No. 1 Alabama outlasted No. 11 Florida, 31–29, in a classic SEC battle between storied cross-division rivals. The victory was the Crimson Tide's eighth straight over the Gators dating back to 2009, though it was the closest the teams have played since a one-point decision (also in The Swamp) back in 1999. Alabama led by as much as 21-3 in the second quarter, while Florida played far better over the final three quarters of the game.
The Tide stuffed Gators running back Malik Davis on a two-point conversion immediately after RB Dameon Pierce ran it in from 17 yards out to cut the lead to two in the fourth quarter. Tide RB Brian Robinson Jr. then plunged just over the first-down marker on third-and-2 with just over a minute to play to move the sticks, drain the clock and essentially ice the game away.
It was a remarkable feat that Florida even kept it close considering how the game started. Alabama marched 75 yards for touchdowns on each of its first two drives, then turned an interception by Gators quarterback Emory Jones into six on their third drive of the game. That was when Florida's defense stood tall. It held Alabama to three-and-out on three consecutive drives, went into the locker room down 12 and came out of the locker room hot, scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. They scored touchdowns on their next two drives -- including one on the 11th play of a 99-yard scoring drive -- to keep things interesting.
A missed extra point caused the disparity in the score, forcing Florida to go for two on its final score, which came with 3:10 left in the game. If not for that miscue, the Gators would have likely kicked an extra point to tie the game with hopes of using their significant home-field advantage inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to take the Tide to the limit over the remainder of the game.
Alabama QB Bryce Young went 22 of 35 for 233 yards in his first road start, which included three touchdown passes on the first three drives of the game. Jones struggled through the air in the first half, but coach Dan Mullen went with more of a zone read scheme in the second half. Jones finished with 181 passing yards, 80 rushing yards and one score on the ground. Davis finished with a game-high 98 yards rushing plus a touchdown, while Robinson posted 82 total yards and two scores -- one each rushing and receiving.
What are the top takeaways now that the Tide have escaped the Gators in The Swamp? Let's break them down.
1. Bryce Young is the real deal
Was Bryce Young perfect? No. Was he unflappable? Again, no. Did things go too fast for him at times? Absolutely. With that said, he was the biggest star on a field that was littered with them on Saturday afternoon in Gainesville, Florida. His play in the first quarter alone put Alabama so far ahead that it was tough for Florida to catch up.
The Gators cranked up the heat in the second quarter, but whatever coach Nick Saban said in the locker room at halftime clearly settled him down. Young was 5 of 8 for 55 yards in the third quarter, led a touchdown drive and capped another inside the 10 with a field goal in response to consecutive Florida touchdowns.
Not a bad effort in what was not only his first road start, but the first time as a college football player ever playing in a hostile environment. Crowds were limited while Young was a backup last year. Alabama played in a neutral site in this year's opener, and no disrespect to the fans in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who saw the Tide take down Mercer last week, it's not like that was a big-game atmosphere.
Young entered Saturday as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and he showed you why in one of the toughest environments in college football.
2. The Gators defense stood strong
This game looked like it was going to get as sideways as the Titanic after hitting an iceberg early, but Florida's defense was lights out after getting punched in the mouth in the first quarter. The Gators forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter before Bama ran one kneel down to send it to halftime, which allowed Mullen's offense to make much-needed adjustments.
They held the Tide to just 91 yards on the ground, 324 total yards and 5.2 yards per play in one of the worst Alabama offensive performances in recent memory. That is an enormous accomplishment for Florida and an interesting development in the race for the SEC East title. Georgia's offense has been hit-and-miss over the first two games while QB JT Daniels fights through a core injury. perhaps it will be more vulnerable to Florida than initially believed.
The Gators appear to have an identity of defense and are starting to develop one on offense. Two good signs on its path to repeat as division champs.
3. Alabama (and Florida) needed this
The two-point win over Florida is the first time Alabama has been tested in a game since it lost to Auburn in November 2019. That's almost two full years. It's a stark reminder that winning college football games isn't as easy as last year's national championship squad made it look in 2020. Make no mistake, Saban was mentally smiling ear-to-ear as he undoubtedly laid into this team in the locker room after the game. This is a teaching opportunity that Saban hasn't had with the freshmen and sophomores on his roster. That's an important brick in the foundation of a championship-level team. If you're in Tuscaloosa and can hear practice this week, those loud noises that will sound like coaches yelling at players are not only necessary, they're founded in the joy of a staff that relishes these opportunities.
On the other side, there was a significant lack of confidence in Florida's offense under Jones, who threw four interceptions in his first two games and added a fifth early Saturday. Not only did Jones settle down, his confidence visibly grew as he completed passes and made big gains with his legs. The Gators' running game also helped him in that regard, as did not having freshman sensation Anthony Richardson available due to a hamstring injury. Florida has proven to be one of the best running teams in the country. If it can add anything in the passing game, it's going to be dangerous.
Emory Jones found his groove
Let's be real. If Mullen had Richardson available, he would have used him. Jones' backup went in on the third drive in each of the Gators' first two games of the season but was relegated to the sideline due to injury in this one. Sure, Mullen said he was medically cleared, but clearly not enough to play. (He noted after the game that Richardson was less than 100%, and Mullen didn't want to risk further injury.)
As a result, though, Mullen and Jones found out what works within the offense. The Gators came out and almost exclusively ran zone read and quarterback options to settle Jones down while clawing their way back in the game. Mullen now knows that he doesn't need to force Jones to be somebody that he clearly isn't: a downfield passer. The multi-dimensional rushing attack is what made this unit tick on Saturday, and it has to be what the game plan is moving forward. Mullen can give Jones more of the playbook at opportune times in order to further his development as a passer, but knows that he can play at an elite level despite his aerial limitations.