Saturday’s Top 25 football: Harris scores 5 TDs as Alabama outlasts Florida for SEC title

Paul Newberry
Associated Press

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 with one of his best teams yet.

Alabama's Najee Harris runs against Florida during the second half.

“This has been a year with a lot of disruptions. A lot of abnormal things happened,” said Saban, who had his own bout with COVID-19. “The resiliency this team has shown this season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal.”

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. The shortest of those scoring catches may have been his best, as Harris sent a would-be tackler tumbling to the turf with a dazzling spin move.

Harris rushed for 178 yards on 31 bruising carries, which included an 8-yard TD 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 the Crimson Tide’s other top candidate, star receiver DeVonta Smith.

Jones completed 33 of 43 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns. Smith, as usual, was his favorite target 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.

“I thought we showed a lot of character,” coach Dan Mullen said. “We’re always going to compete and play for four quarters. That was an excellent team we played … give them credit. That’s why they’re ranked No. 1 in the country.”

After Harris’ final 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, zipping down the field on another 75-yard possession that ended with Trask lofting a 22-yard TD pass to his star tight end, Kyle Pitts. Trask then 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 the Tide a scare. Saban’s team is 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 victories to their total, Saban would break a tie with Bear Bryant for the most national championships by a coach.

“I really love this team,” Saban said.

Texas A&M running back Isaiah Spiller (28) celebrates a touchdown against Tennessee Saturday.

More Top 25

►No. 5 Texas A&M 34, (at) Tennessee 13: Kellen Mond threw for 281 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 59 yards and a score Saturday, allowing No. 5 Texas A&M to close its case for a spot in the College Football Playoff with a 34-13 victory over Tennessee.

Isaiah Spiller ran for 89 yards and a touchdown, and Ainias Smith scored once rushing and once receiving.

Mond completed 26 of 32 passes as the Aggies (8-1, No. 5 CFP) finished their regular season and hoped for an upset or two within the CFP’s top four.

“I haven’t lobbied or said a word up until now,” Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We lost to the No. 1 team in the country, then won seven games in a row. We can play with anybody.

“We play in the best league in ball. Some teams aren’t even playing seven games. They’re supposed to pick the best four.”

Tennessee (3-7) has lost seven of its last eight games, ramping up speculation about Jeremy Pruitt’s future as Vols coach.

“And I get it, 3-7 is not where we want to be right now, you know?” Pruitt said. “But there’s one thing I can say: I can lay my head down on my pillow every night and know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to make sure we protected everybody in our program.”

Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout combined to throw for 189 yards and two touchdowns for the Vols.

The Aggies had trouble getting separation in the second half. Up 24-13 at halftime, the Aggies flirted with pulling away in the third quarter, but a red zone interception ended the threat.

“After the interception, we had the ability to keep our composure and continue to fight,” Mond said. “It was tremendous.

“The older guys show the poise and composure that we always talk about. That keeps the young guys calm. ‘OK, let’s move on to the next play.’”

It wasn’t until the 9:02 mark of the fourth quarter that Texas A&M got some breathing room. Mond engineered an 88-yard drive, with a key play of a 28-yard pass to Jalen Wydermeyer, that ended with a 1-yard run by Smith for a 31-13 lead.

Smith had two big runs accounting for 50 yards on the Aggies’ last possession. It ended in a 21-yard field goal that accounted for the 34-13 final.

Mond was impressive in the first half, completing 19 of 22 passes for 183 yards as the Aggies led, 24-13. He threw a 4-yard scoring pass to Ainias Smith and also ran for a TD from five yards.

Texas A&M, ranked third in the nation in third-down conversion percentage (55%), didn’t punt in the first half. The Aggies converted on 6 of 7 third-down opportunities. They controlled the ball for more than 21 minutes.

►(At) No. 6 Cincinnati 27, Tulsa 24: Cole Smith made a 34-yard field goal as time expired to lift Cincinnati in the rainy American Conference Championship game.

Alec Pierce had a career-high 146 yards receiving on five catches, Desmond Ridder passed for 269 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score, and Jerome Ford added a 42-yard scoring run for the Bearcats (9-0, No. 9 CFP).

Tulsa (6-2, No. 23 CFP) reached the conference championship game following three straight losing seasons. It was the Golden Hurricane’s first appearance in the AAC title game.

►No. 12 Oklahoma 27, No. 8 Iowa State 21: Spencer Rattler threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Mims and ran for a score and Oklahoma won its sixth consecutive Big 12 title, holding on to beat Iowa State in the conference championship game.

That impressive title streak probably won’t be enough to get the Sooners (8-2, No. 10 CFP) into the College Football Playoff for the fourth year in a row, even when paired with their seven-game winning streak. Oklahoma lost at Iowa State on Oct. 3 and was 0-2 in Big 12 play for the first time since 1998.

Big 12 rushing leader Breece Hall ran for two touchdowns for the Cyclones (8-3, No. 6 CFP) in the second half, when Oklahoma punted on its first five drives before Gabe Brkic’s 32-yard field goal with 2:01 left. The Sooners wrapped it up when Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy was under pressure and threw his third interception, a fluttering pass picked off by Tre Brown inside the 10.

Rattler was 22-of-34 for 272 yards and his 25th TD pass.

►No. 25 San Jose State 34, Boise State 20: At Las Vegas, Nick Starkel completed 32 of 52 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns to lead No. 25 San Jose State to its first Mountain West Conference championship.

The Spartans (7-0) had lost all 14 previous meetings with the Broncos (5-2).