What’s holding the Gators back from winning championships?

Florida’s season came down to 12 points over three games. That was the difference between the playoff and a New Year’s Six bowl.
Kyle Trask and the Florida Gators were 12 points away from a perfect season.
Kyle Trask and the Florida Gators were 12 points away from a perfect season. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published Dec. 20, 2020

ATLANTA —Twelve points.

That’s all that separated the Florida Gators from a perfect season. Twelve points over three games. Three-point losses to Texas A&M and LSU and Saturday night’s six-point loss to Alabama in the SEC championship.

Related: The Gators aren’t there yet. But they’re close. Oh so close.

Change the result of any of them, and Florida might be preparing for the College Football Playoff instead of another New Year’s Six bowl game.

So where do those 12 points come from? What’s separating coach Dan Mullen’s Gators from the Crimson Tide?

“We’ve got to get a little better up front on both sides of the ball,” Mullen said after the 52-46 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “Our guys play hard. You look, they’re a little more physical I think at the line of scrimmage than we were.”

That’s a fine place to start. Alabama sacked Florida five times and finished with seven tackles for a loss. The Gators only sacked the Tide twice. For the second week in a row, UF gave up a costly strip-sack that resulted in a field goal. That’s six of the 12 points right there.

The difference on the lines showed up in the running game, too. Alabama rushed for 187 yards; the Gators had 54.

Thanks in part to his line, Najee Harris ran over the Gators at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Thanks in part to his line, Najee Harris ran over the Gators at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]

Mullen talks a lot about turnover margin. UF lost that battle (2-1) Saturday and finishes minus-two this year. That includes a minus-three performance in the loss to LSU. Although there’s a lot of luck involved in turnovers, there’s no denying how much they hurt the Gators, from the fumble that set up Texas A&M’s game-winning field goal to the fumbled interception that led to a ‘Bama touchdown Saturday.

It’s easy and fair to point out how much UF’s defense struggled at times. But another takeaway or two in key spots, and the holes in the secondary wouldn’t matter as much.

Penalties are another easy problem to pinpoint. They hurt UF on three potential third-down stops in the first half, allowing the Tide to continue scoring drives. We don’t need to rehash the LSU shoe toss — an incident that would seem impossible at Alabama.

It’s fair, too, to second-guess other things, like clock management. Mullen was upset with himself for burning a timeout before a two-point conversion in the closing minutes Saturday night. It’s one of the many things that Mullen will be replaying in his head over the coming days and weeks.

“I mean, there’s a lot,” Mullen said. “Hey, the little mistakes we made during the game, how do we get that stuff fixed? How do I make sure that we’re not making the little errors in the game that cost us the game?”

Related: Warts and all, the college football season has been a success

Two other SEC championship leftovers:

Mullen said the game was “really the last time this team will play together, I imagine.” When asked whether that means the Gators will turn down a bowl game, he said that he knows “you want to run and make stuff up all the time, so go do that, if you want.”

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I guess I will. I assume that means some high-profile players will be opting out of the bowl game, because that’s what high-profile players do as the NFL draft looms.

One of those players who, theoretically, has a decision to make is quarterback Kyle Trask. He said he hasn’t thought too much about the NFL draft and will “make that decision in the future, the near future.” He has the option to return for another season, as all players do this year, but it’s hard to see him playing for the Gators next fall.