It might seem too severe to draw a big bright line between Florida and Georgia before the latest edition of the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” but writers highlight contrasts so that readers will absorb them. Writers emphasize differences so that readers will not walk away with the mistaken impression that two teams enter a game under the same basic conditions or circumstances.
Sure, the Gators and the Bulldogs are both fighting for a division championship and a trip to Atlanta on Saturday. Both teams are ranked in the top 10. Both teams have big dreams and large aspirations. Yet, let us not think that the pressure and implications of this game are the same for both sides.
Florida could very realistically win this game, especially if Georgia’s offense remains as dormant and unimaginative as it has been in recent weeks. Moreover, the Gators’ improved health should make their defense much stronger than it was in October.
Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga give Florida its two foremost difference-makers on defense, exactly what coordinator Todd Grantham needs to make Georgia’s life miserable.
Yes, Florida can very realistically win this game. To that extent, these teams do not inhabit completely different worlds as they prepare for combat.
The main difference between these teams does not lie in the quality of their play or in their chances of winning; those measurements are fairly similar. The big chasm between these schools resides in the realm of short-term expectations.
This is not to say that Florida football carries no expectations into this game. This is meant to emphasize the point that Florida has not reached a stage in its evolution which merits the same expectations.
Florida has the quarterback, Kyle Trask, it wasn’t expecting to play in this game at the start of the season.
Georgia has the quarterback it wanted, with Justin Fields going to Ohio State.
Florida hasn’t yet won an SEC East title under Dan Mullen. Georgia has reached the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, won a Rose Bowl playoff semifinal, won the SEC, and won two East titles under Kirby Smart.
Dan Mullen has not yet found a game-changing quarterback in Gainesville, a reality which transcends the particulars of this 2019 season.
Kirby Smart has crushed the recruiting trail and displayed the level of program-building chops Mullen has not yet attained.
If Florida loses, what is the negative consequence for Mullen and the program? A 10-2 season and a New Year’s Six bowl, with the program sustaining a high standard in spite of the Feleipe Franks injury and other key losses on defense.
If Georgia loses, Kirby Smart has to face the reality that he lost to Florida despite a clear edge at quarterback. Florida gains significant recruiting momentum. Georgia’s hopes of keeping Florida at bay would take a big hit. The idea of a “Pax Georgia” – many years of SEC dominance akin to Steve Spurrier from 1990 through 1996 at UF – would die.
Georgia is in much more of a “win now” mode – not that Florida isn’t, but the stakes are so much higher given what Kirby Smart has built in Athens. If Dan Mullen can beat him with an incomplete Florida team, imagine what Mullen could envision with all his ideal pieces lined up in 2020.
Florida fans do have very large dreams. Florida fans do not hold small-scale aspirations. Yet, when judging where these programs are and the resources they currently own, Georgia carries the huge expectations in the 2019 Cocktail Party. Georgia is trying to defend its turf and its position.
Florida, for all of its successes, is the challenger who can say that if it loses, it was never in an ideal position to win (which is true regardless of result on Saturday).
Keep that in mind as the Cocktail Party gets poured into living color in Jacksonville.
Gators down stretch look very familiar
It sounds like an insult, but it’s not: Gators are McElwain 2.0
It does seem like an insult to say that the 2019 Florida Gators, under Dan Mullen, are a better version of Jim McElwain’s SEC East champion Florida teams. McElwain was not a beloved coach. He didn’t enjoy coaching at Florida. He didn’t handle the prominence or the pressure of the job very well.
Dan Mullen enjoys coaching the Gators. He relishes pressure. He has performed well in the SEC for a long time, as a head coach and offensive coordinator. He is so many of the things McElwain wasn’t.
Few men in college football scheme receivers open better than Dan Mullen. He has a gift for play calling, and he squeezed a lot out of his Mississippi State teams. One can very reasonably say that he took the Bulldogs as high as they could fly, as far as they could go.
That is pretty much what Mullen has done with this 2019 team.
He has had a backup quarterback for most of the year, not Feleipe Franks. He has had a below-average offensive line which simply cannot facilitate a consistent or especially productive running game.
He has had Jabari Zuniga, arguably his best defensive player, healthy for a tiny fraction of the season. Jon Greenard has been injured for multiple games as well.
Everywhere you look, Florida has been limited. Everywhere you look, Florida has not had the ideal players it would want to face Georgia and LSU.
Speaking of Georgia and LSU, Florida had to play those two teams this year. It also had to play Auburn and Miami and still has Florida State on the slate.
If you were to tell Mullen that he would have his best players within the context of an injury-free season, this 2019 course of events (in terms of wins and losses and style of play) would have been noticeably disappointing. Yet, given the injuries and the limitations, Florida being 6-2 in the SEC and 9-2 overall is pretty damn good.
Adjusted for circumstances, Florida has done as much as it realistically could have been expected to do. LSU is the best team in college football this regular season. Florida gave the Tigers a good test for three quarters and were outplayed in the fourth. There isn’t much more one could have asked from UF in that game.
The Georgia game was certainly a disappointment, but if you’re going to say that Florida and Georgia have the same levels of talent, please turn in your college football analyst card at the door.
That is not a credible assertion.
We can talk about recruiting in a separate conversation or column, but in 2019, Dan Mullen has coaxed a 9-2 record – likely to become 10-2 with a win over Florida State – from a limited roster with a lot of backups playing extended snaps at hugely important positions.
Florida is winning games without style points. It is managing situations and handling challenges.
Sound familiar? These were the two SEC East-winning seasons under McElwain, the only two seasons in this decade (which is about to end) when Florida went to Atlanta.
The 2019 Gators share the ragged, uneven quality of McElwain’s teams, but the coaching and adaptability are better. The number of losses is lower. The ceiling for the program is higher.
McElwain 2.0 feels like an insult, until you look below the surface and see what is truly being compared.
Georgia clinched SEC East- eliminated Gators Saturday night
Any hope the Florida Gators had of working their way back to Atlanta and the SEC Title game, through a potential backdoor, ended Saturday night. That’s when, the Georgia Bulldogs outfought their rival Auburn, 21 – 14 giving them a 6 – 1 record and the SEC East title for the third consecutive year.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Gators had done their part to set up a possible late season rally to win the division by smothering the Missouri Tigers on the road 23 – 6. That improved Florida to their final SEC record of 6 – 2. However, because they lost head-to-head 2 weeks ago to the Dawgs in Jacksonville, it meant the Gators had to have Georgia lose both of their remaining games, including next week at home with Texas A&M.
Georgia made sure that didn’t happen, as D’Andre Swift ran for 106 yards and Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm threw three touchdown passes. That included the eventual game-winner to tighten Eli Wolf from 5 yards out that put Georgia up 21 – 0 after three periods.
Auburn put together a tremendous rally behind freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who threw for 245 yards and a touchdown and ran for another TD to pull the Tigers within 21 – 14 with seven minutes to go.
Auburn got the ball back two times with chances to go and get a tying touchdown and both times, the Bulldogs held them on downs. The last one coming in the final minute of the game when Nix was sacked on fourth down inside his own 15-yard line to clinch the win and title for Georgia..
The Bulldogs, who were ranked fourth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings still controls their own destiny to the playoff by winning out and winning the SEC title game. Of course, likely standing in their way is that top-ranked LSU, who is unbeaten heading into play Saturday night and will be the other team trying to make the final four.
The best case scenario now for the Gators is to win their remaining game with rival FSU at the Swamp in two weeks and then look to be in a possible “New Year Six” game, most likely the Cotton Bowl.
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