Alabama football's invincibility takes a hit, but Tide survives Tim Tebow's prediction | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

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 Alabama football would wilt 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. The pregame tailgating scene on a hot, muggy day offered bag toss and bikini tops and a dose of energy the best beach party can’t 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 really loud. We knew it was going to be a hostile environment coming in, and it lived up to it, for sure. … It was tough, but I’m super proud of us.”

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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 Alabama penalties were crowd-induced (a delay of game and four false starts).

Florida played shorthanded, too. Sidelined were linebacker Ventrell Miller (biceps injury), and freshman backup quarterback Anthony Richardson, who had dazzled in a two-quarterback system throughout the first two weeks.

Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA;  Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) celebrates his touchdown catch against Florida with wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Richardson was in uniform, and the hamstring he injured last week held up well enough during a pregame backflip. But Florida coach Dan Mullen told CBS before kickoff that he would be used only 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 more of the attention should have been on Florida's ground game. The Gators befuddled Alabama's defense with an array of option plays.

That was on display during a 99-yard touchdown drive in which the Gators amassed 63 yards on the ground.

Alabama needed a fourth-quarter 2-point conversion stop to escape unscathed. On that play, Jones took a long time deciding whether to hand off or keep the ball 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 helped his cause by frequently evading tacklers.

Later in the game, Young at times looked like a sophomore making his first true road start. He was fortunate not to be intercepted during a pivotal third-quarter touchdown drive, when edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. duped him by dropping into coverage.

On second-and-goal in the fourth quarter, Young threw an incompletion when he forced a pass into traffic instead of embracing a clear path to run into the end zone. Alabama settled for a field goal.

Young 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. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.