ATLANTA — Alabama locked up another trip to the College Football Playoff.
In all likelihood, Derrick Henry clinched the Heisman Trophy, too.
Henry rushed for 189 bruising yards and the second-ranked Crimson Tide wore down No. 18 Florida with a dominating defensive performance, beating the Gators 29-15 in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday.
The Crimson Tide (12-1, No. 2 CFP) held the Gators to just 3 yards of offense in the second and third quarters, assuring itself of a spot in the semifinals at either the Cotton or Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Florida, an 18-point underdog, briefly grabbed a 7-2 lead on Antonio Callaway’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Alabama dominated from there.
Henry came into the game as a Heisman favorite and certainly did nothing to hurt his chances, with a staggering 44 carries against one of the nation’s top defenses to earn MVP honors. He put Alabama ahead to stay on a 2-yard run late in the first half, and looked as fresh at the end of the game as he did at the beginning, carrying the ball right to the final seconds.
Henry tied the SEC record for touchdowns in a season (23) and eclipsed Herschel Walker’s 34-year-old conference mark for rushing yards in a year, pushing his total to 1,986 with at least one more game still to come.
The expected defensive slugfest — both teams were among the nation’s leaders in numerous categories — played out in the first half, though Alabama clearly had the superior team. The Tide led just 12-7 at the break, scoring a safety off a blocked punt, settling for a field goal after a long drive, and turning it over deep in Florida territory.
But the Gators (10-3), likely to settle for a spot in the Citrus Bowl, simply couldn’t muster enough offense to make a game of it. There were dropped passes, wobbly passes and not even the hint of a running game. Their only offensive score came on a 46-yard pass to C.J. Worton with about 5 minutes remaining, far too late to derail Alabama’s playoff hopes.
The Tide complemented its pound-and-ground offense with a couple of huge passing plays. Calvin Ridley leaped between two Florida defenders to pull down a 55-yard pass at the Florida 2, setting up Henry’s touchdown. ArDarius Stewart made an even more spectacular grab in the third quarter, going up in traffic to snare a 32-yard scoring pass before flipping to the turf on his head.
Stewart hopped right back up, and Alabama was heading back to the playoffs.
Jake Coker turned in just the sort of performance that the Tide needed out of its quarterback. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 204 yards, finishing off the Gators with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Richard Mullaney.
The defense turned in quite a performance for coordinator Kirby Smart, who is expected to be named head coach at Georgia in the next few days. But whatever happens with Smart, Alabama’s defense still has some work to do.
The Tide is heading back to the playoffs.