Improbably, despite a first half Georgia head coach Kirby Smart later said he thought the his just-deceased legendary predecessor Vince Dooley would be proud of, the Florida Gators had a chance to go into halftime in far better standing in Jacksonville on Saturday than they did a year ago, when a trio of Anthony Richardson turnovers turned a 3-0 edge into a 24-0 lead in a three-minute blur that changed the picture of that game completely.
This time, Richardson didn’t self-combust, simply taking part in more sputtering at the end of a half full of it, and Florida went three-and-out down 21-3, then conceded a touchdown just before halftime to go down 28-3.
And while Florida made a game of it briefly in the second half, rattling off 17 consecutive points to get within a single possession, the defending champion Dawgs wrapping 42 points of their own around that run in a 42-20 mauling of the Gators was definitive and decisive — enough, it should be hope, to clear up any delusions of how close Florida truly is to the top teams in college football.
For stretches, like the one Florida reeled off today, the Gators can look very, very good. Richardson can zip difficult throws to receivers with startling ball speed, and Florida’s running game can take territory against even Georgia’s stout front — more efficiently when Richarson, whose legs are as potent as any Gators quarterback in history, is fully involved on the ground.
And the beleaguered, belittled defense can do good things, too. Florida forced three turnovers against the Dawgs — and in a rare case, forced truly was the operative word, with Jadarrius Perkins wrestling a pick out of a Georgia receiver’s clutches, Amari Burney ripping a fumble free of another Dawg’s grip, and Burney deftly turning and undercutting a route to position himself well for a Stetson Bennett underthrow.
The Gators could possibly have had five turnovers on the day with slightly better hands and luck, too — Rashad Torrence II could not scoop what might have been a pick with room to run for six on the game’s opening drive, and Ventrell Miller getting a hand on an underthrow wheel route proved calamitous, as the carom got the ball to Brock Bowers for a catch-and-run touchdown. And while they are far from solving their third- and fourth-down woes, Florida’s defense did manage a respectable 6-for-12 showing on third downs ... if it also gave up two of the three fourth downs it faced.
Add in those turnovers and subtract Bowers’s touchdown — and maybe the one before half, too, as Georgia’s drive needed a baffling pass interference penalty on Florida that looked for all the world like it would have been better assessed to the Bulldogs — and you could squint and see a scenario that had Florida tied or even leading Georgia midway through a third quarter dominated by the nominal away team, its post-halftime run punctuated by Richardson firing a strike to a wide open Xzavier Henderson for a 78-yard touchdown.
Georgia’s next drive was the equivalent of snatching any orange-and-blue-colored glasses off the Gators’ figurative face and smashing them on the ground, a six-play, 78-yard assertion of dominance that took just under three minutes.
And from there, Florida looked more like it did in the first half, with Richardson mixing airmailed throws and beautiful passes on his way to 271 yards through the air and having to heave a skyball on an ill-fated fourth down thanks to a blitzer in his face and throw the ball away on two other fourth down attempts, the defense continuing to bleed more of the 555 yards it gave up and failing to stop Bowers on another fateful fourth down, and Georgia generally looking like the well-built machine it has been.
Florida would love to be that machine, or something close.
The sustainable greatness that the Bulldogs have seemingly attained, elevating them to the pinnacle of the College Football Playoff era of the sport along with Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, is what every significant program in America wants, of course — but Florida, crucially, is the program that made Georgia look worst in the last five years, with a Dan Mullen-coached offense led by Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts strafing the Bulldogs with wheel routes and other excellence just two years ago in Jacksonville.
Yet the Gators, as a CBS graphic artfully noted near triple zeroes, have not built on that win in the last two years, failing to break all the way through to the Playoff in 2020 and having their 2021 season go so far sideways that they discarded Mullen and his brilliance as an offensive mind and questionable credentials as a program-builder and hired Billy Napier largely for the reputed skills that made him the engineer of a sound foundation at Louisiana.
Two-thirds of one year in, Florida’s foundation is far from set — and maybe so wet that Uga Whatever We’re On In Georgia’s Inadvisable Attempt to Prolong the Suffering of French Bulldogs could put his paws on the mix and leave a mark as lasting as the welts Florida has taken this fall. But what Napier saw on the field and the other sideline likely isn’t that far off from what he wants to build at Florida, as both he and Smart compete for pole position to be the next crowned king of college football — in the event that Nick Saban is mortal.
Florida showed flashes. Georgia was in focus for the whole game.
If Florida is ultimately going to beat — or usurp — Georgia, it’s got to make its picture clearer. The Dawgs aren’t getting any more blurry in any kind of hurry.