Talk about a perfect end to a perfect season.
Could there have been a more fitting exclamation point for this group than scoring in all three phases of the game en route to a blowout victory?
As expected, Florida came out with something to prove, their offense executing a beautifully scripted opening touchdown drive while their talented defense forced two consecutive three-and-outs. You could almost feel maligned quarterback Austin Appleby’s confidence growing as he seemingly became convinced that he could throw the ball through a banged up Alabama secondary.
Shaun Dion Hamilton got the party started with the first of three first-half interceptions that the Tide would turn into 17 points. Minkah Fitzpatrick added the fourth pick-six of his young career, already an Alabama record. The next Florida drive ended in a blocked punt returned for a touchdown and, when the Tide parlayed the ensuing three-and-out into an 88-yard touchdown drive, it was time to turn out the lights. Florida would put together one more touchdown drive just before the half to get within 17, but they would get no closer.
The second half was vintage 2016 Alabama. Florida was outscored 21-0, outgained 220-81, and Appleby was sacked three times. The Gators knew that the heavy run game was coming and could do nothing about it. Bo Scarbrough wore down the Florida defense, and Da’Ron Payne provided the knockout blow in utterly destroying the middle linebacker to lead Bo into the end zone for his last score.
There are still a few warts to be concerned about, starting with a virtually non-existent downfield passing game. We knew that Saban and Kiffin would be risk averse against Florida’s corners, and Hurts rarely tried to test them. He did manage to convert a third down with a beautiful ball down the seam to ArDarius Stewart early in the third, but the fact that a single 20-yard pass is memorable tells you all you need to know about the passing game. Kiffin was once again able to use the threat of Hurts running the ball, along with stretching the defense horizontally with jets and screens, to open up the run game and lessen the need to take chances downfield. Still, hopefully bowl practice will provide an opportunity to improve in this area.
The secondary was also a bit leaky in the first half as top CB Marlon Humphrey spent most of the day on the sideline nursing an injury. There were certainly some communication issues that Florida exploited with a solid plan to open the game. Still, the three interceptions underscore the risk of testing the Tide. There are completions to be found, but as many unwitting quarterbacks have learned this season, there is also a high risk of watching Alabama defenders celebrate in the end zone. Previous DB coach Mel Tucker brought a more aggressive mentality to the unit, and new coaches Derrick Ansley and Jeremy Pruitt have seemingly doubled down on it.
Hamilton went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury, and Saban said after the game that he is likely done for the season. The Tide will again have another five-star ready in Rashaan Evans, but he drew the ire of Saban after getting beat on a wheel route for a touchdown promptly after Hamilton’s injury. He will also have an opportunity to work with the first unit for four full weeks before the playoff.
The Tide has now won 25 consecutive games and three consecutive SEC titles, and enters the playoff as a prohibitive favorite. Indeed, anything short of a national title will be a disappointment for the team at this point. Even more sobering for the rest of the country is the fact that this team is quarterbacked by a true freshman and will probably be, on the whole, the youngest two-deep among the four.
What a historic run, and what a time to be an Alabama fan.