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Opinion: No. 1 Alabama football hangs on by a hamstring to beat No. 9 Florida, escape The Swamp

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For one quarter, Alabama football had a strong upper hand. In the end, Alabama was using that hand to cling desperately to the cliff.

Alabama did hang on, barely, to win 31-29 at The Swamp in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday. It was the second straight season that Alabama had faced its sternest test against Florida.

The question this year, unlike in 2020, is whether sterner tests await.

A 21-3 lead in the first quarter seemed comfortable enough, the usual case of Alabama going through its paces. Instead, it wasn’t nearly enough.

The total offense for Alabama in the second quarter could have been measured in millimeters if the USA hadn’t taken Florida from Spain back in 1819, or roughly the last time, so it seemed, that the Crimson Tide had played here. The same sort of slowdown happened against Miami in the opener, but the Hurricanes were already looking for the white flag before halftime. Florida was very much alive.

Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA;  Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) crosses the goal line against Florida linebacker Amari Burney (2) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) crosses the goal line against Florida linebacker Amari Burney (2) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

As in any transition, things change. The harsh fact, which Nick Saban has been preaching all year long, is that this team isn’t last year’s team. No one feels sorry for Alabama’s well-stocked roster, but that neither means that there have been four NFL first-draft choices standing around on the sidelines or that young talent plays the same way as experienced talent. That takes nothing away from the play of sophomore Jase McClellan, who salvaged the game with his backup play behind Brian Robinson Jr.

At one point, Alabama had Florida lined up for an earlier knockout shot. A gritty Crimson Tide touchdown drive was followed by an inexplicable Gator special teams bungle that left the Gators pinned on their own 1-yard line, 99 yards away from answering and facing a third-and-10. Instead of keeping the Gators in that trap, like so many Alabama defenses have done in the past, the Crimson Tide allowed them to escape into open water.

And when that happens, suddenly it’s Advantage Florida. After 99 yards and a Gators touchdown, The Swamp was shaking at Richter scale levels from the pure noise of it all.

What might have been one of the great manhood vs. manhood moments in recent history never happened because of one of Alabama’s many penalties, a false start that pushed the Crimson Tide from the Gator 1, where Saban was ready for a test of wills that never happened. Instead, Will Reichard kicked a short field goal, setting the stage for the 10-minute drama at the end.

It ended with an odd 2-point try by Florida, where Emory Jones and his running back sort of scrummed together like the Samoan rugby team without the same success. Florida coach Dan Mullen then decided not to try an onside kick and didn’t get the ball back before miracle time, without the miracle

Bryce Young’s poise was not the issue. He moved the Crimson Tide to the points it needed to have in the fourth quarter and burned enough time on the final Alabama drive. The Crimson Tide defense never repaid him or the offense by making the key stops in some very stoppable situations: not rushing, not passing stops. If Florida’s offense is in fact better with Anthony Richardson, then the Crimson Tide has a sore hamstring to thank for escaping at all.

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Tide's toughest test: Alabama pushed to edge of cliff by Florida