Tuesday’s Take: The Gap Between Florida and Georgia Is Closing, Thanks to Coaching
Editor’s note: “Tuesday’s Take” is Sports Illustrated - GatorMaven author Graham Marsh’s weekly column.
It was 42-7.
In 2017 when Florida and Georgia walked off the field at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, it was 42-7.
The Bulldogs had embarrassed the Gators. In fact, it was such an embarrassment that Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin fired head coach Jim McElwain after the game.
And after that game for Georgia, coach Kirby Smart and the ‘Dawgs enjoyed and SEC Championship win and a national championship appearance, a game in which UGA had in the bag until the final seconds.
Florida finished the season 4-8 and a half-empty and half-enthused crowd in The Swamp in its final game of the season against its other biggest rival in Florida State.
At that point, Georgia had never been that much better than Florida in my lifetime. Since I was born on December 31, 1997, the Gators have actually for the most part dominated this series. Since that day, Florida has enjoyed three national championships (the 1996 season’s championship game was played in 1997). Georgia has enjoyed zero.
But at the time in 2017, it felt that Smart had that program rolling. He was recruiting up there with anyone in the country and his guys were playing excellent football. It felt like he would really become the first coach under the Nick Saban coaching tree that could actually replicate the Saban way somewhere else.
And Florida felt like a lost program. We weren’t sure what kind of direction Florida was headed in. It was time to search for yet another coach.
Enter Dan Mullen.
When Stricklin picked up the phone in December of 2017 and called Mullen, everything changed.
Last season was a resurgence of Florida football. The offense looked better than it has since Tim Tebow was taking snaps.
And this year was even better. Despite an underwhelming offensive line all season, and suspect safety play on defense, the Gators churned out a 10-win regular season and are on their way to yet another New Year’s Six Bowl.
And yes, I get it.
In both seasons under Mullen, he has lost in Jacksonville to Smart. But look at this season’s game specifically.
In 2018, Georgia was still a good bit ahead of the Gators as far as a program. The ‘Dawgs had the Gators so outmatched in talent and they took over in the fourth quarter on their way to a 36-17 victory.
This year, Florida played probably its worst game of the year against Georgia. Quarterback Kyle Trask had a tough day, the running game didn’t exist and the defense could never get off the field on third down.
On top of that, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm played probably his best game all season. He had his highest QBR of the season in that game at 96.9 and was 20-for-30 with 279 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions.
In a year where Fromm hasn’t played all that well, he played sharp as ever in Duval County.
And still, with all of that happening, the Gators only lost by seven. After the game, it felt Georgia had won by twenty points because the Gators had played so badly.
But when you looked up at the enormous video boards in that stadium, it was only 24-17.
Florida played that badly and kept it that close. Not to mention that Georgia entered the game with 14 5-stars on its sideline while Florida entered the game with none.
How was this only a seven-point game? How did Georgia not run away with it and take over in the fourth quarter? How did Smart’s team need a late third down conversion to seal the game?
Mullen and staff are coaching more successfully than Smart and staff. And with every passing season, we see a few more chinks in the Georgia armor, while Florida gets a little bit better.
It feels that with every passing year since Stricklin made that phone call to Mullen in 2017, the gap has steadily shrunk between the Gators and ‘Dawgs. And it shouldn’t be that way when you look at recruiting.
But look at development. Five-star talent like Justin Fields and Brenton Cox Jr. is leaving Georgia’s building. Meanwhile at Florida, three-stars such as Jawaan Taylor are going from no NFL interest to second round picks and NFL starters under Mullen.
The development in Gainesville seems to be better. The play-calling and in-game decision making also seems to be better.
So why does it feel the talent gap is closing between these two programs? Despite a still-heavy edge to Georgia in recruiting?