University of Alabama

Three-peat: Alabama beats down Florida in SEC title game to stay perfect

Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough (9) runs over a Florida defender during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.
Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough (9) runs over a Florida defender during the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta. AP

Alabama won its third straight SEC Championship Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.

The Crimson Tide beat Florida in the title game for a second straight year in a less than perfect performance miles better than what the rest of the conference has to offer.

After running only six plays for -7 yards in the first quarter, Alabama (13-0; 9-0 SEC) managed to set a SEC Championship game record with 33 points in the half.

Alabama returned an interception and punt block for touchdowns to add to the program’s FBS-leading 12 non-offensive touchdowns this season.

Alabama’s 54-16 win breaks a 4-4 series tie in the SEC Championship game between the programs.

Rueben Foster was named the game’s MVP.

Foster anchored Alabama’s impressive defensive performance with 11 tackles and two sacks.

Florida threatened to score early in the second half, but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone with a fresh set of downs from the 2-yard line. The Gators didn’t get across midfield the rest of the game and ended up with zero rushing yards.

“I felt like we were a little flat in the locker room at halftime,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We came out and went three and out on offense. They drove the ball, and we had the great goal line stand, and that was a great goal line stand.”

Alabama’s defense had the game well in hand by the time starting running back Bo Scarbrough got involved.

Scarbrough didn’t carry the ball in the first quarter, but scored a pair of touchdowns in the second half on the way to a game-high 91 yards.

Florida (8-4, 6-3 SEC) stunned the sold out Georgia Dome crowd early in the game with a 10-play, 64-yard scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead on the game’s opening possession.

Quarterback Austin Appleby, playing for an injured Luke Del Rio, went 6 of 7 for 67 yards. Appleby hit Antonio Callaway for a 5-yard touchdown with 9:51 to go in the first quarter.

Last year, Callaway returned a punt 85-yards in the SEC Championship game to give Florida an early 7-2 lead.

Callaway caught three passes on the opening drive Saturday, two of them on third-and-long situations to keep the drive alive.

The opening salvo from Appleby and the rest of Florida’s offense turned out to be an aberration. Alabama scored 16 points off the Purdue graduate transfer’s three first-half interceptions.

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returned the second interception 44-yards for a touchdown. It was the Crimson Tide’s FBS-leading 10th defensive touchdown this season.

Florida’s went three-and-out on the four drives that didn’t end with a turnover or score in the half.

“We knew we had to get them off balance, and we tried to do that with some of the play action stuff,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “They've made some other teams turn the ball over, I think, this year, and I knew going in we had to take care of the ball. I talked about that, and we didn't.

Alabama also blocked a punt with the Gators backed up by their own end zone. Backup running back Josh Jacobs returned the block 27-yards for a touchdown.

“We got our tails kicked in that area,” McElwain said.

The defense and special teams touchdowns helped overshadow Alabama’s ugly offensive start.

Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled throughout the half, but managed to orchestrate a pair of scoring drives before halftime. He hit Calvin Ridley for a 52-yard gain to help set up his lone touchdown, a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Gehrig Dieter.

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra