ATLANTA -- The tears in Tim Tebow's eyes flowed as freely as Florida scored touchdowns for much of its 22-game spree.
One of the best runs in recent SEC history was over, and he knew it.
There would be no gutsy fourth-quarter comeback this time. There were no heroics left for one of the best college football players of this era.
Florida was beaten by a better team Saturday in its 32-13 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, and Tebow was outplayed by a quarterback, Greg McElroy, who had never started a college game until this season.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for a team that was seeking college football immortality and for a player who’d been the face of college football for much of the last three seasons.
“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. “But it was frustrating. To say it wasn’t would be a lie.
“We’ve still got to regroup and go have a good bowl game, and that’s what our focus will be.”
Tebow did his best to hold his emotions in check, but it was a lost cause.
Sort of like Florida trying to contend with an Alabama team that was more physical, more disciplined and more prepared.
And maybe a little hungrier, too.
“They were very hungry. You could see it from the start of the game,” Florida junior cornerback Joe Haden said. “We were hungry, too, but it just wasn’t there for us tonight.
“We’re not used to this, none of us are. It’s been a long time since we’ve had this feeling. Nobody really knows how to act.”
Tebow, the hurt etched all over his face, was as classy in defeat as he was in the 47 wins he’d been a part of at Florida, most of those wins engineered by him.
As the final seconds ticked down and the Alabama players began celebrating at midfield, with confetti falling from the top of the Georgia Dome roof, Tebow waded through the mass of humanity looking for Alabama coach Nick Saban.
He wanted to congratulate Saban personally and waited patiently for Saban to finish with his CBS interview.
“He just said, ‘Keep your head up, you’re a great player. You’ve had a great career, and just keep your head up and don’t change who you are,’ ” said Tebow, recounting his brief conversation with Saban.
It was on this same field a year ago that Tebow broke Saban’s heart (and all the hearts in the Tide Nation) with a masterful fourth-quarter performance that saw him make every key play in Florida's 31-20 win.
But the Alabama defense saw to it that he made very few plays on Saturday. And when there were plays to be made, Tebow -- pressured relentlessly by the Crimson Tide defense -- wasn’t able to deliver.
He didn’t play his best game, and neither did the people around him.
The tone was set on Florida’s first possession when Jeffery Demps dropped a pass on the sideline with nothing but green in front of him.
It seemed to be infectious.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez dropped a touchdown pass just before halftime. Tebow threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and the Florida defense uncharacteristically gave up one big play after another.
If that wasn’t enough, there were a few penalties mixed in that were particularly costly.
In short, it was the Gators’ worst game of the season. And their sloppiest.
“That wasn’t the same Florida team out there that won 22 straight games. Not even close,” Haden said. “That’s the hardest part.”