ATLANTA — When the group of reporters around David Nelson dispersed, and the Florida players had mostly cleared out of the locker room, the senior wide receiver said what everyone was thinking.
“What now?” Nelson said, half to himself and half to a team assistant before making his way to the Georgia Dome’s showers.
Nelson and the rest of the No. 5 Gators (12-1) got the answer to that question Sunday night when it was announced that they are set to take on No. 3 Cincinnati (12-0) in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“We have the winningest class in the history of the Southeastern Conference, and our legacy is going to be determined by how we finish this season,” UF coach Urban Meyer said.
Alabama wiped the floor with the defending Southeastern Conference and BCS national champions Saturday, racking up 490 total yards against the best defense in the nation — UF came into the game allowing 9.8 points per game.
As UA quarterback Greg McElroy took a knee at the end of a drive that bled the final 7:28 off the clock in the fourth quarter, the video boards inside the Georgia Dome showed Tim Tebow crying as he watched from the sideline.
Crimson Tide fans in attendance erupted at the sight.
Like much of the college football world outside of Gainesville, they were happy to finally see a little bit of the shine finally fade from Tebow’s armor.
The 32-13 win against the Gators in this year’s SEC Championship Game was a shocking result, not necessarily because the Crimson Tide won, but because of how they won.
Florida’s offense struggled on multiple occasions throughout the regular season, but the defense never let the team down before Saturday.
Alabama controlled the ball for 39:37 of the game’s 60 minutes and converted 11 of its 15 third downs, including 8 of 9 in the second half.
“They ran the same stuff we saw on film, they just ran it a little bit harder,” UF cornerback Joe Haden said.
The offense was unable to step up and save the day as the defense faltered, partially because a frustrated Tebow and the rest of the unit couldn’t seem to stay on the field.
The Gators averaged 236 rushing yards and 451 total yards per game coming into the rematch with Alabama. But they could only manage 88 rushing yards and 335 total yards of offense against the nation’s No. 2 defense.
“Obviously our rushing, we didn’t get the backs — Tim ran the ball for some yards — but we didn’t get our backs going,” Meyer said. “But it seemed like we were behind, and we were trying to play catch-up the entire night, and we didn’t do that.”
UF was content to abandon the run early despite never trailing by more than nine points in the first half. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio’s unit ran the ball nine times and passed it 17 times before the break, with only three of those carries going to players other than Tebow.
The balance, or lack thereof, only got worse in the second half, as the Gators finished with 14 rushes and 35 passes, with four carries going to players other than Tebow.
Addazio has said many times this season that Florida is a rushing team, only to abandon that identity in the biggest game of the season.
“If you try to be something you’re not, sometimes that fails,” Addazio said after UF played Vanderbilt.
The Gators will have to figure out some way to get back to the running game that made them so successful if they hope not to suffer a similar fate against the Bearcats.
“I don’t think you can win the game without getting the running backs involved, so that’s a high priority for us,” Meyer said in the Sugar Bowl teleconference Sunday night.
Motivation will be another issue for a Florida team that had hopes of winning its third national championship in four seasons.
Last year, the Crimson Tide suffered their first loss of the season to the Gators in the SEC Championship Game and were unable to regroup before dropping a second game to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
UF will lean on its decorated senior class to avoid a similar fate.
“This is not how we wanted to finish our season in the SEC, and, you know, there were a lot of goals and a lot of goals we won’t be able to accomplish,” Tebow said. “We’ve still got to regroup and go have a good bowl game, and that’s what our focus will be.”