JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—The team that was supposed to struggle to make a bowl game will likely play for a conference title. The team that was supposed to play for a conference title must deal with another season as an also-ran. Here are three thoughts from No. 11 Florida’s 27–3 victory over Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party on Saturday. (Cocktails to celebrate for those in orange and blue; cocktails to drown the sorrows of those in red and black.)
1. Florida is probably going to win the SEC East.
This statement has become less shocking with each passing week, and now it’s all but inevitable. The Gators (7–1) need to win just one more conference game or Vanderbilt to lose one more conference game in order to clinch the division. They can get both things next week, when the Commodores visit Gainesville.
Florida has done this in spite of an inexperienced offensive line and a less-than-ideal quarterback situation, as starter Will Grier was lost to an NCAA suspension on Oct. 12 following a positive drug test. The Gators threw only six passes in a win over Georgia last year since the Bulldogs couldn’t stop the run. Florida threw 19 times Saturday since it was an adventure every time Treon Harris dropped back.
Still, Florida’s defense remains one of the best in the country, and that group—along with an assist from an early Georgia special teams gaffe—made sure Florida was comfortable. In the first quarter, a Marcus Maye interception gave the Gators the ball at the 50-yard line. Florida managed to gain just two yards in its next three plays, but Georgia’s Reggie Davis muffed the ensuing punt. The ball squirted into the end zone, where Florida’s Nick Washington recovered it for a touchdown.
Though Harris (8 of 19 for 155 yards with one touchdown) didn’t always make it look pretty, he did uncork some critical throws. After getting abused by LSU two weeks ago when he rolled left, Harris rolled left in the second quarter—following three consecutive runs that prompted Georgia to bring one safety down into the box—and found a wide-open Antonio Callaway for a 66-yard score. On Georgia’s next possession, quarterback Faton Bauta was hit by rush end Alex McCalister and threw an interception to Vernon Hargreaves III, who returned the ball to the the Bulldogs’ five-yard line. Florida tailback Kelvin Taylor scored three plays later.
2. There will be intense pressure on Georgia coach Mark Richt now.
Richt has been extremely successful at Georgia (141–50, two SEC championships, five SEC East titles since 2001), but the Bulldogs haven’t won the SEC since 2005 and most of the coaches in America would crawl across broken glass to take the head job at a high-resource program sitting atop a recruiting goldmine. As athletic director Greg McGarity goes forward, he must consider: This will likely be the worst Florida team of the next few years. When first-year Gators coach Jim McElwain beefs up his offensive line and stabilizes his quarterback situation—either through Grier’s return or recruiting—Florida will likely get better on offense. Meanwhile, the Tennessee team that beat Georgia on Oct. 10 is also on an upward trajectory. Georgia must improve if it hopes to compete with those programs in the future.
Richt’s gambit this week was a quarterback change. After Greyson Lambert went 23 of 32 passing for 178 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 9–6 home win over Missouri on Oct. 17, Richt decided to start the junior Bauta, who had been the third-stringer and hadn’t thrown a pass all season.
Bauta made some nice throws—including a would-be touchdown on a play-action pass in the second quarter that was dropped—but he also looked like a first-time starter on several occasions. Georgia’s best chance to climb back into the game ended with 10:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Florida’s Maye pressured Bauta into a throw that was tipped by Jalen Tabor and intercepted in the end zone by the Gators’ Keanu Neal. The pick was the third thrown by Bauta.
Shortly after that, Florida punched in another touchdown. By that point, the Georgia half of the stadium was 80% empty.
3. Florida can clinch the SEC East by beating Vanderbilt next Saturday, but in the event the Gators lose that game, they can sew up the division by beating South Carolina the following week.
Meanwhile, Georgia (5–3) will have to play much better than it did on Saturday to avoid losing again. Though none of the Bulldogs’ remaining Power Five opponents (Kentucky, Auburn and Georgia Tech) is having the season it hoped, every one of those teams is capable of beating Georgia if the Bulldogs play the way they did in Jacksonville. Another loss might give McGarity less to think about.