GAINESVILLE — Nothing changed in the world of college football Saturday except, maybe, the way we view it.
Alabama is still No. 1, Florida is still chasing greatness and a packed stadium in any college town is still the most magical place on the planet.
No, nothing is different except for the remote possibility that the Gators just altered expectations, perceptions and countless dreams for the 2021 season.
That’s your takeaway from Saturday’s down-to-the-final-play showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 11 Florida. The Crimson Tide prevailed 31-29, but they left chunks of invincibility scattered all around Florida Field.
And the Gators left too many missed opportunities, as well as a couple of extra-point conversions, in their wake.
“We just dug ourselves an early hole we had to do ourselves out of,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “We did, just came up a play (short).”
The Gators were certainly not the better team on Saturday, but they may be the better story going forward.
Essentially, they provided hope for the rest of the Southeastern Conference. Hope that Alabama’s defense could be flawed. Hope that the talent gap between the Crimson Tide and the rest of the league is not as wide as it seemed. Hope that suspense is still alive and well in the SEC.
And that goes for the Gators, too. They may be 2-1 today, but they still control their own destiny. If they take care of business in the SEC East and beat No. 2 Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 30 — which is hardly guaranteed, but looks a lot more promising now — then they could get another shot at Bama in the conference championship in Atlanta in December.
“It was a fun game to be a part of. You love these games,” Mullen said. “It’s been 10 years since you’ve had that (Alabama) game here in The Swamp. Hopefully we play them more often. To be honest with you, I hope we play them really soon, like later this season.
“I want that opportunity.”
If you haven’t kept track, Florida and Alabama have now played two epic games in the past 10 months and have been separated by a wing and a scare. The Gators lost the SEC title game last season by six points and Saturday’s game by two. After 120 minutes of football, Alabama has gained 929 yards and Florida has 901.
“We had a difficult time stopping the run,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They had 258 yards rushing, and I don’t think we’ve had that for a long time.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way Saturday. Alabama came in as a 15.5-point favorite, with a 31-game win streak against SEC East teams. And before the first quarter had ended, they were on top of the Gators 21-3.
In some ways, that may be Florida’s greatest accomplishment. Playing the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the nation, the Gators got blown out in the first 15 minutes and still refused to believe they were the lesser team.
You could make an argument that Florida outplayed Alabama for the next three quarters, although Saban suggested his defense lost some of its intensity and focus after jumping out to the big lead.
In the end, it came down to a missed extra point, an interception, a third-down stop. Change any one of those plays and the game may turn out differently. Of course, that’s not how this works. The Gators deserved this loss because they screwed up just enough times to allow Alabama to escape.
Once senior kicker Chris Howard missed the point-after in the second quarter, the Gators were forever playing catchup. When they scored a touchdown in the final three minutes, they had a shot at tying it up with a two-point conversion, but Mullen said they had one player line up wrong and another went in the wrong direction and the running play was easily stuffed by Alabama.
“We’re getting there,” Mullen said. “You know we had the opportunity last year to play for the SEC championship, fell six points short. The No. 1 team in the country, we’re two points short today. So I think we’re getting there. I think we’re at the point where we can compete, but we’ve got to get the point where we’re going to win.
“I think that’s the hunger in the locker room. I mean, you see our guys in the locker room, they wanted to win that game. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we played a great game.’ I think there’s legitimately some disappointment that we didn’t win the game because we expected to.”
And if they believe that, then maybe the college football world really did change Saturday.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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