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Florida vs. Alabama, SEC Championship Game, Sunday Rundown: Welcome to Atlanta

Florida didn't have much of a chance against one of the nation's best teams, especially once points started happening.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As always, the Sunday Rundown (which shouldn't have left you without a dope beat to step to) is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, and without a second look at tape. For Florida's 29-15 loss to Alabama, I watched from my apartment, on CBS.

How Florida Lost

Alabama scored a touchdown

It was over when Alabama went up 12-7. We all knew it, even before the Tide added another 17 points without an answer from the Gators.

Yes, Florida did score a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but that was in garbage time. Yes, Antonio Callaway could have returned another punt for a touchdown, but he didn't. Yes, Florida's attempts to strip the ball could have forced another turnover or two.

But Alabama wasn't losing this game unless a catastrophe of turnovers and system failures happened. And Florida got one of each. So Alabama won.


Atlanta was welcome

Florida won 10 games in its regular season, losing only to what was then a top-two team on the road just after losing its starting quarterback and to a "top-15" team (really, Florida State's one of the 10 best teams in the country) at home while in the depths of a truly horrific spate of offensive play. Then it lost to a College Football Playoff participant — and by just two touchdowns, covering a spread that some folks thought was too low.

Florida did this one season after being taken to overtime at home by Kentucky, losing a game to LSU thanks in part to a drop by a wide-open the to a mediocre South Carolina team, and blowing chance after chance to bury Florida State early.

And that season came after the most excruciating Florida season of the last 35 years.

Given how Treon Harris has played, and historic futility on offense with him at the helm, we're probably going to look back at this 2015 season, once many of the specifics of the games have faded, as an incredible, inexplicable blip — and we're definitely going to do that if Jim McElwain can maintain the Gators' magnificent defense while adding the parts needed to rebuild Florida's offense. But I think we should also realize and enjoy how unlikely it all has been in the moment.

So pardon me if I continue to harp on how welcome the surprise of Florida's 2015 was.


A proud, doomed defense

To be clear: Florida's defense was never going to be enough against either Florida State or Alabama. Not by itself.

That defense tried its absolute damnedest for the entire game against Alabama, though, after wearing out and getting gashed by Dalvin Cook last week. And it held up, save for big plays made by Jacob Coker and his stable of wide receivers: I think Derrick Henry probably maintained enough of a lead on the field to win the Heisman Trophy by running for 189 yards against the Gators, but he required 44 carries to do so, and averaged fewer yards per carry than Cook and Leonard Fournette had against Florida.

It fell into old bad habits, too. Marcus Maye was exposed twice in coverage; Vernon Hargreaves failed to jump perfectly with taller receivers and missed breaking up passes by inches as a result; Brian Poole was made to turn and follow a receiver, which is essentially always calamitous; Florida's defensive line got displaced up the middle, and was brilliantly schemed against by Lane Kiffin, who used just enough misdirection to keep the Gators from simply winning at the line of scrimmage over and over again — something that Florida did quite a lot despite Kiffin's play-calling.

It still made a goal-line stand after an absurdly bad Harris interception — and after a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that came just before the pick — to keep Florida within two scores, and keep faint comeback hopes alive.

But Florida has all but gone a year without giving up more than 35 points — the Gators' Big Ten bowl opponent, whether Michigan or Northwestern, ain't putting up 35 on this defense — and just played back-to-back games against excellent teams without giving up 28 on its own. (Florida's special teams scored two points for 'Bama, you may recall.) Geoff Collins, Randy Shannon, Chris Rumph, and Kirk Callahan deserve plenty of applause for keeping up a standard Will Muschamp set.

Antonio Callaway is amazing

I don't really have words anymore. All the kid does is make big plays — his nickname is so obviously "Big Play" that I'm flabbergasted I hadn't come up with it before this Sunday morning. He's Florida's most explosive player since Percy Harvin, and his importance to this team is significantly greater than Harvin's was to Florida in 2006.

Hell, I was only sort of serious when I suggested Callaway might be Florida's best freshman ever on Twitter yesterday, but, well, he really might be. At minimum, he's in the top 10; at minimum, Florida obviously loses one more game without him, but I think it might actually be two or three. One player, especially on offense, can mean so, so very much to a team.

Now: Can we maybe try Callaway on kick returns? Pretty please?


If I had been tasked with making a list of the 100 most likely things to happen in this game, I wouldn't have even considered "C.J. Worton makes a long touchdown catch." I would've predicted an Ahmad Fulwood or Chris Thompson touchdown catch before Worton unburying himself from Florida's bench to make one.

And the catch was maybe the best one by a Gator this year: While it wasn't either one of Callaway's one-handed marvels, it was at least as difficult because he was actually covered, and I still don't know how he came down with it.

Florida should have Callaway and Worton for two more years each, and is adding at least four young and hungry receivers to that core. If Worton proves he can be more consistent, that's a really promising nucleus.


Florida's linebackers might be really good in 2016

Also on the list of staggering developments: Matt Rolin played extensively and well on Saturday. Rolin has had about as many injuries in his three years in Gainesville as I have pieces of pizza on a night when I forget to eat an actual lunch, there was Rolin, collecting eight tackles, and trailing only Antonio Morrison with seven solo wrap-ups. He had more solo tackles than Jarrad Davis, who was seemingly everywhere on this day, too.

And this was against Alabama.

I'm even more skeptical about Rolin's ability to play at this level consistently than I am Worton's, because Worton's plight has mostly being lost in the mix. Playing time has been available for Rolin, especially since Alex Anzalone's shoulder injury earlier this year made Florida's linebacker corps dangerously thin instead of worrisomely thin, but he's been healthy for all of about three weeks, seemingly, and unable to step into a major role.

On Saturday, he did. And if Florida can pair him and Davis as outside linebackers on either side of Anzalone — who might well have been Florida's most impressive linebacker this season had he stayed healthy, given his own brilliant start to 2015 — in 2016, a unit that I thought of as maybe the trouble spot going forward could actually be a strength.

It may help to have Randy Shannon coaching your team's linebackers, as it turns out.

If you squint, it was almost kinda close

Florida could've scooped and scored that first Jacob Coker fumble. Hargreaves almost had his first pick-six on a brilliantly read route, but Calvin Ridley broke it up. A competent field goal kicker might have made a 40-yarder in a dome, and a competent field goal blocking unit might have kept defenders from blocking it.

Add 10 points, and Florida's driving at the end of this game. Add 17, and Florida wins it.

(It is not lost on me that Florida's missed opportunities to score points came on defense.)

There's no reason for Florida to try a field goal in its bowl game, he wrote, crossing his fingers

I mean, come on: Austin Hardin's kicked his last field goal for the Gators, right? McElwain's as completely, totally, and entirely done with having kicks blocked and having them sail harmlessly past the uprights as we all are? Florida can switch up its play-calling and maybe reignite its anemic offense by treating every fourth down beyond, say, midfield as either a punt-or-go chance?

Please? I know Hardin's a redshirt junior, and probably going to stay on scholarship for another year, but ... please?

Both Good and Bad

Florida's offensive line wasn't that bad!

Yeah, okay: 15 net rushing yards, with Harris freelancing to get 23 of them on one go, is terrible, even against Alabama, far and away the nation's best run defense. (Alabama did hold Louisiana-Monroe to nine yards earlier this year, so this wasn't the Tide front seven's best day.) And giving up five sacks wasn't great.

But Harris was culpable on at least a couple of those sacks. And Harris seemed to have time to make throws load up and misfire on passes slightly more often in this game than he did against Florida State, despite the Gators all but forsaking their running game.

The more this season has worn on, the more it has seemed to me as if the woes we worried about with this offensive line — especially related to its performance relative to previous offensive lines — should really have been worries about offensive design and quarterback play. Florida's line has been young and green all year, but when it had Will Grier firing passes quickly and enabling a screen game that has just disappeared over the last month, the pressure wasn't so intense that it wrecked the Gators' game plan.

It's only since Harris has been thrust back into the lineup, and the reintroduction of his far more deliberate work in the pocket and his much slower release to this offense, that the passing game has gone south.

I don't think Florida's line is good, but I do think the pieces as assembled aren't bad, and I trust Mike Summers to add the big pieces that were redshirting in 2015 and make the line far better. (Getting another 20 pounds on Martez Ivey so he can move to left tackle and return David Sharpe to right tackle alone will be a massive help.)

Florida's offensive line was supposed to destroy its season. It didn't.

That alone is a triumph.

Needs Improvement

Florida can upgrade at running back

Kelvin Taylor runs hard. He runs well, too, and smartly. He's had the best season of his Florida career, and a far better one than I was anticipating from him behind this line.

He's also not the kind of runner that fits Jim McElwain's system best.

The backs who have had incredible success for McElwain have been mostly thumpers, at least relative to their size: Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Kapri Bibbs. Only Ryan Mathews and Dee Hart — and it should tell you something that a first-rounder and a former five-star player are among McElwain's "lesser" backs — had been big-time primary Mac backs who were shiftier than they were powerful prior to Taylor, who is bigger than only Hart.

And incredible success is really McElwain's standard only in 2007 at Fresno State (when Mathews had 866 yards and his backup had 609), in 2010 at Alabama (when Ingram missed two games and had 875 yards, while Richardson had 700 as his backup), and in 2012 at Colorado State (when Donnell Alexander had 587 yards in nine games for a running game that ranked No. 97 nationally) have McElwain's offenses failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher.

Taylor will get to that mark if he has just 15 yards in Florida's bowl game, which would give McElwain six different 1,000-yard rushers in six different seasons for three schools. And while Taylor did just have only eight yards against the Crimson Tide, it's a safe bet he'll rebound at least a little against a non-Alabama front seven.

Yet McElwain's never had a lead back run for fewer than five yards per carry before. And while Taylor's at 3.9 YPC, having struggled when his line does in 2015, that's only brought down a career average that was already well under the 5.0 mark after Taylor's first two seasons. There's a decent argument that Taylor would be No. 7 on the eight-man list of McElwain's featured backs, ahead of only Alexander.

Fortunately for McElwain and Florida, Taylor's not going to be the only option in the Gators' backfield in 2016, if he even returns instead of heading to the NFL. Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite will each be one year older and stronger, and they'll be joined by JUCO bellcow Mark Thompson and the wildly underrated LaMical Perine to form a running back rotation that could be deeper than any Florida has had since Emmanuel Moody was around.

And while Florida needs a new quarterback most, it could really use a running back who could bounce outside and/or one who can just bull over tacklers, one who could turn Taylor's valiant efforts to get back to the line or get a couple of yards into three- and five-yard gains.

I'm happy for Taylor, sincerely, and happy that he's had the sort of season that should make most fans feel pretty good about the collegiate career of the most prominent legacy Florida football player ever. But all the talk from the offseason about Scarlett and Cronkrite wasn't just reflective of hype: It was a response to Taylor's lackluster production to that point. Though he's gotten more work and thus more yards in 2015, Taylor's per-carry performance suggests that there is much ground to be gained by another back who will come after him.


Treon Harris, bless his heart

Y'all don't really want to read words about Treon Harris unless they amount to "Treon Harris is the worst Florida quarterback ever" and "Treon Harris won't be Florida's starting quarterback in 2016," and I get that. I don't think the former is true, though, and while I think the latter is probably true, I'm not so sure about how parts will move around that I can guarantee anything on that front.

One thing I do know how to do, though, is illustrate a player's performance with stats. Here are five of those vividly illustrative stats for Harris.

  1. Harris has actually not been all that much worse in the aggregate than Florida's QBs were under Will Muschamp: His 139.1 yards per game is better than either he or Jeff Driskel mustered in 2014, better than both Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg managed in 2013, and better than Driskel managed in 2012. His yards per attempt and passer rating are more or less in line with those seasons of woe under Muschamp, too.

    But the stat that really, really shows how Harris struggles is completion percentage. Harris completed 49.8 percent of his throws in 2014, making him the first Florida QB to start at least half of the Gators' games and complete fewer than 50 percent of his passes since Kyle Morris did so in 1989. (Amusingly, both Harris and Morris threw exactly one more incompletion than completion in those years). And this year, in an offense that consistently creates more open receivers, and allows for easier throws ... Harris has completed 51.9 percent of his throws.

    I'm 25. The two least accurate seasons of quarterbackery by a Gator in my life both belong to Harris — and he's posted them in consecutive years.

  2. In his 14 starts over two seasons, Harris has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes seven times. In the 62 starts made by other Florida quarterbacks since 2010 — the dark ages, basically — those QBs completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes just five times.

    Oh, and Harris has completed exactly 50 percent of his passes in another three starts. Even when he's not terrible, he's bad.

  3. Harris was once thought of as a better runner than virtually every Florida QB that preceded him. (Note where he shows up in this Rundown.) But since running for 40 or more yards in four of Florida's last five games in 2014 — and only missing when injury forced him out of the Gators' rout of Eastern Kentucky, a game in which he could probably have managed to get 40 yards, Harris hasn't netted 40 rushing yards in a game.

    This is thanks largely to his propensity for taking sacks...

  4. ...because Harris has done that a lot. Since Florida's trip to LSU, Harris has been sacked multiple times in every game, and gone down five times in four of seven starts. Of the 43 sacks Florida has allowed this year — a tally which ranks the Gators No. 126 of 128 FBS teams in the category — Harris has somehow taken 30 of them, despite throwing only 43 more passes than Grier did.

    And while I'm not enough of a masochist to do the math on how many of the 199 yards Harris has lost as a runner are as a result of sacks — theoretically, that should be all of them, given that quarterbacks brought down behind the line of scrimmage on runs are usually considered sacked, but I'd have to add up every loss to be sure — I can tell you that Driskel lost 270 yards as a runner prior to the 2013 Sugar Bowl, over 11 starts to Harris's seven.

  5. Maybe the worst thing about the Florida offense with Harris as its quarterback, though, is the total lack of consistency. The Gators seem as arrhythmic as a bad heart with Harris throwing the ball — and the stats bear this out.

    You may recall that Harris completed his first eight passes of this season. You may also recall that he was pretty good at LSU, especially early on, completing four straight passes to open that game.

    What you might not realize is that, in his six starts since that night in Death Valley, Harris has completed at least four consecutive pass attempts just twice, once over a span of three drives at South Carolina, and one in a magical five-completion drive against Florida State — which ended with a fourth-down failure.

    When Harris completed three passes on consecutive plays against Alabama on Saturday, it was the first time all year that he had done so.

    But, hey, that's kind of rare, maybe, I thought. Kind of, yeah: Will Grier only completed three passes on consecutive plays twice against New Mexico State (over two distinct streaks of completions on five straight plays), once against Kentucky, once against Tennessee, once against Mississippi (over a span of six consecutive completions), and once against Missouri (over four straight completions).

So, yeah, Treon Harris isn't going to be Florida's starting quarterback in 2016.

VH3 lost his cool

I don't care about Jarrad Davis failing to properly hold up on the shot that drew his justified roughing the passer flag: That's just aggressive football backfiring. I don't really care about Demarcus Robinson doing another dumb thing by escalating some chippiness with Cyrus Jones on a block that sent both players to the ground: It's D-Rob.

But I do have to say that I'm disappointed that Hargreaves, who carries himself about as professionally as any Florida player ever has, decided to launch himself into a player's back on a punt return after the play was pretty clearly over. There was no football-related purpose to that act; it was just frustration.

And while it didn't cost Florida anything, it cost Hargreaves, one of my favorite Florida players ever, at least a little bit of my respect. I hope he plays well enough in Florida's bowl to erase this memory.

The bad refereeing didn't even matter

This is a tired complaint, but it really does feel like every Florida game against Alabama features at least two or three missed calls that favor the Tide. I saw two obvious missed holds get pointed out on Twitter, saw a third with my own eyes, and agreed with Gary Danielson on a missed illegal procedure for failing to put seven players on the line of scrimmage. Given the three weeks we have between now and Florida's next game, I might just try to put together a compilation of missed calls in this game.

But the embarrassing part isn't incompetence in officiating — or the way it gives life to conspiracy theories that presume bias toward either Alabama or the higher-ranked team from the SEC offices. It's embarrassing that this game wasn't really even close enough for any of those calls to matter: We're not talking about calls being the difference between Florida winning and losing, but between Florida losing by 15 and losing by like seven.