Opinion: Alabama’s aura of invincibility takes a hit in narrow escape at Florida

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They don’t make a better hype man in this part of the country than Tim Tebow.

If Florida Gators fans needed an extra shot with their Saturday morning daiquiri, the former Heisman Trophy winner provided it when he predicted No. 1 Alabama would die in “The Swamp.” “

“When people show up here, they don’t leave the same,” Tebow said here during a live recording of “SEC Nation,” before predicting, “Alabama is coming to get a whuppin’.”

Blue and orange Gators flags flew from vehicle windows as traffic rolled into Gainesville. On a hot and muggy day, the pregame tailgating scene provided a boost of energy that no beach party can match.

The crowd noise inside one of college football’s most hostile road environments served as a reminder of what was missing from a 2020 season played amid pandemic-induced capacity limits.

Florida fans did their part, and the Gators nearly sent them home jubilant.

No. 1 Alabama survived – barely.

An Alabama team that has been invincible for the past year showed signs of mortality in a 31-29 white-knuckle victory over No. 9 Florida in front of a crowd of 90,877 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Whether the Crimson Tide will leave The Swamp the same is another question.

“Crazy atmosphere,” Alabama quarterback Bryce Young said. “Those fans were very loud. It was clear that it would be hostile. … It was tough, but I’m super proud of us.”

Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC) beat Florida (2-1, 0-1) for the eighth straight time. The Gators haven’t won in this series since a 2008 SEC championship game victory while Tebow wore the uniform.

Florida’s performance throughout the final three quarters suggested that these teams could meet in a December rematch in Atlanta, although Georgia will have a say about that.

This Alabama triumph was no laugher, although it initially appeared headed that way. Alabama led by 18 after the first quarter before Florida began uncovering Crimson Tide soft spots.

If you looked only at the final stats, you might think Florida won.

The Gators had a 439-324 advantage in total yards and a 26-19 edge in first downs.

Alabama had 11 penalties to Florida’s seven. Five penalties in Alabama were crowd-induced (a delay to the game and four false starts)

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Florida played shorthanded, too. Linebacker Ventrell Millett (biceps injury) and Anthony Richardson, the freshman backup quarterback, were both sidelined. Richardson had been dazzling in a two-quarterback system for the first two weeks.

Richardson was in uniform, and the hamstring he injured last week held up well enough during a pregame backflip. However, Florida coach Dan Mullen stated to CBS before kickoff that Richardson would only be used in an emergency.

Alabama hasn’t supplied a complete performance this season and couldn’t muster a first down throughout the second quarter.

Alabama coach Nick Saban applauded his team’s resiliency but added that the game showed his players that they cannot let their intensity wane.

“I’m hopeful that our team can learn from this experience – learn how to improve,” Saban said.

Much of the conversation entering Saturday centered on which Florida quarterback would start – Emory Jones or Richardson. Perhaps Florida’s ground game should have received more attention. With a variety of options plays, the Gators baffled Alabama’s defense.

Alabama needed a fourth-quarter two-point conversion stop to escape unscathed. Jones spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to give the ball off or keep it on a read-option.

Malik Davis finally got the handoff and was stopped a yard short of the goal.

“That was a good job by the defense, especially the guys up front,” Saban said.

Young played beyond his years throughout the first quarter, when he completed 12 of 16 passes with three touchdowns. His pass-catchers were a great help, as they often evaded tacklers.

Later in the game, Young at times looked like a sophomore making his first true road start.

He did just enough to emerge from The Swamp victorious. So did an Alabama team playing here for the first time since 2011.

But the longer this game went, the more Florida looked capable of fulfilling Tebow’s prediction, and the more it looked like Alabama has some vulnerabilities.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.

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