After an October of hand-wringing, November arrived with a clap of clarity. This might be the least gifted Georgia team of the past three years, but it’s still capable of playing for championships. The Bulldogs put themselves in position to do that by beating Florida 24-17 here Saturday. The final score makes it sound closer than it was.
Don’t tell Florida coach Dan Mullen that, though. He was asked afterward how far his Gators are behind a rival poised now to take a third consecutive SEC East title. “Seven points,” he said. “Seven points behind Georgia.”
The Gators – 6-1/2-point underdogs despite being ranked two spots ahead of No. 8 Georgia in the Associated Press poll – never led. Their first possession began brightly, only to fizzle after a false start on third-and-1 at the Georgia 40 and an incomplete pass from an empty backfield on fourth-and-1. By the time Florida managed to score, the Bulldogs had a working lead. They’d found something that worked.
That something, it must be said, wasn’t new. His name is Jake Fromm. He has been Georgia’s No. 1 quarterback for 26 months. The Fromm narrative has lately centered on what he isn’t. (Namely, he isn’t Justin Fields.) But we saw again Saturday what Fromm demonstrably is – a big-game quarterback who can make big-time plays.
The stat of this game: Georgia converted on 12 of 18 third downs. Eight of the 12 conversions were Fromm completions. The Bulldogs scored on three of their first four possessions and held the ball for 19 minutes and 44 seconds of the first half. Fromm’s chain-moving got the game going Georgia’s way, and that’s really all that was required.
Said Mullen: “You want to play with a lead against them. They don’t play very well from behind, I don’t think.”
Then: “We would have loved to play with a lead. We had a plan for that.”
Fromm and the Bulldogs didn’t let that happen. There was no question about Georgia’s readiness for this game. They still haven’t faced an opponent of comparable talent, but that didn’t stop them from losing to South Carolina. If nothing else, that game proved that this team must mess up to lose. Fromm had four turnovers against the Gamecocks. He was himself again against Florida, which in this offense doesn’t mean airing it out so much as controlling the flow.
There are better quarterbacks in college football, though not many. There’s no better game manager. That description is often used as the faintest of praise. It shouldn’t be. If your quarterback can’t manage a game, you’re never winning anything worth winning. Georgia’s usage of Fromm this season has often stumped the band – he entered this game averaging 8.1 yards per pass, down almost a yard from his freshman and sophomore seasons – but this team wouldn’t be 7-1 without him.
Fromm’s stats this day: 20 completions in 30 attempts, 279 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 9.3 yards per pass.
In the lead-up to this game, Georgia coach Kirby Smart twice had lunch with his quarterback. “We went and ate couple of times,” Smart said “I was concerned about him. He doesn’t get frustrated. But he’s a lot like me. We’re hard-wired the same.”
Someone asked all the success Fromm has had in his athletic life, from the Little League World Series to the national championship game of college football. Said Smart: “He has not had SO much success in his life. He’s had a lot of people doubt him. He’s a chip-on-his-shoulder guy. It drives him.”
On Saturday, Fromm drove Georgia. It led 13-3 at the half, 16-3 after three quarters. Its defense stonewalled Florida’s running game, which isn’t that hard to do, and made Kyle Trask, who’d begun the year as Feleipe Franks’ understudy, throw on almost every down. Through three quarters, the Gators had minus-8 rushing yards and 175 yards, period.
At the same time, the Bulldogs hadn’t quite pulled away. A D’Andre Swift touchdown run that would have made it 22-3 late in the third quarter was quashed by a holding penalty on Matt Landers. A false start by Solomon Kindley on fourth-and-1 meant Georgia wound up punting from the Florida 41. With 13:51 remaining, Trask hit Van Jefferson for a 27-yard touchdown. Gators within six.
Not for long, though. Georgia punched out two first downs on the ground. Then, on first-and-10, Fromm faked a handoff, dropped back and, after first looking right, found Lawrence Cager running free down the left side. The 52-yard touchdown made it 22-10. Then it was Fromm-to-Cager again for the 2-point conversion. The Bulldogs had their biggest lead.
(We should note that Cager – the grad transfer from Miami – missed the second half against South Carolina due to injury. He’s mightn’t be Gene Washington or Lindsay Scott or Andre Hastings or A.J. Green, but he’s the best wideout on this roster.)
Another Florida touchdown with 3:11 to go left Fromm one last bit of business. A penalty for delay made it first-and-15. On third-and-seven, Georgia had to convert or punt. You’ll never guess what happened. Fromm found tight end Eli Wolf for 22 yards. Ballgame, y’all.
Just in time for the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, Georgia notched its biggest victory of the season. If it beats Missouri in Athens next Saturday, the Bulldogs would have to lose to both Auburn and Texas A&M not to win the East. (As we speak, Mizzou isn’t eligible to play for the conference title.) We’ve spent the past month picking nits, but Georgia is again where it needs to be, and if it keeps winning it will be back in the playoff.
Know how many Georgia quarterbacks have started in three SEC championship games? None. Fromm would be the first. Know how many have led the Bulldogs to the CFP? That’s easy. Fromm stands alone; come December he could make it twice in three seasons. Go ahead and call him a game manager, but know this: If the Gators had him, they might have managed to win this game.
Asked about the Georgia fans who filled half of the seats in TIAA Bank Field, Smart said: “I’m proud of the support they provided, even if they didn’t think Jake could throw the ball.”
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