-1 but has split with Iowa in the past two Outback Bowls. In 2006, the Gators bested the Hawkeyes 31-24. Two years prior in 2004, the Hawkeyes thumped the Gators 37-17.
Kickoff for the prestigious Outback Bowl is set for 1 p.m. on January 2nd, 2017. The game can be seen on ABC and heard on the Gator IMG Sports Network. I have Iowa winning by 14 points.
As for Alabama, they have much bigger goals at hand. Despite winning four National Championships in the Nick Saban era, this is just the the second time that the Tide have entered the postseason undefeated. The last time such an occurrence happened was in 2014, which ended in a 42-35 semifinal loss to No. 4 Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff
Two years later the Tide find themselves in a similar position as they enter their third consecutive College Football Playoff. This time, however, the upstart No. 4 Washington Huskies (12-1) will be their opponent in the semifinal game at the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl.
As much as I like Washington and their young quarterback (and hopefully future Miami Dolphin) Jake Browning, I am going with the Tide here. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. on December 31st. The semifinal can be seen on ESPN and oddly enough, Alabama will be returning right back to the Georgia Dome for the game.
*All stats accredited to FloridaGators.com
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