Florida’s good game(s) leads to a bad day for Bulldogs

Georgia fans holding out for some far-fetched way to overturn that November loss to Florida and against all right and reason reclaim the SEC East championship had their last hope dashed Saturday.

The Gators won it fair and square. They had tended their own garden well since beating the Bulldogs head-to-head in Jacksonville, taking a lead in all the polls and jealously guarding their advantage by winning their last four games by an average of 21 points. And with Saturday’s 31-19 win over Tennessee, Florida’s place in the Dec. 19 SEC Championship game in Atlanta was certified.

Turns out, there is a price to be paid for not maintaining the most important position on the field. Georgia had let its quarterbacking slip (and left JT Daniels standing on the sideline vs. Florida in the season’s pivotal game). And this upcoming SEC Championship game is nothing if not a referendum on leadership, a showcase and possible Heisman Trophy tiebreaker between Florida quarterback Kyle Trask and Alabama’s Mac Jones. With Spam behind center rather than filet — and don’t get me wrong, I love Spam — Georgia just had no place at this table.

Saturday was a particularly cruel turn for Georgia, who when this warped season began was pointed at a fourth straight East title. While its own game against Vanderbilt was postponed because of coronavirus concerns, the rival Gators had an SEC afternoon to itself. And because of that postponement Georgia is now scheduled to make up its game against Vandy on the 19th as a mismatched undercard to the championship game. C’mon, SEC, can’t we just skip that obligation and gratefully move on to 2021?

In another twist, assigned to call Florida-Tennessee for CBS was one of Georgia’s own, Aaron Murray, the former Bulldogs quarterback who in the 2012 SEC Championship came up just five yards short of beating Alabama and playing for a national title. Those Georgia people who could stand to watch had to hear an old friend had to provide the voice-over to a rival’s glory.

And it was a seminal Saturday for coach Dan Mullen and Florida. Georgia has had the East to itself once Kirby Smart got himself established there. But now it was official, the Gators behind Mullen — brought in to rescue them two years after Smart elevated Georgia — were back to making this division interesting. His offensive mind just might trouble Georgia for years to come, unless some NFL team decides to throw riches at him.

“I came to Florida for the opportunity to win championships,” Mullen said post-game Saturday evening. “We’re SEC East champs and now we have to opportunity to go be SEC champs. That’s what you work for since the day I got here a little over three years ago.”

Credit: SEC

Florida’s Kyle Trask, a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, leads the Gators on a scoring drive in 31-19 win over Tennessee that put them in SEC title game.

Mullen was a Gators assistant when Florida won the East in 2006 and ’08. Trask was a redshirting freshman of no repute the last time the Gators were in the SEC title game (2016). Together, they conspired to return Florida to the position of sacrificial offering to whoever comes out of the West.

Mullen will argue that Florida deserves even more plaudits for winning the East in the Year of COVID, when playing a conference-only schedule, he said, made this, “the hardest year in the history of this league.”

“There is no breather when you’re playing an all-SEC schedule, there is no chance to catch your breath. It’s a huge deal for our guys to win the league with the type of year we’re going through,” he added Saturday.

Of course, there are SEC breathers, which is why Vanderbilt was made. And, sadly, Tennessee, a team Florida has now beaten 15 of its last 16 meetings, also has auditioned for the role of a respite.

Regardless, with the win Saturday, Florida has every right to feel good about itself and good about its return to prominence. It has a couple weeks now to bask before facing the stark reality of Alabama. And a couple weeks to hold its breath — hopefully from behinds masks — that everyone can make it to Atlanta in spite of the virus.

In turn, that made for an uncomfortable Saturday for the Georgia follower who had to hear things like this from Mullen in the aftermath:

“We want to be playing in Atlanta in early December — this year happens to be later in December. That’s the goal. That’s the Gator standard, that’s what it’s all about. It is such an awesome game, a special game. And it will be again this year.”