ATLANTA -- It never really seemed Alabama's SEC title hopes were in doubt Saturday. As field goals eventually gave way to touchdowns and Alabama's defense dominated drive after drive, No. 2 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) wore down No. 18 Florida (10-3, 7-1) for a 29-15 win that felt much more lopsided than it was.
For Alabama, even the uglier wins look commanding. The formula for Alabama's success is simple: Win by any means necessary, and be as physically imposing as possible.
“We prepare like nobody’s going to be able to outwork us, especially at the end of the game," running back Kenyan Drake said. "That’s just our motto. We’ll always outwork a team and make sure they really understand that they’re playing [against] Alabama football that day.”
There's just a different style and standard Alabama operates by, and that is incredibly hard to match. It can be almost unfair at times how punishing these Nick Saban-coached teams truly are. Saturday's mangling was no different.
“We do the right things, taking their weaknesses and making them weaker," linebacker Reggie Ragland said.
No one expected much from Florida's struggling offense, and Alabama's defense made sure there was no Cinderella story by completely dominating the game up front. Florida's already average offensive line had to deal with the nation's most ruthless front seven. While the Gators' O-line held its own at times in pass protection, it was gobbled up when trying -- and failing -- to run block. Alabama held Florida to 15 rushing yards (21 attempts), which is the second-lowest net rushing total in an SEC title game, and didn't allow a run of 10 yards or more.
Florida was 0-for-11 on third downs and registered just seven first downs. Quarterback Treon Harris was sacked five times while completing just nine of his 24 pass attempts for 165 yards and a touchdown with an interception. The Gators, who have been sputtering on offense for the better part of the past month, had just three drives of 14 last more than three plays. None resulted in points for Florida, and one ended with a 40-yard field-goal attempt that was blocked.
“I don’t think anybody’s surprised," cornerback Cyrus Jones said of the defense's dominance. "We know what type of performance we can go out there and put on each time we step out on the field.”
Alabama's offense lumbered through the first three-and-a-half quarters Saturday. Florida's extremely talented front seven limited Heisman Trophy favorite Derrick Henry to just 65 yards at the half, so offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin turned to somewhat enigmatic quarterback Jake Coker. Coker didn't turn into a passing machine, but he found ways to make big plays. There was the 55-yard pass to Calvin Ridley to set up Henry's touchdown in the second quarter. There was the left-hand, out-of-bounds throw to avoid a sack and keep the Tide in field goal range on a drive. There was the addition of more zone-read to catch Florida's defense off-guard.
Fittingly, Coker's first zone-read run of the season resulted in a beautiful, 17-yard gain in the second quarter. Another rush went for 10 yards later on the drive, and he converted a third-and-3 in the third quarter with a nifty 7-yard run up the middle.
“They weren’t ready for it," Coker said with a laugh.
When Alabama needed plays, it got them. With the offense struggling to break Florida's defense early, Keith Holcombe blocked a punt for a safety to put Alabama up 2-0 in the second quarter. On Florida's next drive, D.J. Pettway blocked Austin Hardin's field goal attempt.
The team that found every way to lose to Ole Miss in September found just about every way to beat the Gators. The scary part is even with Alabama not playing its best game, it was still an overpowering, unrelenting machine that wore Florida down on both sides of the ball. That running game that struggled early came around to gain 233 yards (189 from Henry) and Coker was an impressive 18-of-26 for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
“At no point does anyone feel we can’t muscle this out or we can’t keep imposing our will, play in and play out," center Ryan Kelly said. "This is how we train and pretty much [are] taught to be. That’s just how we are. I guess we’re robots, aren’t we? At no point do we feel the game is out of reach or we can’t do something about it to change it.”
Alabama became the first team to win back-to-back SEC titles since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998, and its relentless style is a recipe for playoff success.
“You've got to keep plugging away. Mistakes happen, and we just have to keep going and never stop," Coker said. “This team just never quits. When the whistle blows, we’re going. We’re just non-stop.”