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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – “Another 15 rounds, and I would’ve had him,” former heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb once said after a loss.
Florida coach Dan Mullen is looking forward to round 12 with Alabama coach Nick Saban after losing his 11th straight of 11 decisions, 31-29, on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“I hope we play them again really soon, like later this season,” Mullen said after his team came within less than a yard of tying it 31-31 with 3:10 to play on a two-point conversion run by tailback Dameon Pierce.
“We were right there within two points,” Mullen said. And a yard.
Against No. 1 Alabama (3-0), which won its 10 regular season games last season by an average of 32.7 points, that’s a moral victory for No. 11 Florida (2-1). It was Alabama’s narrowest win since 14-13 over Arkansas in 2014.
Saban and Alabama’s 10 straight previous wins over Mullen – nine while Mullen was at Mississippi State from 2009-17 and one last year at Florida in the SEC Championship Game – came by an average of 20 points.
But Mullen and Mississippi State lost by 20-7 in 2013 and 25-20 in 2014 after four straight blowouts. After a 51-3 loss in 2016, there was a 31-24 loss in 2017. And Florida fell by just 52-46 last season for the SEC title.
“Our guys expected to win,” said Mullen, who continues to play Saban closer than most. “Sometimes, they (other teams) don’t think they’re going to win. Our guys did last year, this year.”
Florida outgained Alabama on this day 439 yards to 324, outrushed it 258 to 91 and scored on the rarest of drives against Alabama in history – a 99-yard possession for a touchdown in 11 plays to get within 28-23 late in the third quarter.
Then they played Gainesville native Tom Petty’s classic, “I Won’t Back Down” at the Swamp to open the fourth quarter as they have since he died in 2016, and this one fit perfectly. The place went wild. The “Hey Baby” refrain was spine tingling.
Florida was not succumbing to the Tide, despite trailing 21-3 late in the first quarter. The Gators forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter, got to within 21-9 at the half and outscored Alabama 20-10 to end the game.
“I never doubted the effort,” Mullen said.
Florida was wearing down Alabama, which allowed touchdown drives of 79, 75, 99 and 75 yards over 38 plays from the second-through-fourth quarters. Alabama defenders were clutching their knees in between plays – not the opponent. This was not your usual Alabama.
“We started to reel on defense,” Saban admitted, and that’s not part of the process.
“I think we got tired,” he said. “I think we got tired in the second quarter after those three-and-outs. It was difficult after that. This is a tough place to play. Our center had a tough time hearing a couple of times.”
Everything was there for Florida’s first win over Alabama since 2008 in the SEC Championship Game. Except a better two-point conversion play or a better executed one.
The interior of Alabama’s defensive line stuffed Davis just after the slow, indecisive handoff from quarterback Emory Jones. Davis finished with 96 yards on 10 carries. Jones had 80 on 19 rushes. But neither could negotiate that last yard.
For a great play caller who had a red-letter day otherwise, Mullen’s last effort looked green.
“We had a missed assignment on that play,” Mullen said. “I’m not going to get into specifics. There were options within the play.”
Again, Mullen fell a couple of plays short as he did in the 25-20 loss in 2014 at Mississippi State as the No. 1 team in the nation.
“We’ve got to find a way to make those plays,” Mullen said. “Hopefully, we get one more shot at it this year.”