Photo credit: Alex Shepherd, AllGators.com
The No. 11 Florida Gators were two points away from upsetting the No. 1 team in the nation on Saturday.
Call that a moral victory all you want, and if you don't feel the need to give UF props for its performance against Alabama, that's fine. But after a disappointing first quarter, the Gators were able to hang in with the Crimson Tide until the very end and made the two-touchdown spread look foolish.
The Gators can pull plenty of positives from this game and build upon them moving forward throughout the 2021 season, including the ones below in AllGators' takeaways from the game.
It wasn't a perfect outing from Emory Jones, but the Gators' starting quarterback undoubtedly played a cleaner game against Alabama than he did against USF and FAU. Both Jones and head coach Dan Mullen said after the game that Jones was more comfortable than he was in the first two games of the season.
The most noticeable improvement from Jones was his response to mistakes, and, to be fair, he made very few mistakes on Saturday. But unlike the previous two games, Jones was not rattled by throwing an interception and instead went 14-of-21 passing for 150 yards after tossing a pick in the first quarter, which sailed over receiver Xzavier Henderson's head as Jones was hit as he threw.
In addition, Jones rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts. He helped lead Florida on three second-half scoring drives of 75+ yards (five in total, four after the INT), including one 99-yard drive, to get back in the game.
After seeing Jones' confidence plummet in the first two weeks of the season - it was noticeable in his response to turnovers and mistakes - he can build upon his performance against Alabama in more ways than one. Jones made better decisions with the ball in week three and treated the game one play at a time, not allowing mishaps to mess with his psyche. As an inexperienced starting quarterback, Florida needed to see growth from Jones in these areas, and it did.
Anthony Richardson's performance over the first two weeks of the season, paired with Jones' mishaps, led to an outpour of calls for a change at quarterback. Provided the way Jones played against the No. 1 team in the nation, those calls can stop for now.
90,887 people packed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday to see the Gators and Crimson Tide face-off, the fifth-largest crowd for a Florida home game in history.
The energy inside the stadium absolutely played a part in what happened on the field, even though it did not contribute to a victory for Florida.
Four of Alabama's 11 penalties on the night came in the first quarter - a delay of game, a false start, and two offsides calls - and each penalty was the result of piercing screams, cheering and clapping from the stands. The Crimson Tide committed another two false starts in the third quarter.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen and was easily the loudest game I've ever been to. And I covered the Auburn game in 2019.
Alabama got off to a fast start with three first quarter touchdowns, but from that point on, Florida's defense was able to keep the Crimson Tide's offense under control. Alabama would only score ten points across the rest of the game and punted on four of their final six drives (not including the one-play stint that led the game into halftime). Three of the four punting drives were three-and-outs.
Bryce Young put up an impressive stat line with 233 passing yards and three touchdowns, but 138 of those yards came in the first quarter. Young only threw two passes of 15+ yards in the rest of the game after posting four in the first quarter, as the Gators' secondary did a good job preventing shots down the field. Young's throws mainly consisted of swings, screens and short checks after the strong start.
Alabama also averaged 3.4 yards per carry across 27 attempts. Aside from Brian Robinson's third-quarter touchdown, Florida was able to keep the Crimson Tide's typically dominant rushing attack in check.
UF's biggest issue defensively, though, was missing tackles - a repetitive theme through Todd Grantham's tenure as the Gators' defensive coordinator. According to Pro Football Focus, UF missed 14 tackles on the day - and to be honest, that number seems low. You'd need more than one hand to count the number of plays that two or more Gators missed a tackle.
Florida missed 15 tackles over the first two weeks of the season, per PFF, meaning that if the tally is correct from the Alabama game then the Gators nearly matched their season total against the Crimson Tide. That's simply unacceptable, especially as several tackles were missed on scoring plays.
UF has a legitimate three-headed monster at the running back position. Malik Davis is averaging 7.2 yards per carry this season and averaged 9.6 across ten carries versus Alabama; Dameon Pierce scored two touchdowns on Saturday and is up to five through three games; Nay'Quan Wright averaged 9.5 yards per touch against the Crimson Tide with seven rushes for 58 yards and a clutch, third-down reception for 18 yards to get UF off of the one-yard line on its 99-yard scoring drive.
Each of these running backs are unique. Davis is an elusive, one-cut-and-go runner and the best pass-catcher/route-runner of the three, Pierce is a bruiser who can be trusted to score in goal-line situations, and Wright is seemingly guaranteed to make a defender miss on any given play with a combination of power, elusiveness, and his low center of gravity.
When he's been pressed about the quarterback situation, Mullen has jokingly deferred to asking media to press him about Florida's starting running back. There is no controversy at that position, though: Davis, Pierce, and Wright are starting-caliber backs in the SEC, none of them lose momentum when they rotate in and out of the lineup, and each has proven that they can produce against anyone.
Everyone in the country, or at least almost everyone, picked Alabama over Florida this weekend. The point spread was larger than two touchdowns in Alabama's favor before kickoff.
There's a difference between moral victories and finding the positives in a loss. It won't change the result of the game, but Florida not only covered the spread - the Gators had a serious opportunity to win the game - and defeat the nation's No. 1 team - by the end.
Does that mean that this Florida team is better than people realize? It's a young squad that has dealt with inconsistent play at quarterback through three weeks, which hasn't helped the team's perception nationally. And yet, this team was three points away from snapping Alabama's 31-game winning streak against SEC East foes.
Maybe that means Alabama isn't the total powerhouse this year that it usually is. Maybe it was just a really good game between two schools from the top conference in the nation.
Or, maybe Florida is a competitive enough team to hang with college football's best in 2021.
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