Gators can’t overcome early interceptions against Tide

Florida head coach Jim McElwain looks over plays during the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Alabama and Florida, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

ATLANTA (AP) — The score made it appear No. 15 Florida was outclassed in its SEC championship game against top-ranked Alabama.

Gators cornerback Teez Tabor insists that wasn’t the case. He was convinced Saturday’s ugly 54-16 loss would have been different if not for three first-half interceptions.

“No question,” Tabor said without hesitating. “It’s a 17-point difference at the half. It’s a tie ballgame.”

Instead, the three interceptions thrown by Austin Appleby played a big role in Alabama leading 33-16 at halftime.

After the game, Florida coach Jim McElwain said developing a quarterback would be a top priority. Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, completes his eligibility this season, and the search for his replacement could begin with bowl practice.

“That’s something we’ve got to do and we’ve got to make sure it happens sooner than later,” McElwain said. “That’s my responsibility, and it will get done.”

It was the second straight lopsided loss for Florida, following a 31-13 loss to Florida State to close the regular season. McElwain said it will be crucial to end that streak in the bowl game.

The loss hurts Florida’s chances to land in the Sugar Bowl. The Gators’ other bowl options include the Outback and Citrus.

“One thing I do know, we’ve got to go to win this bowl game wherever we do end up,” he said. “We’re going to put a plan together and get the players out there to go play that and go win a game.”

Florida (8-4, No. 15 CFP) grabbed the early momentum against Alabama with a 10-play touchdown drive to open the game. Appleby’s 5-yard scoring pass to Antonio Callaway was the first touchdown given up by the Crimson Tide (13-0, No. 1 CFP) in more than 17 quarters.

Then came the mistakes, which were far too much to overcome against Alabama. The 54 points are most allowed by Florida since 62-24 loss to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.

“When you’re playing a team like that, now the pass rush heats up,” Appleby said. “Now the offense is going to milk the clock.

“When you’re playing catch-up like that, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can be Tom Brady. It’s hard. It’s hard.”

McElwain, Alabama’s former offensive coordinator, said this may be the Crimson Tide’s best team.

“I think this is the best 85 that they’ve probably traveled with to the SEC championship game,” he said. “I mean, that’s a real ball squad.”

Appleby said he was hit when throwing on his first interception and the second “was a miscommunication between the receiver and I.” He said the third was “a 50-50 ball” where Alabama’s Tony Brown took the pass from Florida receiver Ahmad Fulwood.

“That was the matchup we wanted,” Appleby said.

Florida had a chance to narrow the deficit when it moved to a first down at the Alabama 2 on its opening possession of the second half. The Gators came away from the possession with no points when tight end DeAndre Goolsby came down outside the end zone on a fourth-down pass.

McElwain acknowledged that kicking a field goal would “get it to a two-score game.”

“But at that point, I felt momentum-wise, we could bang one of them in there,” he said.

Settling for a field goal also might have helped keep the game from turning into a rout.

“I will tell you this: I didn’t come here to be close,” McElwain said. “We came here to be champions of the SEC. That’s what you do when you’re at the University of Florida, and that’s the expectation, and I understand that.”

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