TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Alabama's fans didn't want to leave the stands after a game that was decided long before it actually ended, and the players lingered on the field celebrating along with them.
After recent seasons of mediocre teams and off-the-field troubles, the seventh-ranked Crimson Tide delivered a message with a start-to-finish 31-3 thumping of Florida Saturday: We're back.
"We knew the whole time what we had," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "It's just all a matter of having a big television game to show the world and say, 'Hey, 'Bama's back and we're not playing around."'
Alabama (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) demonstrated that with a big-play offense and a defense that harried Chris Leak into two uncharacteristic interceptions, sacked him four times and came up with a goal-line stand.
It was a performance few expected from a Tide team that was spotty against Arkansas a week earlier, hadn't played a ranked team and opened the season unranked. Alabama vaulted eight spots in the rankings to No. 7 for its highest position since opening the 2000 season No. 3.
Florida (4-1, 2-1) fell eight spots to 13th.
"We feel like there's so much work left to be done," coach Mike Shula said. "It gives us a chance to get to where we want to go. We've got some huge games coming up. They're all going to be big. Hopefully if you have success it's going to put you somewhere near the top where you want to be at the end of the year.
The defense set the stage for the dominant performance against Florida by holding Leak to three-and-outs on two possessions to open the game, the second coming after a fumbled punt return in Alabama territory.
Alabama's first offensive play: Brodie Croyle's 87-yard touchdown pass to Tyrone Prothro, who had fumbled the punt and would be lost for the season with a broken left leg late in the game.
Prothro had surgery Saturday night. He was the team's leading receiver and No. 3 rusher and also returned punts and kicks. The Tide has its first open date to try to fill those roles before returning to play at Mississippi.
Alabama players had touted themselves as SEC title contenders before the season. Croyle even pointed to rival Auburn's unexpected 13-0 season over the summer and asked, "Why not us?"
It seems a fair question now.
"We knew we were good," said Croyle, who threw for three touchdowns and 286 yards. "We said it from the get-go. Everybody thought we were crazy.
"Everybody thought we had lost our minds, but we knew the talent we had. We knew the senior class we had. For us on offense, we knew the defense we had."
The skepticism was understandable, considering the 10-15 record in Mike Shula's first two seasons leading a program still recovering from NCAA sanctions, the abrupt departure of coach Dennis Franchione for Texas A&M and the offseason firing of Mike Price.
No wonder all but a few Tide fans stuck around to savor the win, even though Alabama led 31-3 early in the second half.
"We've been through the rough times and now that everybody's on our side for a change, we know what it feels like on the other side," Croyle said. "We're not going to let it go to our heads, but it is fun to be playing in a different atmosphere."
The enthusiasm was evident even before the game, when Croyle said fans around Tuscaloosa treated him to "Roll Tide" cheers. Chance are, the treatment will be even better during the next couple of weeks.
"We've come a long way," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "We've been through the ups and downs. As seniors, we stepped up and said we wanted to put Alabama back on top when we leave here this year."
The Gators came in averaging 34.5 points per game and hadn't been held to a lone field goal since a 45-3 loss at Tennessee in 1990.
"This is long deserved and we're not stopping here," Tide safety Charlie Peprah said. "This is for everybody who stayed with us."
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