ATLANTA — The confetti fell on another Alabama championship, just not the one the Crimson Tide really wants.
Next up: the College Football Playoff.
With a Heisman-worthy performance from Derrick Henry and another dose of dominating defense, No. 2 Alabama cruised into the four-team playoff with a 29-15 victory over No. 18 Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
The Tide became the first team since Tennessee in 1998 to win two straight SEC titles — an impressive achievement indeed.
But the only way this season will be considered a true success is Alabama claiming another national title.
That’s the standard Nick Saban has set in Tuscaloosa.
“As tight as this group is and how hard we play together and how we have each other’s backs, I’m real confident in this team,” quarterback Jake Coker said. “I think we can do whatever we want to do, based on how we practice and prepare. It’s going to be an exciting playoff.”
Alabama’s title hopes were on the ropes in mid-September when five turnovers allowed Mississippi to pull off a 43-37 upset at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide (12-1, No. 2 CFP) bounced back to win 10 straight games, earning a spot in the national semifinals at either the Cotton or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
A year ago, the Tide played in the inaugural playoff but was upset by eventual national champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Saban, who said he even had questions about his team after the Ole Miss loss, gushed over how the Crimson Tide rebounded.
“I’m very proud of this team,” said Saban, who already has three national titles as the Tide’s coach and needs two more wins for his fourth. “They wanted to do something special. And probably more than any other time I’ve ever coached, I wanted to see these guys succeed.”
Henry capped his Heisman campaign with a flourish, rushing for 189 bruising yards on a staggering 44 carries against one of the nation’s top defenses. Jake Coker turned in just the sort of performance that the Tide needed out of its quarterback — 18 of 26 completions for 204 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. The defense was too much for Florida’s maligned offense, which managed only 3 yards of offense in the second and third quarters.
Florida, an 18-point underdog, briefly grabbed a 7-2 lead on Antonio Callaway’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Alabama dominated from there.
Henry came into the game as a Heisman favorite and certainly did nothing to hurt his chances with an MVP showing. He put Alabama ahead to stay on a 2-yard run late in the first half, and looked as fresh at the end of the game as he did at the beginning.
“My main focus is on finishing and helping the team win,” Henry said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
He tied the SEC record for touchdowns in a season (23) and eclipsed Herschel Walker’s 34-year-old conference mark for rushing yards in a year, pushing his total to 1,986 with at least one more game still to come.
The expected defensive slugfest — both teams were among the nation’s leaders in numerous categories — played out in the first half, though Alabama clearly had the superior team. The Tide led just 12-7 at the break, scoring a safety off a blocked punt, settling for a field goal after a long drive, and turning it over deep in Florida territory.
But the Gators (10-3), likely to settle for a spot in the Citrus Bowl, simply couldn’t muster enough offense to make a game of it. There were dropped passes, wobbly passes and not even the hint of a running game. Their only offensive score came on Treon Harris’ 46-yard pass to C.J. Worton with about 5 minutes remaining.
Harris was 9 of 24 for 165 yards with one interception. The Gators were held to 21 yards rushing.
“We’re a program on the rise,” coach Jim McElwain said. “We’ll have a good football team here — a lot of them — in the future.”
The Tide complemented its pound-and-ground offense with a couple of huge passing plays. Calvin Ridley leaped between two Florida defenders to pull down a 55-yard pass at the Florida 2, setting up Henry’s touchdown. ArDarius Stewart made an even more spectacular grab in the third quarter, going up in traffic to snare a 32-yard scoring pass before flipping to the turf on his head.
Stewart hopped right back up.
No one was keeping this team down.
Coker finished off the Gators with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Richard Mullaney with 8:50 remaining.
The defense turned in quite a performance for coordinator Kirby Smart, who is expected to be named head coach at Georgia in the next few days. But whatever happens with Smart, Alabama’s defense still has some goals left to achieve.
The Tide is heading back to the playoffs.