When a rivalry as significant as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” (sorry, Greg Sankey) arrives at a big moment, it is only natural to search for a strong comparison from the past.
In 2019, as the Florida Gators prepare to meet the Georgia Bulldogs, the search for a comparison isn’t hard at all. This might be the easiest comparison to make for anyone who has followed this series over the years.
There can be only one clear and resonant comparison to the 2019 Cocktail Party: 2012.
Everyone in Athens and Gainesville and Jacksonville, and places in between, can see this.
The Florida coach at the time, Will Muschamp, was showing signs of making progress. His offense could be clunky, but his defense could be great if it had all the main pieces healthy and whole.
The Georgia coach at the time, Mark Richt, had reached the SEC Championship Game the year before but ran into the team which would play in that season’s national championship game. Richt was trying to reaffirm Georgia’s place as a college football powerhouse, making sure the program continued to build strength instead of losing ground.
That all seems familiar, does it not?
Dan Mullen is trying to get a foothold at Florida and continue the upward trajectory the Gators have taken over the past 12 months. As was the case with the 2012 Gators, Florida will hope for the best from its offense in the Cocktail Party but lean on its defense to bring home a win. Avoiding huge mistakes is the Gators’ top priority on Saturday.
Kirby Smart has Georgia in national title contention, as Richt did in the 2012 season, but a loss to Florida would undermine a sense of sustained progress. A win would mean a certain trip to the SEC Championship Game and a date with the winner of the Alabama-LSU game… just like 2012.
Yes, we can recognize the parallels between 2012 and 2019. On Saturday, we will find out which team follows the necessary path and does what it needs to do.
In that 2012 game, Florida’s defense more than did its job, forcing three Georgia turnovers. It picked off Aaron Murray three times.
Florida’s defense limited Georgia to 273 yards, 1 of 10 on third downs, 14 total first downs, and 26:19 of possession time.
There was just one problem: Florida’s offense played as poorly as it could possibly play.
The Gators coughed up six turnovers. Jeff Driskel was… Jeff Driskel (not the impostor who played great later that season against Florida State).
The man who embarrassed Florida’s offense in 2012: Todd Grantham (above), who was then Georgia’s defensive coordinator under Richt.
Grantham will be Dan Mullen’s defensive coordinator against Georgia this Saturday.
In 2012, Will Muschamp coached against his alma mater.
In 2019, Todd Grantham will coach against his former employer.
It is true that the effects of the 2012 Cocktail Party did not carry into the 2013 season, when both Georgia and Florida regressed. UF and UGA have better head coaches now than they did then. We are not going to see Missouri become the class of the SEC East in 2020 and 2021, a contrast to 2013 and 2014.
Yes, Florida and Georgia are poised to dominate the SEC East in the coming decade. The futures of Florida and Georgia will be different compared to how they unfolded in the three to four seasons following the 2012 Cocktail Party.
Yet, this is a comparison not of how the world looks AFTER the annual meeting in Jacksonville. It is a look at how the world looks BEFORE the Gators and Dawgs brawl on the banks of the St. John’s River.
We can only hope we will get a game with far fewer than nine turnovers, 23 total penalties, and 28 completed passes in 53 attempts with five interceptions.
That, hopefully, is where the comparisons with 2012 will end… but life offers no guarantees to Dan Mullen, Kirby Smart, Todd Grantham, or anyone else.
Let’s see who will be shaken, and who will be stirred, at the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”
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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