Alabama holds off Florida in SEC title shootout

AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Alabama running back Najee Harris, left, and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood celebrate after the Crimson Tide beat Florida 52-46 to win the SEC title Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

ATLANTA - In a season of blowout victories, Alabama finally got tested.

Against an opponent that just wouldn't quit, the Crimson Tide required every last point, and coach Nick Saban needed his offensive stars to shine as bright as they have all season. Boy, did they ever.

Najee Harris rushed for 178 yards and scored five touchdowns. Mac Jones threw for 418 yards and five touchdowns. DeVonta Smith hauled in 15 catches for 184 yards and two scores.

It was just enough to send the top-ranked Tide to the College Football Playoff with a perfect record, with Saban's squad holding off the Gators in a 52-46 shootout for the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday night.

"Those guys are pretty phenomenal. They have been all year," Saban said. "They certainly delivered tonight when we needed them to."

The Tide (11-0) got their toughest challenge so far this fall, but the result was the same. Another win. Now, with one of his best teams yet, the 69-year-old coach heads to the four-team playoff in search of his sixth national title since taking over in Tuscaloosa in 2007 and his seventh overall.

"This has been a year with a lot of disruptions," said Saban, who had his own COVID-19 challenges - a false positive test result that forced him to miss practice time and a positive result that kept him from coaching against Auburn. "The resiliency this team has shown this season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal."

After trailing 35-17 at halftime, Florida (8-3) made a game of it with a pair of third-quarter scores. And the Gators fought to the bitter end, adding two more touchdowns in the fourth before the clock hit zero.

"We were rolling pretty good," said quarterback Kyle Trask, who threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns. "We just ran out of time."

Alabama's Harris, chosen the game's MVP, essentially established residency in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium end zones.

The senior running back had 31 bruising carries, scoring on plays of 8 and 1 yards and leaping like a hurdler over a defender who tried to go low on a 19-yard run.

Amazingly, Harris was even more dynamic in the passing game. He hauled in five catches for 67 yards, including touchdown plays of 23, 17 and 7 yards in Alabama's first-half blitz. The shortest of those may have been his best, as Harris sent a would-be tackler tumbling to the turf with a dazzling spin move.

"I've been catching the ball since birth," he quipped. "People don't expect it because of the running back name, but I can catch."

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 senior also knocked off a couple of program records, setting new standards for career rushing touchdowns (44) and overall touchdowns (54).

photo AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Alabama quarterback Mac Jones passes during Saturday's SEC championship game against Florida at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The two quarterbacks did nothing to hurt their standing as two of the leading Heisman Trophy contenders. Neither did Smith, the Tide's other top candidate. After Saturday night's performance, Harris should probably be in the mix as well.

"I'm not worried about that," he said. "The two guys we've got up there now is good enough."

In addition to catching all those passes, Smith came up with a key fumble recovery after Florida's Trey Dean picked off a throw from Jones, snatching the ball away from the intended receiver only to cough it up on a brutal, blindside hit by Alabama receiver John Metchie. Jones threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Smith on the very next play.

Trask was 26-of-40 with a 51-yard touchdown pass early to Kadarius Toney, who finished with eight receptions for 153 yards. The Gators quarterback also hooked up with Trevon Grimes on a 50-yard touchdown, and Trask also scored on a 1-yard run.

Give Florida credit: Coming off a shocking home loss to LSU - the reigning national champion that went from 15-0 to 5-5 - the Gators fought to the very end.

"I thought we showed a lot of character," coach Dan Mullen said. "That was an excellent team we played give them credit. That's why they're ranked No. 1 in the country."

The final quarter was a thriller for the socially distanced crowd of 16,520 scattered throughout the 75,000-seat stadium that's home to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC.

After Harris lunged over from the 1 for final touchdown to extend Alabama's lead to 45-31, the Gators responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with Damien Pierce's own 1-yard touchdown plunge.

Alabama's high-powered offense struck right back. Harris ripped off a 29-yard run deep into Florida territory, and Smith finished it by hauling in a 15-yard pass from Jones after a play-action fake to Harris froze the 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 touchdown 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 Tide are back in familiar territory with an offense that has averaged nearly 50 points a game and seemingly has too many weapons for just 11 men to stop.

Said Saban: "I really love this team."