In a season that was defined by social-distancing, mask-wearing, and departures from routine, this 2020 SEC Championship game will be known for all of those things. Plus, the fact Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban opened up publicly and espoused his love for his team, after they beat the Florida Gators 52-46 to win their 23rd SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“This is the absolute best because I absolutely love this team,” Saban said during a postgame ceremony. “I love all the adversity that they had to overcome, and the resiliency that they went through to be able to do this. I appreciate it.”
The resilience needed to overcome less than ideal situations has long been a teaching point for Saban since he arrived at Alabama in 2007. When Alabama sprinted out to a 35-17 halftime lead, many observers believed the Gators were buried. Running back Najee Harris scored four of his five touchdowns in the first half. However, Florida would score 29 points in the second half, ensuring the game would set an array of records.
The teams combined for 1,067 yards of offense with Alabama piling up 605 and Florida 462. The all-time record for this game is 677 yards by Auburn in its 59-42 victory against Missouri in 2013 SEC Championship game. Tide quarterback Mac Jones finished the night having completed 33 of 43 passes for 415 yards and five touchdown passes. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith caught 15 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, while becoming Alabama’s all-time receiving leader in the process. Amari Cooper tallied 3,463 receiving yards from 2012 to 2014. Smith now has 3,620 career receiving yards over his four seasons.
“I’m really proud of our team for the way they competed in the game,” Saban said. “I think I’m really proud of our team for the way they competed all year long. This has been a year of lots of disruptions, a lot of abnormal things happening. The resiliency that our team has shown throughout the season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal. I think it speaks to the togetherness on the team — everybody sort of buying in and doing the things they needed to do to contribute to the team.”
The Gators’ Kyle Trask said his team simply ran out of time, as they were unable to complete the comeback. He finished the night completing 26-of-40 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns.
“Yeah, it’s just a tough loss,” Trask said. “We worked extremely, extremely hard for this game. We prepared for this game like no other. … We were rolling pretty good. We just ran out of time.”
Had the Gators beaten the Tide, they would have won their first SEC title since 2008 and would have been in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. Now, they’re likely to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl, and prep for next season.
“We’ve got some young guys and they’re going to be hungry to get back here,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Usually, you’re looking at every year the best teams in the country are playing each other in this game. To be here was great for our guys. We want a lot more than just getting here and showing up.”
Alabama finishes the season undefeated, and will head into the College Football Playoff as the top-ranked team in the country.
“This is a great team win,” Saban said. “Really, really proud of our players. I really love this team. Man, what we’ve had to kind of go through all season long — to me, this is great for our fans. Great for the state of Alabama. We’re just excited. Winning the SEC is really, really a significant thing for me. Always has been.
“That unselfishness and everybody trying to contribute in a positive way — whatever their role is — has really been heartfelt to me, and that’s why I enjoy this team so much and have enjoyed this team all year long. We found a way to win.
“I think the relentless sort of competitive spirit that this team has is something that you don’t really make or develop. It’s just the kind of people that they are. We’re really, really pleased and happy that they’re going to get rewarded for this and they accomplished something significant that they’ll remember the rest of their life.”