TAKING THE NEXT BIG STEP
The people who debate these things on television and other media outlets don't seem to think the outcome of Saturday's annual Florida-Georgia get together in Jacksonville will have much impact on the College Football Playoff. Most of the people with the loudest voices don't think a whole lot of the Gators and those same people are still in a state of shock over Georgia's last two games (loss to unranked and 21-point underdog South Carolina and a seriously ugly win over a one-dimensional Kentucky team). Because both the Gators and Poodles each have a loss under their belts and there are still seven Power Five conference teams without a loss, the Florida-Georgia winner will have to finish the rest of the regular season unbeaten and then knock off either #1 LSU or #2 Alabama – both of which are unbeaten at present – in the SEC Championship Game. That's a tall order but do-able.
Whether or not the Gators make it to the College Football Playoff this year, however, this is the single most important game since Dan Mullen became the head coach. Win it and the Gators have taken the next big step on the road back to national prominence. Lose and the Gators can still have a 10-win regular season, which would be one better than last year and certainly a worthy achievement, but the big step – the one that would have the greatest impact and send shock waves through the Southeastern Conference – is to beat Georgia.
Dating all the way back to their narrow loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in 2018, this has been declared Georgia's year to assume the mantle of the SEC's most dominant team. The Poodles made it to the national championship game and lost to Alabama in 2017 and then last year they once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with the Crimson Tide, this time in Atlanta. Given the closeness of the two losses to Alabama and the success Kirby Smart has had on the recruiting trail, this was declared a boom or bust year for Georgia dating all the way back to that 35-28 heartbreaking loss last December.
It's win a national championship in 2019 or it's a disaster in the minds of the Georgia faithful who are well aware that it has been 14,179 days (39 years) since the last time since the Poodles claimed the big trophy. Since then Poodle fans like to talk about their “near national championships” such as 2002 when their 20-13 loss to Florida prevented an unbeaten regular season and a chance to play in the BCS National Championship Game. They lost twice in the regular season in 2007 and didn't make the SEC Championship Game but because they finished ranked second in the AP Poll (LSU was the national champion with two losses), they claim that as a “near national championship.” Of course, there was also that 2012 SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama, a 32-28 cliffhanger in which the clock expired with Georgia on the Alabama five. Prior to the last play and Georgia out of time outs, Mark Richt didn't have Aaron Murray clock the ball to set up a potential winning play.
So it has been one almost after another for Georgia, which was hosed by LSU 36-16 last year in the Poodles last game before Florida-Georgia. The Georgia faithful point out that the Poodles whacked the Gators 36-17 and finished the regular season 11-1 before tanking in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. One loss last year, one loss this year, what's the difference? Well, for starters, LSU won 10 games last year and was an excellent football team. Nobody but nobody is going to accuse 2019 South Carolina (20-17 winner in double overtime) of being a great football team. So things are not the same, not by a wide margin.
Georgia fans tend to think that all these close calls and near misses have edged the Poodles closer than they've been since Herschel Walker in 1980 to a national championship. But, is Georgia really closer to a national championship? Maybe, but maybe the Poodles are actually the Buffalo Bills of college football. The Bills, for those of you who don't recall, made it to four straight Super Bowls (1990-93) but never won the big one.
And that brings us to Florida and this year's encounter with Georgia. Although the Gators began the season as a top ten team and are higher ranked than Georgia (Florida #6, Georgia #8), the Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Georgia a four-point favorite. Georgia, after all, is supposed to be on the brink of national supremacy while Florida is supposed to be happy as clams to finish second in the East.
It's rather odd that Georgia is favored since the Poodles haven't played anywhere close to a team on the verge of greatness. It's always possible that the last two games have been Georgia's wake up call that could send the Poodles on a tear, but the South Carolina and Kentucky games were eye-openers. South Carolina isn't going to be mistaken for anything but average and the Kentucky game was dog's butt ugly. That 23-17 win over Notre Dame in Athens back in September doesn't look so impressive, either. Notre Dame was #7 then but as we saw Saturday when those same Michigan Wolverines that were undressed in public by Wisconsin whomped the Irish by a mere 31 points, Notre Dame is more or less a fraud.
Now Florida hasn't exactly been the most impressive team in the SEC every single outing, but the one loss the Gators suffered was to now #1 LSU (8-0) and that was a game when the Gators had chances to win. Florida owns a win over then #7 Auburn, its only other game against a ranked opponent. But here is what separates – at least on paper right now – Florida and Georgia. The Gators have battled their way through a string of injuries and have been playing since the fourth quarter of the Kentucky game with a QB in Kyle Trask who hadn't started a football game since he was in the ninth grade back in Texas. Jake Fromm of Georgia began the season hyped as just a smidgen less talented than Tua Tagovailoa but Fromm hasn't been nearly as good as Trask, who just keeps getting better every single ball game.
From an experience standpoint, Fromm has it all over Trask, but if you look at the way Trask seems to grow with whatever circumstances he faces, you get the feeling that he's ready to handle whatever Georgia throws at him. The way he performed against Auburn when he had to play hurt in the second half, the way he threw four touchdown passes at night in Death Valley and the way he bounced back from the LSU loss and a shaky first half to lead the Gators past the same South Carolina Gamecocks that a week before picked off Fromm three times are nice indicators of good things to come starting, perhaps, with this week's game with Georgia in Jacksonville.
Another point to ponder: Florida lost to LSU without its bookend edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga plus the Gators were without Kadarius Toney, who might be one of the most difficult players to defend in the entire SEC. Could those three have made a real difference? Absolutely. When the Gators take the field Saturday, this will be as healthy as they've been all season. Greenard and Zuniga will be back and when they're pressuring quarterbacks the entire Florida defense is much, much better. Toney, I'm told by someone who tends to know these things, will also be available and all those other beat up Gators are healthy and ready to go.
This sets up as a unique opportunity for the Gators to take that next big step. There will still be three other regular season games (two SEC and FSU) on the schedule beyond Georgia that have to be won, but the importance of winning this game can't be stressed enough. Beat Georgia and the Gators are not only in control of winning the SEC East, but they've carved out the collective hearts of the Poodle Nation with a seven inch K-Bar Marine fighting knife. Win and the Gators open up possibilities on the recruiting trail that could swing serious and necessary talent Florida's way.
One other thing that happens with a Florida win – the doubts return for Georgia. When Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were coaching the Gators, Georgia expected to lose to Florida. Spurrier was 11-1 against the Poodles. Meyer was 5-1. Even Ron Zook was 2-1 and the one loss was only by a touchdown just five days after he had been fired. Back in those days, Georgia came to Jacksonville expecting the worst and usually left with their doubts confirmed.
A Florida win Saturday in Jacksonville will go a long way toward bringing back the days when the Gators not only expected to win but Georgia expected something bad would happen that left them shaking their collective heads.