TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Urban Meyer didn’t want any “Southeastern Conference Championship rematch” talk last week.
The Gators coach said his team was too young to worry about what happened in December, when Florida’s hopes of back-to-back national championships were halted, crushed and stomped by Alabama. This week wasn’t about revenge. It was about potential win No. 5, he said.
Perhaps Meyer somehow succeeded in that goal. Maybe his players somehow ignored all the media and prevented 10-month-old mental images from creeping into their heads last week. But that accomplishment was offset the moment players walked on the field to warm up Saturday.
Entering to a chorus of boos from most of the 101,821 in attendance at Bryant-Denny Stadium, freshman receiver Andre Debose waved his arms to the Crimson Tide student section, asking — even begging — the fans to make more noise.
And they did just that, erupting when a highlight video showed a clip of former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow getting tackled in last season’s meeting. Even Gators coaches were amped, hopping around on the sidelines.
But the pregame excitement was gone by the end of the first quarter, and the Gators were left with what they brought to Alabama: an inexperienced team (42 percent of Florida’s roster are freshmen), a struggling offense and an untested defense.
If last year’s meeting was embarrassing for Florida fans, this season’s 31-6 loss was depressing.
“No team is perfect,” linebacker Brandon Hicks said. “You can’t go through a perfect game without going through some type of controversy, some kind of obstacle in front of you. We felt like this is our point, this is where we actually hit reality and see ‘Ok, we can be beaten.’ There’s nothing we can do to stop that.”
The No. 10 Gators (4-1, 2-1 SEC) looked ready to go toe-to-toe with the defending national champions during their opening drive. Junior quarterback John Brantley ran past a Crimson Tide blitz for a first down, connected with receiver Deonte Thompson for 21 yards and flipped the ball to sophomore Omarius Hines on a 19-yard reverse.
But after reaching the Alabama two-yard line, Florida’s offense stalled. Freshman Trey Burton, whom Meyer insisted would not be used to emulate Tebow following his school-record six-touchdown performance against Kentucky, was stuffed on consecutive runs before getting intercepted by linebacker Nico Johnson on the Tebow-trademarked jump pass.
“It was an aggressive call, something that we would probably do again,” Meyer said. “As a matter of fact, I know we would do it again. Sometimes you kick yourself in the rear end when you do that, but that is kind of the way we play.”
That would be the theme for Florida’s offense for the rest of the night — turnovers and red-zone struggles.
The Gators actually outgained the No. 1 Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) 281-273 and controlled the ball longer, but those stats proved to be misleading. In their first four games, the Gators scored on 17 of 19 red-zone possessions, highlighted by 16 touchdowns.
But Florida managed just three points on four red-zone possessions, which included Burton’s interception, a fumbled snap and a turnover on downs when a Brantley scramble ended one yard short in the fourth quarter.
“Florida beat Florida today,” center Mike Pouncey said after the game. “We moved the ball up and down the field and just didn’t make the play when it was time to make the play.”
The Florida offense also turned the ball over four times and its defense forced none. Brantley threw two interceptions, both of which led to Alabama touchdowns.
The second one proved to be the critical blow. With Florida’s offense showing life in the third quarter, Brantley’s pass was intercepted by linebacker C.J. Mosley and returned 35 yards to give the Crimson Tide the last score of the night.
The Gators defensive backs averaged three interceptions per game before Saturday, but they failed to get their hands on any pass from Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy.
In fact, McElroy moved the Alabama offense with ease early, completing eight of 11 passes for 80 yards on the Crimson Tide’s first two drives.
Alabama gained 148 yards on those two possessions, which ended with a field goal and a Mark Ingram touchdown to give the Crimson Tide a quick 10-0 lead.
Florida’s deficit went from manageable to out of hand when its defense was asked to defend a short field on Alabama’s next two drives. Receiver Julio Jones returned a punt 41 yards into Florida territory and, eight plays later, Ingram scored his second touchdown.
Brantley threw his first interception on Florida’s next drive, leading to another Alabama quick strike on a trick play. With receiver Marquis Maze lined up at the wildcat quarterback position, Florida’s defense stepped up quickly after the snap to defend the run, but Maze pulled up and threw a touchdown pass to receiver Michael Williams in the back-right corner of the end zone.
“We were self-destructive,” senior strong safety Ahmad Black said. “We shot ourselves in the foot. In order to beat a great team like Alabama, we can’t do that. We have to play our best, and we didn’t do that.”
The focus entering the game was on Alabama running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, whom Florida defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said earlier this week could play in the NFL today.
But, relatively speaking, the duo was held in check, combining for 110 yards. Ingram and Richardson averaged 154 and 89 yards per game, respectively, before Saturday. Florida’s offense was worse, though, gaining just 79 yards on 31 attempts (2.5 per rush).
Florida fans hoping for solace after Saturday can look at the play of the Gators defense in the second half. After jumping to a big lead, Alabama was limited to 71 yards in the final 30 minutes and only scored one touchdown: Mosley’s interception return.
“We’re going to get right back on the ground,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Nobody feels sorry for us. Nobody should feel sorry for us. And we don’t want people to feel sorry for us. Our guys are going to get back to work.”