JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — People kept saying all week how this rivalry series is unpredictable, how crazy things happen between Florida and Georgia, how anything is possible when these teams meet.
That may be true historically, but nothing about Georgia’s 42-7 win Saturday was surprising — well, at least not once the game kicked off.
This matchup was as one-sided on the field as it looked on paper. Merely looking at the teams’ contrasting resumes through the first half of the season, it was hard to see a path to success for these Gators against these Bulldogs.
And it was even harder to envision an alternate outcome once play began.
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Florida was stifled on its first three series with more turnovers (1) than first downs (0), while Georgia opened with three straight touchdowns. Whatever hope existed for an upset was extinguished when Georgia running back Sony Michel broke through the line for a 74-yard touchdown run on the first play of that third Bulldogs possession.
How bad was it? One intrepid reporter in the press box was already researching the most one-sided first quarters in the long history of this rivalry series with the help of Georgia’s sports information staff. There was no other example in the modern era (or as far back as records were available, into the 1960s) of Georgia scoring 21 points in the opening quarter.
Not in the Gators’ 44-0 loss in 1982 nor in the 51-0 defeat in 1968.
Statistically speaking, this wasn’t Florida’s worst-ever loss to Georgia, and yet the difference between these two programs at this point couldn’t seem more vast.
The Bulldogs’ sack of QB Feleipe Franks midway through the third quarter, forcing a fumble and a touchdown return for a 35-0 lead was as fitting a moment as any.
Georgia came into this season and grabbed control of the SEC East with the Gators providing minimal resistance.
This is now officially a lost season. Florida is 3-4 with four games left and will be fighting just to get bowl eligible.
The question, though, is not where the Gators go the rest of this season; it’s where they go in the big picture, it’s what they do the rest of this weekend.
Coach Jim McElwain’s job security was the subject of pregame reports, rumors and speculation. So much so that Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin felt the need to put out a statement denying that the Gators are already trying to negotiate McElwain’s buyout.
But what Stricklin didn’t feel the need to say in that statement was that he still supported McElwain as Florida’s coach of the present and future.
Just as he also didn’t offer that official support earlier this week when McElwain set off a public relations disaster with vague comments about those within and connected to his program receiving death threats, a claim he clearly hadn’t thought to share with Florida athletic officials before going public. He also didn’t feel the need to share any details of the reported threats after the fact with Stricklin, resulting in a bad look both for the program and for the coach.
Stricklin is a sharp guy. Those statements were crafted carefully, well thought-out. The lack of public support for McElwain was not by mistake.
The pregame chatter was followed by an in-game report from ESPN that Florida is looking to fire McElwain for cause and not pay a buyout that would total nearly $13 million at this point.
It’s crazy to think when this week began that any notion of McElwain not finishing this season would have seemed far-fetched. Now, it’s simply hard to see this program going much (or any) further with him.
Whether the PR setback provided the impetus, Stricklin can just as easily point to the on-the-field realities as reasoning if the end is indeed as near for McElwain as it seems.
Two and a half seasons into his tenure, the offense is as hapless as it’s been during his time here, the quarterback position as big of an issue as ever. Franks finished 7-of-19 passing for 30 yards, 1 interception and that fumble returned for TD before finally being replaced by Malik Zaire.
Worse, Florida fans had to watch up close as Georgia flashed its legit national championship potential under second-year coach Kirby Smart. For McElwain, this season was supposed to be the one in which the Gators “kicked the door down” against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Instead, they held it open and waved the Bulldogs right through to Atlanta.
The argument could be made by McElwain supporters that this was a rebuilding season after losing eight key defensive players to the NFL, that injuries and off-the-field setbacks undermined the Gators’ potential and that the recruiting momentum with a top-6 class of commits assembled warrants more time. Maybe Florida wins a couple more games if quarterback Luke Del Rio doesn’t fracture his collarbone. Who knows what happens if Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett aren’t indefinitely suspended for their involvement in the credit card fraud saga.
Maybe even the most vigilant coach wouldn’t have been aware of nine players running afoul of the law. Or maybe it was a clear sign of disorder within the program.
It’s all a matter of perspective and perception.
The problem for McElwain is he hasn’t helped his public perception at all. He’s difficult with the media to the point that even fans vent about his lack of answers and defensive nature. And he didn’t help it earlier this week with the death-threats matter.
Instead of the perception being one of a coach who caught some bad breaks this year and needs more time to finish the job, it’s one of a coach who made his own bad breaks and might now be finished in the job.
Saturday was a bad day for Florida football, on the field and off, and all eyes now turn not to the Gators’ trip to Missouri next week but to Stricklin and his next move.