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Alabama 31, Florida 29: Gators come so, so close, can’t quite turn the Tide

Florida’s best shot at the best team in the country came up short — but only just so.

Alabama v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

The Florida Gators trailed the Alabama Crimson Tide by a 21-3 score after one quarter in The Swamp on Saturday, and it looked like the majority of the more than 90,000 fans in attendance were going to exit the stadium mostly unhappy — and maybe early.

Nearly three hours later, those fans were still there — and Florida was, too, falling only just so short of a seismic upset of the Crimson Tide and having to settle for a 31-29 defeat.

The Gators rallied back from the early hole — built by Alabama scoring on its first three possessions thanks to missed tackles and a coverage bust — with a rugged running game and some timely throws from Emory Jones.

Florida rolled up a stunning 245 rushing yards, with Jones, Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce, and Nay’Quan Wright all tallying 20 or more and all but Wright getting into the end zone, and Jones threw for 195 yards on a mostly efficient day, rebounding from a pressure-forced interception that handed Alabama a short field that was capitalized on for a score in short order by making sharp throws for much of the rest of the day.

Florida’s defense held the potent Tide to just 10 points after that first quarter, too, only conceding scores on the first Alabama drive after halftime and a possession that stalled out with goal to go. Bryce Young threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns, but Alabama’s running game generated just 91 yards on 28 carries, failing to find consistent traction against a surprisingly stout Florida front seven, and the Tide did not record a single play of 30 or more yards.

And so Florida was able to reel the game back in from an 18-point deficit, chipping away with four patient touchdown drives that all covered at least 75 yards. The longest of them spanned the full field, its 99-yard length required by Ja’Markis Weston muffing a kickoff only to see the ball bound into the field of play at Florida’s own 1.

But Jones rescued the Gators from a third and 10 at that same spot by making a strong throw after two poor ones, and Florida rode Wright for much of the drive that would slice Alabama’s lead to 28-23.

Florida would ride its runners again on its final multi-play offensive possession, eventually getting Pierce free on a sprint in for six points from 17 yards out that cut the deficit to 31-29.

The problem: Florida needed a two-point conversion to tie, thanks to an earlier missed point-after kick from Chris Howard. And the Gators couldn’t quite get it, with a delayed ride of a read-option handoff not quite allowing a hole to open for Pierce, who was instead stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

And though the Crimson Tide had to scrap for the yardage necessary on the next drive, they got it and a first down on the ground, burning just enough clock — at a moment when time was being kept on the field due to a series of errors for the in-stadium version — to leave Florida with only enough time for a punt return and a desperation heave when it got its stop on the drive’s second set of downs.

The punt was fair caught. The final play saw Jones sacked after trying to buy enough time for a miracle on an 80-yard throw.

But the game was closer than nearly anyone outside of Florida’s locker room anticipated — especially with Anthony Richardson, the Gators’ backflipping highlight reel of a backup quarterback, not seeing the field at all.

And if the pride instilled by the way the Gators played today doesn’t curdle into satisfaction at a job already well done at the same time the frustration of being so close burns this team without reducing it to ashes, one imagines Florida may well get another shot at turning the tables on the Tide in Atlanta this December.