Georgia defeated Florida 24-17 in the SEC's Eastern Division playoff here at TIAA Bank Field on Saturday evening.
No, the Bulldogs technically haven’t clinched anything. But based on the way the rest of the division has played this season, Georgia should be able to get back to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game Dec. 7.
Alabama-LSU will meet to determine the other side of the matchup on Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa.
It actually is not that simple, but what the No. 8 Bulldogs (7-1, 4-1 SEC) did in what was effectively an upset of the No. Gators (7-2, 4-2) has given Georgia a very manageable path to back into the league's title game.
If the Bulldogs can defeat Missouri (5-3, 2-2) on Saturday at Sanford Stadium, it will need only a win against Auburn or Texas A&M in the final two conference games to punch their ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“This game always decides who's going to Atlanta, so we wanted to get this one,” Georgia linebacker Monty Rice said. “But we'll just take it one game every week.”
For now, Georgia is assured only of what was a third consecutive victory over the Gators in a series that has been played in the northeast Florida city since 1933. And that had to feel extremely satisfying for the Bulldogs, who had lost at home to South Carolina in a major upset and played unimpressively in a 21-0 win over Kentucky the next time out.
“A hard-earned win against a good football team,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who is now 3-1 against the Gators. “Credit goes to these kids, who played hard and played with grit. So many people doubted us and they never did.”
This victory was dominant, though not flashy. With 119 yards rushing -- to Florida's 21 -- Georgia’s win marked the 14th consecutive time the team with the best running game that day prevailed. D'Andre Swift led the Bulldogs with 86 yards on 25 carries.
“Well earned, you know what I mean?” Smart said. “It was like a 2-yard carry was well-earned, a 3-yard carry was well earned. Teams are doing things that, I don’t know if you guys see, that aren’t normal.”
The Gators kept six defenders on the line of scrimmage most of the game, then blitzed another defender from somewhere in the second or third level every down. But the real story of this game was the work that Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm did against that, particularly on third downs. The junior from Warner Robins was the main reason the Bulldogs converted 12 of 18 third downs into first downs.
The biggest came with 2:25 to play on third-and-7 at Georgia’s 35. A 22-yard completion to tight end Eli Wolf made sure the clock kept moving with the Gators out of timeouts.
Fromm finished with 279 yards on 20-of-30 passing and two touchdowns. It was the first game of his career that Georgia won when he attempted 30 or more passes.
It won’t go down as one of the greatest plays in the storied Georgia-Florida series, but Fromm’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Lawrence Cager -- set up by Fromm's excellent play fake -- was a thing of beauty both for its significance and its execution.
The Gators had just cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 16-10 early in the third quarter and were getting a late lift from their half of the crowd, which hadn’t had much to get excited about previously. But instead of the anticipated Florida comeback, Georgia put together a seven-play, 75-scoring drive to extend its lead. Five of the plays were Swift runs, one was a 3-yard, pass-rush escape by Fromm, and then the big-whammy of Fromm to Cager.
“It was a great play call by Coach Coley,” Cager said of offensive coordinator James Coley. “We had practiced it all week -- a new play -- and we thought we could get it in there on man coverage.”
The reception was Cager’s seventh of the game and gave him 132 yards, both career bests for the graduate transfer from Miami. For good measure, Fromm hit Cager with a 3-yard pass for a two-point conversion that made the score 24-10 with 10:01 to play. Cager had returned after missing the Bulldogs’ last game with a separated shoulder.
The Gators didn’t have much trouble moving the ball through the air. They did it in pretty big clips throughout the game. That was the case when they tried to mount a comeback to start the second half.
Long completions to tight end Kyle Pitts and other wideouts got Florida quickly to the Georgia 38 trailing 16-3 midway through the third quarter. But then a 19-yard sack by Jordan Davis and Malik Herring was followed by a delay-of-game penalty against Gators. They ended up punting the ball from their own 40 on fourth-and-32.
It appeared that the Bulldogs had added to their lead when Swift got loose for what appeared to be 37-yard touchdown run. But Georgia’s Matt Landers was called for holding on the play, and the Bulldogs ended up having to punt for only the second time all day.
That ended up being critical because Florida finally broke what had been 10-quarter streak for the Bulldogs not giving up a touchdown. After a lengthy review and an interference call against Mark Webb, Van Jefferson was determined to have caught Kyle Trask’s pass for a 23-yard score. The point-after cut the Georgia lead to 16-10.
The first half was a tale of third-down conversions, with Georgia making them and Florida not.
The Bulldogs and Fromm were successful on eight of their 11 third-down situations while the Gators and Trask were 0-for-4 on third down. That allowed Georgia to carry a 13-3 advantage into the halftime locker room.
The Bulldogs very nearly made it 17-3 and 9-of-11. But Fromm’s pass in the end zone was just out of the reach of a diving Cager in the final seconds of the second quarter. Instead, Georgia had to settle for a 37-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal at the 14-second mark.
After returning the ensuing kickoff to the 18, Florida took a knee to end the half. That left the Gators’ first-half possession time at 10:16. Georgia had the ball the remaining 19:44.
It was a very interesting start under cloudy skies and a 64-degree temperature that felt cooler due to an 11 miles-and-hour wind. The Gators got the opening possession and flew down the field in big chunks hitting tight end Kyle Pitts with passes out of the gate. But they started to sputter after reaching Georgia territory, twice having to call timeouts and getting flagged for a false start on third-and-inches.
The Gators ended up with fourth-and-inches at Georgia’s 40. Lining up in an empty-backfield set, Trask’s pass for Pitts was broken up on the Florida sideline by safety Richard LeCounte. The Bulldogs took over right there.
After four 3rd-down conversions on its first possession, Georgia could not convert a fifth and had to settle for 31-yard Blankenship field goal. The Bulldogs led 3-0 at the 3:58 mark, but the more important numbers on the drive were 16 plays, 7:03 consumed off the clock.