Updated: Jan 16
ATLANTA—Kyle Trask was brimming over with emotion. The typically tepid quarterback was choking on the tears he’d finally reigned in from the field but the fire his teammates always swore appeared on the field was making its first public appearance as he tried to explain what was going through his mind after he walked off the field, his No. 7 Florida Gators having just fallen 52-46 to No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship.
“That's why you play football, is to play in games like these. No one in the world gave us a damn chance. We believed in ourselves. The only people that truly have an effect on the game are the people in the building. We worked so hard. Like I said before, we just ran out of time.”
The Gators offense did simply just run out of time. On a night when Trask along with Kadarius Toney, Kyle Pitts and Tre Grimes among others cut open their body and left their heart on the field. Florida put up 462 yards of total offense with Trask throwing for 408 and three touchdowns. The quarterback also ran in a touchdown as well.
With 16 seconds remaining in the game and after a defensive stop, Trask took to the field looking for an opportunity to drive 88-yards and win the game. He was sacked and couldn’t clock the ball before time ran out and Bama was crowned the 2020 SEC Champions.
The sack was indicative of one of the few offensive missteps on the night. The Gators were forced to punt twice and fumbled once, both times largely in part to questionable offensive line play on the right side.
That’s one of the biggest areas Head Coach Dan Mullen wants to see addressed this next offseason. For that matter, the trenches on both sides are what Mullen sees as the next big building block for the Gators to not only return to Atlanta, but win.
“We got to get a little better up front on both sides of the ball,” said Mullen after the game.
“Our guys play hard. You look, [Alabama is] a little more physical I think at the line of scrimmage than we were. We got to get a little bit better up front. Get back here, get another shot at them next year, or whoever is here from the West.”
Another obvious area of improvement will have to be on defense. Alabama in 2020 is going to put up eye-popping yardage, with quarterback Mac Jones using DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris—and possibly even Jaylen Waddle—for a Swiss Army knife of weapons. So the 605 yards of total offense, while excessive, isn’t shocking.
“You're coming into this game, there's things you have to do to win. Win the turnover battle. We didn't do that. We made a bunch of mental mistakes that really hurt ourselves defensively in the first half on third down with opportunities to get off the field, we have some penalties to knock it off the field. Give up that drive at the end of the first half. All that's disappointing, obviously.”
The 9-15 third down conversion rate is concerning but even more so when considering three of those nine came courtesy of Gator penalties.
“Myself as a person who is emerging as a leader, I take that on myself to lead the guys in the right way, hold myself to that standard where I can't let those things happen. Therefore, my teammates won't let those things happen,” said linebacker Mohamoud Diabate
“It all comes from leadership, people demanding the right things in practice every day. Seeing those things happen, it makes you more urgent to get things fixed and get things correct, not to think, it's okay. No, it's not okay.”
That is the attitude and responsibility that will have to be accounted for if the Gators are going to not only sustain this progress but take the next step.
The Gators back-to-back SEC Championship game appearances in 2015 and 2016 felt more like a result of the East fighting each other not to go. Florida just finished the year the least banged up. It never felt sustainable, which is why it quickly dipped into another four win season in 2017. What Mullen and staff have done to pull that roster out of that funk and get the Gators to this point—and this year in particular through a pandemic, All-SEC schedule—is nothing short of incredible.
Now it’s time to take the next step.
This game showed the expectation of one program and the goal of another.
Alabama chases perfection. They aren’t playing their opponent so much as what they want to do in a game. Saban calls it “The Process.” One might also call it a standard.
Mullen talks about reaching the Gator Standard. In the SEC, Alabama is the standard. Many have tried and failed to replicate Nick Saban’s process down to the minute detail…but in all honesty, it’s fairly simple. Compete against your own expectations.
Through his first three years, taking a team that was broken mentally and physically after 2017, Mullen and his staff taught this Gators team how to win. Then they taught the Gators how to defeat another team. Next comes learning to play against themselves; against perfection.
“You got to keep your foot on the gas pedal,” said Trask of what has to come next.
"You get to the game, you can't get complacent, we made it to the SEC championship. You have to keep on taking those jumps and improving. I think Coach Mullen and his staff are going to keep that pressure on. He's going to do just that. We're going to have a great team next year, as well.”
Added Diabate, “It really makes you starve, just sitting here, just thinking about the game, you want to get back to work, go back to work with your brothers. You want to get back on task because we want to get here. Every year when we start the year, our goal is to get here. We got here this year. Our goal is to continue moving forward. Last year we weren't here. This year we got here. Next year we plan on getting here and finishing the job.”
Chasing perfection will require cleaning up things that showed as obvious gaps between Florida and Alabama on Saturday night. There’s the physicality Mullen mentioned in the trenches that can be made up for in recruiting (Nick Savage is doing his part with the strength and conditioning when players arrive). And the mental mistakes on defense. There are also admittedly coaching issues that can be addressed.
Not even necessarily firings. That’s out of our purview to speak on. But in-game coaching decisions. Mullen and Brian Johnson (offensive coordinator) along with Billy Gonzales (receivers) are some of the best in-game play callers in the country. Todd Grantham, for all the criticism, has proven apt at effective halftime adjustments.
But scoring too quickly at the end of the first half allowed Bama time to add a touchdown that proved vital in a six point game. And on the Gators next to last possession at the end of the game, after a Kyle Trask to Kyle Pitts touchdown, Mullen called a timeout while trying to get a two-point conversion play in.
The Gators converted the two-point attempt, cutting the lead to six. But that burned timeout left the Gators with no way to stop the clock. And as we discussed at the top, Kyle Trask was left with no time to set up a Hail Mary shot.
“That was bad clock management on my part,” admitted Mullen after the game.
“We should have had it ready to go for two. Our thought, though, is we're going for two right there, we're going to try the on-side kick. We're here to win. Would have given us two two-point conversions. If we didn't get the first one, we'd have to get the second one to tie. If we got the first one, all we needed there was an extra point to win the game at the end. That was the thought process to go for two.
“That was a bad job by me, we had to use that timeout there. Would have loved to have that timeout and given us an extra 40 seconds of the ball to try to get the and-one touchdown.”
Added Trask, “I'm not exactly sure what was going on. We were just kind of out there on the field, sideline, back on the field. We weren't really sure what the plan was. Coach told us we were going to go for two.”
Those are the kind of mistakes Nick Saban and his staff don’t make.
Luckily for the Gators, they’re all fixable.
"This is a great lesson for our younger people, especially myself,” predicted Diabate.
“I say younger people... Being a true sophomore is a good learning experience, being able to play against what they say is the best team in the nation, coming that close. It tells us we just got to keep going, keep pushing, we'll get to where we want to get.”
A year ago, after another loss to the Georgia Bulldogs, Dan Mullen said his Gators program was seven points off of the Dawgs. This season, Florida defeated Georgia handedly. They can now head to the offseason knowing what it took to make it to this game and furthermore, what it would take to win.
“We'll get back to work tomorrow and get this program headed back in the right direction,” said Mullen.
“Not in the right direction, I think we're headed in the right direction, get this program back to getting on path, try to get here again next year to compete for a championship. I think you guys know that. I say I want to be a great program, a program that competes for championships on a consistent basis.”
Nick Saban called the game a dogfight in his CBS post game interview, and a dogfight that Alabama needed to get in before the playoffs.
Expanding to reporters after the game he said, “I fully expected that is exactly what would happen in the game. These guys have too much talent on their team on offense, with their quarterback who does a fabulous job. They have a really good receiving corps. 84 and 1 are really serious mismatch players. Both guys had phenomenal games tonight. Then when we do get them guarded, you get pass interference because they're so big, it's just hard to play.
"So I can't say enough good things about their team. They certainly showed a lot of competitive character to come back in the game, keep fighting to get back in the game, give themselves a chance to win. They were an on-side kick away from having a chance to win.”
The dogfight required Alabama to defeat a quality opponent, with Kyle Trask even commenting after the game the Gators earned and demanded respect on their name for the performance. But Alabama was able to defeat a quality opponent in an excellent and competitive game because they know how to compete against themselves, against perfection.
Mullen won't have Pitts or Toney or Tre Grimes or likely Kyle Trask next year. They'll lose Brad Stewart and Kyree Campbell on defense and a lot of pieces that have helped set a new standard. Those remaining will be tasked with picking up the baton and taking it farther.
That’s the next step for the Florida Gators and the journey to take that next step for Florida began the moment the confetti began to fall on the Tide.
Said the Gators most electric playmaker and senior Kadarius Toney, “I think it should set the tone for the next few years to come because these guys are going to know the standard, know what it take to get there. It should just drive them to go harder.”