I was already in the stadium concourse when D’Andre Swift crossed the plane on his game-sealing, 33-yard scamper that put last year’s Florida-Georgia game to bed. It was when Swift broke to the second level and was clearly about to score that I headed for the concourse - two rows from my seats - and realized the only takeaway that mattered from that game: The Gators had a lot of work to do in order to catch up to their arch-rival.
A game that felt close for two and a half quarters, ended up feeling like a dismantling contest that nearly sent Florida’s season into a tailspin. The 36-17 loss is one that no doubt still stings for Gator fans across the country.
Last year’s Georgia game was definitely a measuring stick for the Gators. They came in at 6-1, riding a five game winning streak which included their legendary victory over a Top 5 LSU team at home. It was a good chance to see how the program matched up against their biggest rival, one of the fastest-growing programs in the country.
It turned into more of a punch in the face than a coming out party.
This year doesn't seem much different than last year’s on paper: The Gators and Bulldogs both enter with one loss, the Gators have an extra win because of the Week 0 game, and they are, once again, both Top 10 teams.
Despite the similarities on paper, I think even the biggest Georgia fan will tell you this game has a different feel to it.
The Gators are the team carrying most of the momentum, riding high after recovering well from their loss to LSU in a dramatic comeback win over South Carolina. On the other hand, a dark cloud lingers over the Bulldogs after their shocking loss to South Carolina and a very uneventful, rain-soaked win over Kentucky. Questions are flying about Jake Fromm all over the place and Justin Fields’s masterful season at Ohio State is not helping. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows for Georgia right now the way it has been in the past few years with the Cocktail Party looming.
Despite all that, the Gators currently are currently +6.5 point underdogs as we barrel towards Jacksonville and some of that may have to do with the result of last year’s game. The visual of getting beat up on by their rivals seems to have stuck with the experts and made them think this game won’t be as close as we think.
And after watching that game back, it became clear just how much Georgia put it on the Gators. What I once thought was a missed opportunity for Florida was really a statement loss in hindsight, and there's reason to believe something similar can happen on Saturday. Here are the five changes the Gators need to make in order to flip the script from last year.
5. Win the Turnover Battle
The Gators turned the ball over three times in the game against Georgia last year and all of them were pretty horrific. Jordan Scarlett fumbled on the Gators first drive on what would have been a huge pickup on 3rd down. Georgia scored a touchdown three plays later. The next drive, Feleipe Franks threw what was probably his worst interception of the season.
The third turnover was the worst. On 1st and 10 from their own two-yard-line, down 20-14 and needing a score to get back into the game, Feleipe Franks put the ball on the ground on a designed QB run. Luckily for Franks, he was bailed out by a stout goal-line stand in which the Gator defense needed seven straight stops from the goal line to hold Georgia to a field goal. The Gators were lucky these turnovers only led to 10 points and that the game wasn’t a total blowout.
On top of that, the Gators did not force any turnovers. You are rarely going to win a Top-10 matchup in which you lose the turnover battle. Just look at the LSU game this year. The Gators needed to force Joe Burrow to make a mistake and failed while making the biggest mistake of the game themselves. The result of the game was as one would figure based on that.
This is another matchup where the Gators must force the quarterback to make a mistake. Quarterback Jake Fromm is well known as a conservative game manager, so any chance to knock him out of his flow and to turn the ball over will be critical...
4. Put Pressure on Jake Fromm
This kind of flows into winning the turnover battle but it’s so important it needs to be emphasized. The Gators only had one sack last season and when you look back at the tape, there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on Fromm throughout the game. He was able to sit back in the pocket and pick the defense apart, which is what Fromm is best at.
Take a look at the South Carolina box score and you’ll see what putting Fromm under pressure can do for a team. The Gamecocks put Fromm on the ground three times in their victory over Georgia and his stat line looked pretty ugly: 28-51, 295 yards (5.8 yards per attempt), one touchdown and three interceptions.
Compare that to the week before against Tennessee, who never got to Fromm: 24-29, 288 yards (9.9 Y/A) 2 touchdowns and no picks.
It’s actually interesting because Fromm is rated really highly under pressure. After the Tennessee game, when Fromm was rated as the #1 QB in the country by Pro Football Focus, he had the 2nd best rating under pressure of all quarterbacks. The issue with that is he had never really been under a ton of pressure. Fromm had only been sacked one time at that point in the season, and guess which game came right after that rating was released? You got it, South Carolina.
Things weren’t much prettier the next week. It’s hard to take anything away from the Kentucky game, it was a rain-soaked slop fest that didn’t have scoring until the 4th quarter when Georgia put up three touchdowns - but it’s important to note that Fromm did go 9-12 in that game. He never turned the ball over, but he only threw for 35 yards, which is less than three yards per attempt. He was also never sacked.
Fromm’s last two performances have left all kinds of questions swirling around the Georgia offense heading into this weekend, but one thing remains clear: If the Gators are going to win on Saturday they must put Jake Fromm on the ground. They can not let him sit back in the pocket and pick them apart the way he did last year. The big news is that the Gators are getting both defensive ends Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard back this weekend, which bodes very well for their chances to make Fromm uncomfortable. One of the keys to the game is whether or not Zuniga and Greenard can be effective because if they don’t put the pressure on Fromm, Florida could be in for another long afternoon in Jacksonville.
3. Hit on Big Plays
Perhaps the biggest play of last year’s game was the one that never came to fruition. On the Gator’s first play from scrimmage, after holding Georgia to an opening drive field goal, the Gators ran a flea-flicker and went up top to a wide-open Van Jefferson. Franks missed him by four yards. The miss was a brutal blow to their momentum, that sucked the air right out of the Florida side. Later on that drive, Scarlett fumbled and the Gators soon found themselves down 10-0.
It’s important for the Gators to hit on these big plays, especially early in the game. Juxtapose that start last year against the starts they’ve had against teams like Miami and Auburn this year. The Gators faked a punt in their own territory to avoid a three and out on their first drive against Miami, then scored on an explosive 66 yard Kadarius Toney touchdown on the next play. Against Auburn, the Gators forced a three and out then scored on their second play from scrimmage when Freddie Swain went 64 yards to the crib.
These games didn’t turn into blowouts, but they let the Gators start on their toes rather than their heels. Going down 10 after three total possessions is always going to be a very tough task to recover from, especially against a team as talented as Georgia.
The Gators also missed some huge chances to capitalize on momentum in last year’s game. A few plays after a big kick return by Kadarius Toney on the opening kick of the second half, Franks unleashed an absolute missile to Freddie Swain from 36 yards out that gave the Gators a 14-13 lead. If you want to argue the Gators had Georgia on the ropes last year, this was your only evidence.
However, it didn’t take very long for Georgia to answer. They went right down the field to score and take a 20-14 lead, then after the teams exchanged punts, Franks put the ball on the ground leading to a field goal that made the game 23-14, and it was all but curtains from there.
Did I mention the Gators held Georgia to a field goal after SEVEN tries from the 6-inch line? This was something that Florida had to take advantage of and they completely failed to do so. The Gators kicked a field goal on the next drive, then let up a touchdown, went three and out, and let up the touchdown that sent me into the concourse before Swift was in the end zone.
From an all-time goal-line stand to 36-17 in 10 minutes and 38 seconds of game time - it is absolutely imperative that the Gators do not let these kinds of opportunities go to waste on Saturday. Otherwise, we will likely see a similar outcome to the one from last year.
2. Clean It Up
There were a lot of underlying battles the Gators lost besides just turnovers that cost the Gators last year. Some big ones: Penalties, time of possession, field position, third-down efficiency, yards per play, etc.
All of these aspects can be difference-makers in big-time matchups, especially when they pile up the way they did on the Gators. These are all things that need to be cleaned up and all related to the things we’ve already talked about.
Penalties and time of possession go hand in hand. If you’re giving away yards with chances to get off the field, the other team is going to hold onto the ball and keep your defense on the field. The Gators defense committed four of their seven penalties, and two of them were on third down and extended drives.
Third down efficiency goes hand in hand with getting pressure on Fromm. If Fromm is given time on 3rd down, he will take advantage and pick up first downs when they need him to. Last year the Gators only sacked Fromm once and the Bulldogs were 8/14 on third down. Compare that to the Gators going 4/12 on third down and you’ll see why the Bulldogs controlled the tempo and were able to put up 154 more yards than Florida last year.
Another huge problem was missed tackles. This seems to be a huge reoccurring issue in losses for the Gators, dating all the way back to the Kentucky loss last year. On the first drive alone the Gators missed two tackles on Georgia running backs at the line of scrimmage that led to 14 and 23-yard rushes. What could have been tackles for no gain or even losses turned into two of the biggest plays of the opening drive that led to a field goal.
Prior to the LSU game, we talked about how coaching can be the difference in big games like this, and these are all discipline stats that show a coaching advantage. It will be important for the Gators to find that advantage.
1. Finish strong
The story of the Gators' two Top 10 losses the last two years, Georgia and LSU, has been that the Gators were competitive pretty much right up until the 4th quarter. Last year they got worn down by a deeper and better team. The Gators couldn’t make up for injuries and suspensions that kept key players such as C.J. Henderson and Brad Stewart out of the game, and Georgia’s depth reigned supreme.
With LSU, it was the defense not being able to make enough plays, which forced the Gators offense to have to keep up with LSU - something they were incapable of doing at the end.
Look at the big wins of the Mullen era though, namely LSU last year and Auburn this year. The Gators trailed early in the fourth quarter against LSU, then put up two touchdowns to seal a Top 5 victory at home. Against Auburn this year, the Gators held the Tigers scoreless in the second half and put the game on ice with Lamical Perine’s 88-yard, game-sealing house call in the 4th quarter. Another great example is the Kentucky and South Carolina wins this year. Down most of the game in both, the Gators won both games with big 4th quarters including the three touchdown 4th against South Carolina.
All of these games were close late in the game. The difference between the four wins and two losses is how the Gators closed. If the Gators fall short in the fourth quarter, they will lose. End of story.
I know that sounds basic but the evidence backs it up. The Gators have to lock down in the 4th quarter and grind out this really talented, deep Georgia team. This goes into everything I’ve already lined up. If in the fourth quarter the Gators can win the turnover battle, put pressure on Fromm, make the big plays and play a clean they will win. This is what they’ve done in the big wins they’ve had to close out late, and what they’ve fallen short on in the two big losses.
The Gators can set themselves up to win with the first four factors I talked about, but they can’t win without finishing. Not finishing is the easiest way to throw out all the hard work that has gone into avenging last year’s loss. It’s the easiest way to have to spend yet another year hearing about how far away you still are from Georgia. The easiest way to send your fans home early and unhappy.
Finishing is the easiest way to throw away all of the pain, the sting and the storylines that came with last year’s loss. If the Gators make these changes, their fans will be walking out on time, and they may as well keep walking all the way to Atlanta.