GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This is the week where everything comes to the forefront.
The Florida Gators are fresh off a bye week and ready to turn their season around. With the sour taste of back-to-back home losses — defeats to LSU and Texas A&M by a combined 3 points — resonating on the back of their mind, the Gators need to find a crash course for success to keep their season’s goals alive.
Which ultimately brings us to the showdown that will occur on Saturday.
Welcome to Florida-Georgia week, the week that will once again determine so much for the Gators football team. A win keeps the Gators’ slim hopes of winning the SEC East alive for at least another week. A loss, however, means Florida is playing out the season for pride and bowl eligibility.
That’s not exactly where Florida hoped to be three years into the Jim McElwain era.
“At the end of the day,” McElwain said, “you’ve got to win.”
That’s a tall task this week. The Bulldogs are undefeated — 7-0 on the season, 4-0 in SEC play — and seem to be firing on all cylinders.
Georgia is averaging 37.6 points per game and allowing just 12.6 — both second in the conference to Alabama. Outside of a 20-19 win over a Notre Dame, Georgia has won every game this season by at least 21 points. Georgia has put up more than 40 points in three straight games.
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm is holding his own and has one of the best one-two punches at running back in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Veterans Roquan Smith (53 tackles), Lorenzo Carter (5.5 tackles for loss) and Dominick Sanders (2 interceptions) lead a stingy defense that is giving up an average of 252.3 yards per game — the third-best mark in the country.
So for Florida, it’s time to lay all the cards on the table. Any tricks, adjustments or unused plans need to be on full blast.
Otherwise, that trip to the SEC Championship Game the Gators hoped to make yet again will be an afterthought.
“Georgia, that’s a big test,” wide receiver Dre Massey said, “but as far as the East goes, we’re still in it.”
On paper, yes.
At 3-2 in SEC play, Florida is tied with South Carolina for second place in the SEC East, behind only undefeated Georgia.
For Florida to win the East for a third straight year, the simplest route would be for the Gators to defeat the Bulldogs, sweeping their final two conference games (road matches against Missouri and South Carolina) and seeing Georgia lose at least one of its final three SEC games (home against South Carolina, at Auburn and home against Kentucky).
If this happens, Florida will either win the conference outright or would be tied with Georgia at 6-2 in league play. The Gators would own the head-to-head tiebreaker and make their way back to Atlanta.
“This one is really gonna be a big game for us,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said.
A win on Saturday wouldn’t be unprecedented.
Out of 14 opportunities, Florida has three wins in program history in the series when the Bulldogs were ranked and the Gators were unranked. First it was a 31-19 win in 1986 under Galen Hall. Then it was a 20-13 win in 2002 under Ron Zook.
And then there was 2014. The unranked Gators were 3-3 on the season, getting ready to face the then-No. 8 Bulldogs in Will Muschamp’s final season.
The season already seemed over. Just two weeks earlier, as the Gators walked out of The Swamp following a 42-13 homecoming loss to Missouri, chants of “Fire Muschamp” echoed through the stadium.
But when the Gators made their way over the Hart Bridge and into Everbank Field in Jacksonville, a team with a seemingly newfound life surfaced. Florida rushed for 418 yards, scored 31 unanswered points at one point in the game and walked away with a 38-20 victory that brought morale back to the team if only for a couple weeks.
That’s the type of echoing statement the Gators hope to make on Saturday.
For the sake of their season, they need it.