ATLANTA — Florida coach Dan Mullen made it clear long before Saturday night’s kickoff that he didn’t consider the SEC championship to be a one-game referendum on his program.
“A win on Saturday night doesn’t mean we’ve arrived in any way, shape or form,” Mullen said Thursday.
Well his No. 11 Gators didn’t win Saturday. No. 1 Alabama did, 52-46. Mullen’s Gators haven’t arrived yet, either. But they’re close. They’re oh so close.
“We just ran out of time,” said quarterback Kyle Trask, repeatedly.
Hanging with the mighty Crimson Tide is an accomplishment most years, but especially this one. ‘Bama (11-0) is a super power — maybe the most complete team the greatest coach in the history of the sport has ever fielded.
The Tide is so deep that quarterback Mac Jones (418 yards, five touchdown passes), running back Najee Harris (245 total yards, five touchdowns) and receiver DeVonta Smith (15 catches, 184 yards, two touchdowns) are all worthy of being Heisman Trophy finalists.
“That’s why they’re ranked the No. 1 team in the country,” Mullen said. “Deservedly so.”
But, at least for four quarters Saturday, UF (8-3) wasn’t far behind. Only two teams have ever scored more against Nick Saban’s Tide than the Gators did Saturday. UF played ‘Bama closer than any team has all season and maybe closer than any team will.
Which makes the result so soul-crushing. In a shootout like this one, every defensive stop is critical. UF let too many slip away.
On Alabama’s first third down, UF jumped offside to give the Tide 5 free yards. ‘Bama converted and finished the drive with a touchdown.
On Alabama’s second third down, UF intercepted it … and fumbled it back to the Tide on the return. ‘Bama recovered and finished the drive with a touchdown.
On Alabama’s third third down, an illegal hands to the face penalty gave the Tide a first down. ‘Bama finished the drive with a touchdown.
On Alabama’s fifth third down, an illegal substitution gave the Tide 5 free yards. ‘Bama converted and finished the drive with a touchdown.
Take away any of those blunders, and the outcome might have been different.
The same goes for the turnovers. UF lost two of its five fumbles, leading to a field goal and a touchdown.
Despite those miscues, the Gators still, somehow, had a chance to win as three-score underdogs.
After allowing five first-half touchdowns, the Gators’ defense finally started getting stops.
UF’s offense finally began to explode, with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Trask to Trevon Grimes and a 22-yard jump-ball pass to tight end Kyle Pitts that made it a 52-44 game with 2:07 left.
“We were clicking on offense,” Trask said.
And that leads to the decision Mullen already regrets — one he’ll be stewing over from now until his next shot at a championship.
After Pitts’ late score, Mullen wanted to go for two. Make that, and another touchdown and extra point win the game.
“We’re here to win,” Mullen said.
But the Gators didn’t seem ready, so Mullen burned his second timeout.
“That was bad clock management on my part,” Mullen said.
And it was fatal. UF got the ball for a last-ditch attempt with 16 seconds left, instead of the 46 it could have been if Mullen had saved the timeout. Trask was sacked, and the clock ran out.
“If we just had a little bit more time, we’re sitting here the SEC champions,” Trask said.
They didn’t, and they’re not.
There are no moral victories for a program with three national titles, especially one that started talking up its College Football Playoff chances a year ago. The expectation for Florida is to win championships. They didn’t.
But Mullen’s Gators proved Saturday night that they’re close.
Oh so close.