For the Florida Gators, this 2020 season was always going to come down to the question that loomed over it if the Gators rose as high as they could:
Was this team as good as the Alabama Crimson Tide? Could it beat the Tide, if need be?
The answers provided on Saturday night in Atlanta, in a classic SEC Championship Game, were the least satisfying possible: Maybe, just maybe, Florida was in actuality a match for this Alabama team — but no, the Gators could not beat them, falling 52-46 in a game of almost and nearly.
Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards — which would have been an SEC Championship Game record, if not for Alabama quarterback Mac Jones throwing for 416. He accounted for four touchdowns to Jones’s five.
Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts were spectacular: The former had eight catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, and was practically Florida’s offense for one drive in the waning moments of the first half; the latter returned after a week spent sidelined and steamed about it to catch seven balls for 129 yards and make maybe the best catch of his career, a twisting, acrobatic touchdown grab that pulled Florida within a touchdown of the Crimson Tide late.
But Najee Harris and Devonta Smith were better, with Harris running for 178 yards and catching five passes for 67 yards and scoring five touchdowns and Smith catching an alarming 15 passes for 184 yards and two scores, including the score that pushed Alabama past the 50-point mark.
And while Florida’s defense stiffened in the second half, engineering multiple stops after conceding five touchdowns on six possessions in the first period, it wasn’t enough to stymie the Crimson Tide, which accrued 605 yards of total offense.
Little things on the margins helped with that.
Alabama got the ball back immediately after Trey Dean’s interception ended its second possession, with a hellacious hit forcing Dean to fumble on his runback and a one-play drive with a strike to Smith capitalizing on the Gators’ takeaway that wasn’t.
The Crimson Tide also took advantage of being left just more than a minute left on the clock in the first half by Florida, which punched in a touchdown on first and goal to slice the Tide’s lead to 28-17 and leave itself in fine shape to whittle further after receiving the first kickoff of the second half.
Instead of getting that chance, the Gators yielded an eight-play, 78-yard sprint that made the halftime score 35-17 — erasing the progress made on diminishing Alabama’s advantage.
But Florida would fight in the second half, scoring 14 points to Alabama’s zero in the third quarter and stopping two Crimson Tide drives that crossed midfield in the process. Even Trask fumbling to give up a possession when down 42-31 did not prove fatal: Florida allowed just a field goal, and struck back to close to 45-38 on its next possession.
The Gators would also answer Alabama’s final score with the touchdown drive capped by Pitts’s pluck, and successfully went for two to make a touchdown and a point after a game-winning, rather than game-tying, proposition.
But Smith — of course — would snag the subsequent onside kick. And while Alabama was forced to punt after three runs on its final offensive possession, Toney could do little with the return and Trask could do nothing with 88 yards of field in front of him and 16 seconds to cover it in, getting walloped for a game-ending sack by Christian Harris.
In the end, Florida being close but earning no cigars is par for the course for its 2020 season, one that found the Gators simultaneously within inches and inches short of a campaign from dreams and for the record books, blessed with an offense that rewrote its fair share of those pages and a cursed with a defense that repeatedly threatened to do so in its own ways.
Tilting the glass might make it seem half full or half empty.
But it will be at least another year before Florida’s cup runneth over.