No. 1 Alabama faced its toughest test of the season and barely escaped on Saturday night, edging No. 7 Florida 52-46 in the 2020 SEC Championship Game to capture its ninth conference title and fifth in the last seven seasons. The game lived up to its high-octane hype at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith recovered Florida's onside kick attempt with 2:09 left to end a furious charge that made a game out of what once looked like a blowout. The Gators went 75 yards on 10 plays and hit paydirt to get within striking distance on a remarkable 22-yard touchdown toss from Kyle Trask to Kyle PItts. Florida coach Dan Mullen then decided to go for two with Trask running in for the conversion. Trask finished with 408 yards, four total touchdowns and a fumble.
That after Crimson Tide QB Mac Jones hit Smith for a 15-yard touchdown with 4:59 in the game to push Alabama's lead to 52-38 and put pressure on the Gators. Jones finished with 418 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.
Alabama got things rolling quickly by going 70 yards on nine plays on its first drive of the game. Touchdown drives of 31 yards, 73 yards, 70 yards and 78 yards followed during a first half in which punter Charlie Scott never saw the field.
What Najee Harris Did on Saturday:— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 20, 2020
• Became Alabama’s all-time rushing leader
• Set school record for career Rush TD
• Set school record for career TD
• Set SEC Championship Game record with 5 TD
• Tied school record for TD in a game (5) pic.twitter.com/Yvshsab3R4
Running back Najee Harris was the star of the show. The senior totaled 245 yards (178 rushing) with five total touchdowns (two rushing), breaking program records by scoring his 54th overall touchdown and 44th rushing touchdown. His 27 touchdowns in 2020 are one fewer than ex-Alabama running back Derrick Henry had in his Heisman Trophy year in 2015.
Smith broke Amari Cooper's career record of 3,463 receiving yards in the first quarter, and he ended the night with a single-game school record 15 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Alabama dotted its own record book and provided Heisman Trophy cases for its three stars, but Florida didn't seem to suffer a hangover from last weekend's shocking loss to LSU. It got back off the deck in the second half after falling into a 35-17 halftime hole. The Gators got within one score at 45-38 early in the fourth quarter after a 1-yard touchdown plunge from Dameon Pierce. That came after a sizzling third quarter that saw Trask hit Trevon Grimes for a 50-yard touchdown on the first drive, plus a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run from Nay'Quan Wright to get the Gators within striking distance at 35-31. It was just the second quarter all season in which Alabama failed to score.
Gators star tight end Kyle Pitts had 129 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, while WR Kadarius Toney had 153 yards receiving and a touchdown of his own.
The victory marked Alabama's seventh SEC title under coach Nick Saban, who arrived prior to the 2008 season. It caps an 11-0 season that will undoubtedly result in a trip to the College Football Playoff for the sixth time in the seven years that the four-team postseason event has been in existence.
Florida wraps up its regular season at 8-3 and will find out Sunday if it will head to its third New Year's Six bowl in as many years. CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm has the Gators projected to the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.
Here are the top takeaways from Saturday night's shootout.
1. The ball is in Sark's court
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been rumored to be a candidate for Auburn's vacant head coaching job, and could be interviewed as early as Sunday. There's no need for an interview, though. Auburn should just start throwing money at him. His second stint as Alabama's offensive coordinator has been one of the best redemption stories of the sport over the last two seasons. His offense put up 605 yards and averaged 7.3 yards per play on Florida, and it should set the single season program record unless it completely collapses in the CFP. This comes one year after it racked up 510.8 yards per game -- second-most in program history coming into this season.
Sark had an unceremonious dismissal from USC in 2015 after personal issues forced the Trojans to fire him halfway through his second season. As long as he has matured off of the field -- and there's nothing to suggest that he hasn't -- he has earned another shot. If it's not at Auburn, it should be somewhere else in 2021. That is, of course, unless Alabama wants to make him coach-in-waiting behind Saban.
2. Todd Grantham has to go
Mullen rewarded his defensive coordinator with a contract worth $1.8 million per year after the 2018 season that has him locked in Gainesville, Florida, through next season. It felt like he gave up one yard per dollar this year. This Florida defense has been a problem all season and was downright abyssal over its final two games -- losses against an incredibly young, thin LSU team last week and to a tough, veteran Alabama on Saturday night.
No, it's not a shock that Alabama's offense had success. After all, it's one of the best in the sport's history. But it seemed like something went wrong for Florida every other snap, including missed assignments, missed tackles, penalties and overall lack of effort. That's been a trend all year.
Mullen has Florida on the brink of national title contention. It has made New Year's Six bowl games in each of his first two seasons and will likely head to a third when bowl selections are made Sunday afternoon. If Florida doesn't find a defense, that is ceiling. If it wants more ... if it wants to win national championships ... it needs to move on from Grantham. This simply isn't working.
3. Heisman confusion?
I came away from the SEC Championship Game feeling less confident that an Alabama player would win, not more confident. That probably seems odd considering Jones, Harris and Smith had record-setting days, but that's precisely the problem. All three of them have legitimate cases to be called the most outstanding player in college football, which means that none of them will actually win.
There are three spots to fill in on the Heisman ballot. Is anybody going to put three Alabama players on their submissions? It's highly unlikely considering the seasons that Trask, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and others have put together. It's probable that some voters -- not me, but "some" -- will have a hard time putting two players from the same team on the ballot. That's going to hand the award to somebody else on a silver platter.
Trask certainly didn't do anything to lose it on Saturday. It wasn't his fault that Grantham's defense can't function. Lawrence's performance against a good Notre Dame defense in the ACC Championship Game will have a lot of voters buzzing. The junior threw for 322 yards, rushed for 90 yards and had three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing), in a game that reminded the world just how good he can b.
Alabama has three of the best players in the country. Those players might be too good for the Heisman. Hey, it's 2020. Nothing seems to make sense anymore.