ATLANTA (AP) – Alabama showed off all its weapons in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Now, the Crimson Tide can expect a return trip to Atlanta for the College Football Playoff.
The nation’s No. 1 team scored off a blocked punt and an interception return Saturday before wearing down No. 15 Florida in the second half with a dominant running game. The result was a 54-16 rout that positioned Alabama to go for its second straight national title and its fifth crown in the last nine years under coach Nick Saban.
Next up: a likely semifinal game at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31.
The Crimson Tide (13-0, No. 1 CFP) bolted to a 16-9 lead in the first quarter, despite being held to minus-7 yards and no first downs. They scored one touchdown off a blocked punt, another off an interception return. A field goal was set up by another pick – one of three thrown by Florida quarterback Austin Appleby in the first half.
The Tide led 33-16 at halftime – the most points ever scored in the first two quarters of an SEC title game – and iced the victory with scoring drives of 98 and 91 yards, sparked by a goal-line stand that finished off the last gasp by the Gators (8-4, No. 15 CFP)
A 24-point underdog, Florida had a few shining moments against the nation’s only unbeaten Power Five team. The Gators marched the length of the field on the opening possession, the first touchdown given up by the Tide in more than 17 quarters. They had another long TD drive near the end of the first half to give themselves a glimmer of hope.
After Alabama went three-and-out to start the second half, Florida drove to the Crimson Tide 1. Jordan Scarlett attempted to leap over the line on third-and-goal, but he never even got off the ground; Rashaan Evans blew by his blocker and slammed the running back for a 1-yard loss. Appleby threw incomplete in the back of the end zone on fourth down, giving the Tide all the momentum.
Damien Harris broke off a 23-yard run, Jalen Hurts completed a 31-yard pass to ArDarius Stewart on third-and-19, and bruising Bo Scarbrough finished things off with a 34-yard run and a 2-yard touchdown.
The Tide went nearly as far on its next possession, driving from its own 9 for another touchdown that sent most of the Florida fans heading for the exit early in the fourth quarter. Scarbrough carried it six times, including a 1-yard plunge into the end zone.
After pulling its starters, Alabama scored one last touchdown to finish the second-most point ever scored against the Gators, topped only by Nebraska’s 62-24 victory for the national title in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
Alabama: The offense struggled in the first half against Florida’s highly ranked defense, and the defense surrendered a couple of long scoring drives. It may be a bit of nitpicking, but for one half at least the Tide didn’t look quite as a dominant as it did leading up to the SEC championship game. Of course, Alabama dominated the second half.
Florida: The Gators must address their offensive woes after another shaky performance, which included those three backbreaking interceptions in the first half. There’s no reason for a team with Florida’s resources, recruiting base and history to wind up with a unit that ranked No. 114 nationally in total yards before playing the Crimson Tide.
Alabama will remain No. 1 in The Associated Press poll, as well as the College Football Playoff rankings. Florida can expect to drop four or five spots.
Alabama: Heads to the College Football Playoff for the third year in a row. The Tide will probably meet the No. 4-ranked team in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Florida: The Gators could still wind up with a major bowl bid as the SEC’s representative at the Sugar Bowl. But two straight ugly losses will likely keep the Gators closer to home at either the Citrus (Orlando) or Outback (Tampa).