The Florida Gators never led in Saturday’s edition of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, and did so little for so long that Gator Nation was largely inebriated and frustrated by game’s end.
By then, Florida was only down a touchdown — but that touchdown felt like a full step of distance behind the SEC East powerhouse that won the game.
Georgia’s 24-17 win would be easy to describe as more emphatic than the score suggests, especially given for how long and how effectively the Bulldogs controlled the game. They ran nearly twice as many plays as Florida in the first half while building a 13-3 halftime lead, taking advantage of a few dubious calls and answering Florida’s only scoring drive with one of their own right before intermission.
And Georgia hit the game’s biggest play early in the fourth quarter, as Jake Fromm found a wide-open Lawrence Cager on a coverage bust to push the Dawgs’ lead to 22-10 — 24-10 after a two-point conversion — following Florida engineering a first touchdown drive a few minutes prior.
But Georgia’s edge in this game was based less on being an overwhelming force — something that was more true in the past two Cocktail Parties, which went the Bulldogs’ way by an average of 27 points per game — and more on being able to exploit Florida’s handful of weaknesses. Georgia stifled Florida’s running game and got enough pressure in the early going to keep the Gators off the field in the first half, then held up — often literally — Florida’s pass rush and eked out enough on the ground to stay on the field in their own right.
And when Georgia needed big plays through the air, it was able to get them from Fromm making difficult throws to receivers given ample time to beat Florida receivers. The game-clincher, a floater to Eli Wolf on a third and seven with just more than a minute left, was Georgia’s 12th third down conversion in 18 tries, and snuffed out the faint hope of a valiant rally sparked by Florida’s own slow touchdown march late in the fourth quarter.
Florida didn’t play poorly, or even particularly badly. Kyle Trask threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. Lamical Perine’s 31 rushing yards were well-earned. Freddie Swain had eight catches for 91 yards and a touchdown; Kyle Pitts had four catches for 78 yards; Van Jefferson made a great touchdown catch, and Trevon Grimes a fantastic sideline catch. Florida’s defense, despite D’Andre Swift leaning on it and Fromm throwing darts just beyond its grasp, really didn’t get blown off the ball, or raced off the field.
But Florida also didn’t play perfectly, or exceed expectations that probably should have been better calibrated to the talent on hand. Florida has 17 wins and five losses under Dan Mullen now, and while each of the losses has been painful, all five appear likely to come to teams that will win eight or more games; four of the five, provided LSU and Georgia continue on their treks to likely 10-win seasons this year, will have come to 10-win outfits.
And this is the painful truth for Florida: It has, under Mullen, found a level where it can compete with those teams consistently, and win occasionally. Yet, because Gator Nation expects to win those games consistently, it is still a step away. A step behind.
On Saturday, Georgia was a step ahead of Florida. Another year will go by before Florida has a chance to prove it can and will make up that ground.