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Florida vs. Alabama, Takeaways: You come at the Tide, you best not miss

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Florida gave the best team in college football its best shot on Saturday. It wasn’t enough.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Florida fought the champ, and the champ won

The Florida Gators were expected to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2020 SEC Championship Game by no group of people larger than the contingent in their own locker room. And they never led in Saturday’s 52-46 classic in Atlanta, either, which lends credence to the idea that, for Florida, this was the Rocky version of Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa meeting in the ring — the one in which the bloodied, beaten loser wins only if you tell the story from a sympathetic perspective.

But especially after a grueling year in which Dan Mullen’s Gators had been knocked down and slipped of their own accord, it’s not like they were Central Casting’s choice for Creed.

Kyle Trask isn’t anyone’s idea of a prototypical quarterback outside of his size. The guys that get chosen first on dusty fields for pickup ball in his home state of Texas or elsewhere might stand as tall as he does, but they throw it harder, and might be fleeter on the hoof than the plodding Trask, too.

Kyle Pitts? He’s broken the mold for tight ends, but he’s still the rare one who is his team’s best receiver — and pairing him with Kadarius Toney, an evolution of what the slot receiver can be, and Trevon Grimes, a prototypical No. 1 of years past who became an overqualified third option for this team, puts into sharp relief just how weird Florida’s talent distribution at the skill positions was this year.

And then there’s everything else these Gators brought to the field each week: Running backs who were most effective as wheel route weaponry; an offensive line that was surprisingly good at holding up and so predictable when (and where) it melted down; a defense that did its most impressive work by congealing just long enough to get stops in games after giving up 30-plus points. These are not the features of teams that win championships in college football; they are the flaws of pretenders to the throne.

Yet 2020 Florida, at full strength or close to it, lost two games by field goals and one by a touchdown, with two of those losses coming to College Football Playoff candidates and one coming to the favorite to be crowned national champion.

And this game did more to reveal that Florida is close than that Florida is not close enough.

An interception that Alabama’s hustling offense turned into a fumble recovery seconds later (and a touchdown one play later) robbed the Gators of their best chance to take the upper hand all day. That offense being explosive enough to turn a minute of clock into seven points just before halftime gave the Crimson Tide crucial cushion at a moment when it mattered.

And Florida settling for a field goal early, failing to get first-half stops, and failing on offense at a couple of junctures when it really needed to succeed in the second half permitted a Tide lead that never got to be too large to also never shrink to the point of truly threatening the outcome. After Alabama answered Florida’s field goal drive with a touchdown to go up 21-10 in the second quarter, the Gators were within one possession of the Crimson Tide’s lead for under 10 minutes of game clock, only 16 seconds of which — the last 16 seconds of the game — were spent on offense.

If Florida had held on to the ball after that pick, or better drained the clock before halftime, or scored a touchdown instead of its lone field goal, or gotten a third straight stop in the second half, or not fumbled away its first drive of the fourth quarter, maybe this game becomes a Gators victory. Being so close to Alabama that a string of ifs permits wishful thinking is its own kind of reward, especially considering how the Tide wiped out Texas A&M and LSU, similarly talented to Florida, this fall.

Florida didn’t come this far to come this close, though. And Alabama having its hand raised in victory is the ultimate reminder that there’s no such thing as half regicide.

A fitting final game for Florida’s leading lights

David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards — which would have been an SEC Championship Game record if not for Mac Jones amassing 416 — and three touchdowns, and ran for zero yards on 15 carries against a thumping defense and produced another score — though he really should have been credited with two — in what could be his last game as a Gator,.

Kyle Pitts caught seven passes for 129 yards, took several big shots while galloping up the seams, and still had enough in the tank to make a stunning twisting catch for Florida’s final touchdown in what should be his last game as a Gator.

Kadarius Toney had his third straight game of 115 or more yards from scrimmage — and his second of 165 or more — and proved uncoverable even by Alabama’s secondary rife with future NFL players in what could be his last game as a Gator.

Trevon Grimes had four catches for 78 yards and a touchdown — the latter coming on a catch-and-run permitted by a leaping effort that left surefire future first-rounder Patrick Surtain II grasping at air — in what should be his last game as a Gator.

Veteran defenders, too, left their entrails on the field and left the field on their shields. Brad Stewart had maybe his best game as a Gator, showing up time and again in run support or on short throws to make critical tackles and having a spectacular pass-breakup negated by another’s penalty. Amari Burney had 10 tackles, eight of them solo. Marco Wilon’s greatest mistake on this day was a split too wide in single coverage on Devonta Smith — and, well, who doesn’t?

In all, Florida put together a performance that its players should be proud of, and one that will fill Gator Nation with pride — until there are more games with stakes to speak of.

Alabama’s talent gap is still absurd

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The primary problem with playing Alabama is that Alabama’s starting lineup probably has six players you wanted from each of the last three recruiting cycles, six more that you didn’t bother pursuing because they were headed to Alabama, and 10 other guys who have been sitting behind those stars, biding their time and getting better.

Alabama enjoys this edge over all but a few teams in college football after stockpiling elite recruits for more than a decade under Nick Saban, and of late has paired position-by-position advantage with very good to great quarterback play and a wide-open offense that maximizes the playmakers on hand.

In 2009, when Alabama won its first national title under Nick Saban, Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy by rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns and recording 334 receiving yards and three touchdowns; in 2020, Najee Harris has run for 1,262 yards and 24 touchdowns and recorded 312 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and he’s Alabama’s third-best Heisman candidate. If Jaylen Waddle had stayed healthy, I think there would have been a valid argument that Harris isn’t even among the top five players on Alabama’s offense, testament to just how outstanding Smith, Jones, Waddle, and Alabama’s line all are.

Florida has maybe two offensive players — Pitts, definitely, and Toney, probably — that Alabama would play for significant snaps. It’s much harder to find a player on Florida’s defense that Alabama would swap into its lineup right now: Kaiir Elam might be that good, and improvements to younger players with promise (Gervon Dexter, Mohamoud Diabate) could get them to that level. Even Florida’s vaunted special teams — with Toney as returner, Jacob Finn as a little-used but strong-legged punter, Evan McPherson as a reliable kicker — don’t have a dramatic advantage over Alabama’s, which put Smith back for punts and trot out a kicker, Will Reichard, who has made 85 of 85 kicks on the year.

You don’t beat a team like that unless a) it’s operating at something other than full capacity or b) you have enough nitrous oxide in your fuel system to push past the red lines on your dash. The former was not true on Saturday; the latter was arguable, though I’d say Florida was more right at its theoretical peak performance than beyond it.

And you know what? That’s okay with me.

Dan Mullen turning Kyle Trask into an Alabama-beater would’ve been pretty damn cool, but it’s okay that Florida didn’t capture its first win over Alabama despite Todd Grantham’s defense, because it’ll make it easier for Florida to win its next meeting with a different defensive coordinator. A loss last night spared us all what would’ve been an utterly exhausting conversation about which teams were “worthy” of making the Playoff in a season in which every team should be rewarded richly for providing entertainment in a pandemic that the industry overseeing them did not do enough to thwart or even slow. Florida playing like it did gives Trask the opportunity to believe and say — as many Gators will — that Florida would have won that game with just a couple more minutes of clock; while that’s an little white lie, it’s a comforting, mostly harmless one.

This team never quit, did all it could, left it all out on the field: Pick a cliché about pouring every ounce of determination into an effort, and 2020 Florida exemplified it, even if it also produced a hilarious moment with a flying shoe. What more could we ask for?

A thrill ride that should never have happened

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After all, it is still my belief that we asked too much of this team — and that too much was asked of us, all of us Americans — in this extraordinary year.

Here’s the part where I write at length about politics, and about society, and tie them into the Florida Gators — because they all tie in — and where I let my own personal political beliefs seep into the opinions I have about sports. You are being warned, explicitly, about this, so that you can process this last section accordingly, or skip it entirely — I write this here because I don’t want anyone to feign surprise and proclaim that I’ve “turned (Alligator Army) into what looks like a liberal news site on current events with far too little Gator sports related items and far too much of your personal opinions,” something a longtime commenter asserted to me earlier this year.

This season was bullshit from the start, is bullshit as it stands, and will be bullshit when it is remembered five, ten, twenty, and fifty years from now.

We just watched dozens of teams and hundreds — maybe thousands — of players stage a college football season that dragged its “regular” season out to six days before Christmas in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in generations. Many of those players contracted COVID-19 over the course of the season, despite basically every institution involved in college sports loudly asserting that the “well-being” of its “student-athletes” — those human beings lucky enough to have the opportunity to play sports that schools make millions off of while earning only thousands for their labor even in a pandemic — was to be held paramount. (Kudos to the SEC for its above-linked statement, which gives up the game by admitting that “The health of our student-athletes, campus communities, fans and general public is an ongoing priority,” italics mine, rather than the priority.)

The argument for those games going on was always premised on one or both of two ideas: First, that it was an imperative to go on with college sports because it was imperative to go on with the regular operation of the world so as to keep the systems that make the world go grinding away, and second, that the laborers in college sports, the young and hale athletes who produce the product that we all enjoy consuming, were at pitifully low risk of any serious health ramifications from COVID.

I think the former is based on a false premise that is believed in America by a lot of people invested in a convenient myth of continuous economic growth, one that justifies all sorts of horrors and exploitation — a laundry list of evils on which college football players being coerced into six months of near isolation so that Arizona State could finish at 2-2 on the year by downing 2-5 Oregon State by a 46-32 count, or whatever, is fairly low.

And I think it’s important that we understand that the former is the real problem here largely because I can concede that those making the second argument turned out to be mostly right — at least for now. Dozens of players getting COVID and returning to play at high levels in college football suggests that mild infections could be dealt with to a degree I and many others feared would prove overwhelming to the system, and more significant cases were rare, rather than the rule.

But it’s the way that the latter intertwines with the former that troubles me most. College football players, and other college athletes, certainly wanted to play this fall, but they deserved an opportunity to do so as free of worries about coronavirus as possible, and I don’t believe that opportunity was granted to them — not even by those who worked tirelessly to ensure a season could happen.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey tweeted this after midnight, after a wild and entertaining SEC Championship Game staged in front of socially-distanced fans in a stadium that was restricted to 25 percent capacity. The SEC had to cancel just two games, and just reached a $3 billion deal with Disney for the rights to televise only a handful games in future years, the value of which likely reflects in part on the conference’s ability and relentless effort to deliver valuable television inventory in a pandemic.

But Sankey did not solve the problem of coronavirus, which continues to spread throughout the country — and, with thousands of new cases in every state in the SEC’s footprint, in Sankey’s backyard. The United States has not solved that problem, nor many of the problems that have been produced as effects of it: It has, shamefully, committed very little effort to prevention, mitigation, and support, and has grown inured to a pandemic that is now at its worst stage yet, generating millions of new cases in just days, thanks in part to the hopeful news of a vaccine that will still be slow to be rolled out.

Americans have been left to struggle through a pandemic that staggeringly many believe is overblown or an outright hoax, survive an economic downturn on a meager single stimulus check and/or poorly-administered unemployment benefits, and fight to exercise the right to vote against the indifferent presidency and political establishment that has been obstinate about helping common people at best.

Millions of Americans are chafing against regulations and restrictions that they seem to neither understand nor respect and those that put them in place; millions of other Americans are chafing against the Americans in the first group, and the callous disregard evinced for the lives and livelihoods of others by taking few or no precautions in public. Incited by firebrands and polemicists all along the political spectrum, we are a nation of tired, poor, tempest-tossed souls, most of us so far removed from America’s golden doors that the distance would require a stroke of luck or genius to cover.

To slash through the purple prose, we’re angry, cranky, crueler, and in need of so many naps that newborns themselves would be jealous. We are not the better angels of our nature, not right now, not in this world and at this moment.

And I don’t think it had to be this way.

I think there were more humane things that could have been done during this pandemic to preserve quality of life and buoy institutions, things that could have made it not just easier to swallow staging a college football season but to make things like live concerts or trips to the movie theater possible. I certainly think that a populace yoked equally in pursuit of common dreams would have responded better to a challenge far bigger than any one of us, and that the construction of our current society has been revealed as deeply riven with cracks by this year.

When our treadmill stopped, instead of stepping off and asking why we were running in the first place, we begged to get back on. And then we did, by and large — just as the speed got turned up by the invisible hand, and the rewards for running got kicked further down the road.

Florida’s own season — see, this part is sort of about sports — was like that, too.

Florida’s reconfigured SEC schedule robbed fans of most of their chances to see a great team (or, at least, a transcendent offense) live; it also placed a road trip to a Texas A&M team well-equipped to beat it (and a coach whose hate of the Gators burns bright) in the middle of the first full month of play, and so produced a loss that the original 2020 schedule could not have yielded.

Florida’s two-week pause after a coronavirus outbreak also cost the Gators a chance to play LSU before the Tigers ultimately figured things out. The rescheduled affair came at a time when Florida had fallen into a rut, waiting for its date with crimson-clad destiny, and when LSU had shed enough of the players not fully committed to running through a wall for a .500 team to tear through Gainesville as a leaner, meaner outfit. (And let’s be real: Marco Wilson’s shoe-heaving deserved to take place in front of 85,000 fans during a late-afternoon game on CBS, not 17,000 in a fog bank at night in December.)

There’s no real point in complaining about “fairness” or “equity” in this college football season, because all of the powers that be ultimately committed to playing, which meant committing to barging through the bullshit and pretending that taking on Herculean adversity is going to make more it breaks. Florida State playing one game — against lowly Duke, and at home, and for an easy, feel-good win — since its 2-6 start is not “fair,” but what’s the point in caring? FSU’s athletics department is also in a dramatically dire financial position, and the university itself had to backtrack on and clarify a remote work policy that was originally interpreted as one forcing parents of newborns back to work in person.

The University of Florida’s own inability to — or, indifference toward — staging a proper in-person and socially distanced graduation has left students steamed all semester — and yet UF is still steaming toward a large-scale reinstitution of in-person classes over loud objections.

Life isn’t fair. Get over it. In the words of our erstwhile commenter: “Life is hard, especially this year, but we have to march on and minimize its effect on our professional performance.”

Right?

Yeah, I think that’s wrong — so wrong as to be risible.

I am not a particularly spiritual person, and I am not an adherent of any religious faith, but I do have some core beliefs. One is that the human race was not put on this Earth to maximize productivity or make Jeff Bezos a trillionaire. It is okay — even correct, I’d argue — to reject the premise that life is categorically hard or unfair, or should be; it is fine and fair and freeing to assert that in a world of unimaginable wealth, said wealth could be distributed in a way that allows more people to live long and happy lives.

I don’t think of this belief as explicitly political, as blue or progressive or socialist: It’s a moral belief that becomes political by virtue of the fact that politics — in the sense that “politics” is the basic term for group decision-making that shapes our world — cannot be separated from human society in 2020 any more than our need to breathe oxygen can be from our continued existence. I don’t apologize for this belief, either.

And it’s this belief that tells me that what we just did — standing by or sitting around and watching as we tried to return to a normal of spirals for six and sacks to drive opponents out of field goal range, exploitation a crucial part of the fabrication process — is something we shouldn’t have done, even if it brought us joy along the way.

I could certainly be wrong. I could certainly be underestimating how much this season meant to you, or to someone dear to you, or to Kyle Trask or Kyle Pitts. I could be understating how important college football was to our collective sense of normalcy, or how important that normalcy was to our collective mental health. I could be overrating how much exploitation really happened in the name of getting this season. I’m almost certainly not going to get full agreement on my view of this year.

But I’m going to remember this fall for a lot more than football, too — and when I do reflect on it, I’m going to remember that football couldn’t salve my wounds or solve my problems, no matter how hard or well anyone sold it as a cure.