ATLANTA: 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.
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.
Harris rushed for 178 yards on 31 bruising carries, which included an 8-yard scoring run 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 Smith, the Crimson Tide’s other top candidate.
Jones completed 33 of 43 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns. Smith, as usual, was his favorite receiver 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.
After Harris’ fifth 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, ripping off another 75-yard possession that ended with Trask lofting a 22-yard TD pass to his star tight end, Kyle Pitts. Trask 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 them a scare. They are 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 wins to their total, Saban would break a tie with Bear Bryant for the most national championships by a coach.
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