ATLANTA (AP) — Najee Harris scored five touchdowns and No. 1 Alabama advanced to the College Football Playoff with a perfect record, holding off No. 11 Florida in a 52-46 shootout for the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday night.
The Crimson Tide (11-0, No. 1 CFP) got its toughest test in a season of blowouts, but Harris’ record-setting performance will send coach Nick Saban to the playoff in search of his seventh national title with one of his best teams yet.
“This has been a year with a lot of disruptions. A lot of abnormal things happened,” said Saban, who had his own bout with COVID-19. “The resiliency this team has shown this season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal.”
After falling behind 35-17 by halftime, Florida (8-3, No. 7 CFP) made a game of it with a pair of third-quarter scores. And the Gators fought to the bitter end, adding two more TDS in the fourth period before finally running out of time.
Harris tacked on the last of his touchdowns with a 1-yard lunge in which he was initially ruled down just short of the goal line. After a video review, the officials saw that Harris’ right arm, the ball firmly in his grasp, came down on the white stripe.
At that point, Harris had essentially established residency in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium end zones.
The game’s MVP hauled in five passes for 67 yards including touchdown plays of 23, 17 and 7 yards in Alabama’s first-half blitz. The shortest of those scoring catches may have been his best, as Harris sent a would-be tackler tumbling to the turf with a dazzling spin move.
Harris rushed for 178 yards on 31 bruising carries, which included an 8-yard TD that capped off the opening possession of the game.
Harris set an SEC championship game record with his five touchdowns, breaking the mark of four scored by Auburn’s Tre Mason in 2013. The Alabama running back also knocked off a couple of school records, setting new standards for career rushing TDs (44) and overall TDs (54).
The two quarterbacks, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask, did nothing to hurt their standing as two of the leading Heisman Trophy contenders. Neither did the Crimson Tide’s other top candidate, star receiver DeVonta Smith.
Jones completed 33 of 43 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns. Smith, as usual, was his favorite target with a staggering 15 catches for 184 yards and two scores.
Smith also came up with a key fumble recovery after Florida’s Trey Dean picked off a pass from Jones, snatching the ball away from the intended receiver, only to cough it up on a brutal, blind-side hit by Alabama receiver John Metchie.
Trask was 26 of 40 for 408 yards and three TDs including a 51-yard scoring pass early on to Kadarius Toney, who finished with eight receptions for 153 yards.
Give Florida credit: Coming off a shocking home loss to LSU, the Gators fought to the very end.
“I thought we showed a lot of character,” coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re always going to compete and play for four quarters. That was an excellent team we played ... give them credit. That’s why they’re ranked No. 1 in the country.”
After Harris’ final TD extended Alabama’s lead to 45-31, the Gators responded with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive that culminated with Damien Pierce’s 1-yard touchdown plunge with 6:33 remaining.
Alabama’s high-powered offense struck right back. Harris ripped off a 29-yard run deep into Florida territory, and Smith finished it off by hauling in a 15-yard scoring pass from Jones after a play-action fake to Harris froze the Gators defense.
Florida had one more big drive in its arsenal, zipping down the field on another 75-yard possession that ended with Trask lofting a 22-yard TD pass to his star tight end, Kyle Pitts. Trask then ran for a two-point conversion.
That would be the last gasp.
Alabama recovered an onside kick and ran out all but the final 16 seconds. Trask was sacked on the final play of the game.
After missing the College Football Playoff a year ago for the first time since the four-team format was adopted in 2014, the Crimson Tide will go into this year’s postseason as a big favorite to win it all.
Alabama had won every game in the pandemic-affected season by at least 15 points until Florida gave the Tide a scare. Saban’s team is averaging nearly 50 points a game with an offense that seemingly had too many weapons for any 11 men to stop.
If the Tide can add two more victories to their total, Saban would break a tie with Bear Bryant for the most national championships by a coach.
“I really love this team,” Saban said.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide defense will surely face some questions after giving up six touchdowns and 462 yards to the Gators. But it’s going to be difficult for anyone to knock off a team that ripped through a top SEC opponent for 33 first downs and 605 yards.
Florida: The Gators might’ve pulled off the upset if not for some crucial mistakes in the first half. It’s hard to fault Dean for his fumble that gave the ball right back to the Alabama — which scored on the very next play. But Florida also had two silly penalties on apparent third-down stops, extending a pair of drives that turned into touchdowns.
Florida: Despite two straight losses, the strong performance against Alabama could be enough to earn a New Year’s Six Bowl bid.
Alabama: Surely headed to the Sugar Bowl for one of the two semifinal games on Jan. 1.