It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but in football terms it might as well have been last century.
Florida was on top of the SEC East for the second consecutive year and Georgia was struggling through a five-loss season. Just this summer, Jim McElwain was talking about kicking the door down in Atlanta even though Georgia was picked to win the East in 2017.
Today, Georgia is a two-touchdown favorite and considered a legitimate threat to end the West’s eight-year reign of terror at the SEC Championship Game. Florida is trying to save what feels like a lost season.
So how did we get here?
How did we get to a place where the Bulldogs are brimming with the confidence that comes with an unbeaten record and a No. 3 national ranking and Florida is hoping for bowl eligibility?
A lot of things had to happen.
Good for Georgia.
Bad for Florida.
Let’s start at the most important position.
The quarterback quandary
This may sound cruel, but one of the best things that happened for Georgia was the injury in the opening game to Jacob Eason. That forced coach Kirby Smart to go with a true freshman in Jacob Fromm.
Fromm is the perfect quarterback for what Georgia wants to do. He has completed 62 percent of his passes and his 170.4 passer rating is the best among SEC starters. He is smart, doesn’t force the ball (12 TD passes to three interceptions) and takes advantage of the Bulldogs ground game. Eason was more of a gunslinger who didn’t fit the personnel around him. There were whispers in the preseason that Fromm might beat Eason out. The injury took care of that early and Eason can’t get his job back. Now, the whispers are that he might transfer.
Meanwhile, Florida’s quarterback injury was a huge negative. Luke Del Rio took over the job at Kentucky, led the Gators to a win and didn’t even last a half in the next game before he was lost for the season. Feleipe Franks has struggled mightily, ranking 14th in the conference in passing yards.
Georgia trusts its quarterback. Florida is still fighting to get its quarterback trustworthy.
The comeback kids
It was a huge surprise when six Georgia players who could have left early for the NFL decided to return, including running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and linebacker Lorenzo Carter.
They had won nothing at Georgia. They wanted to win something. So you not only saw the Bulldogs retain a wealth of experience, they had players come back with a commitment to do something special.
Florida lost four defensive starters who were juniors. They weren’t surprises, but they did change the defensive dynamic.
The Florida players who were considering going pro included a punter and player lost for the season (Marcell Harris) before camp started.
Obviously, advantage Georgia.
The big uglies
One of the reasons to be skeptical about Smart’s second team was an offensive line that lost three starters and had all five linemen playing different positions.
True freshman Andrew Thomas, the right tackle, has made a huge difference for Georgia. Even with an offense that strives for balance, the Bulldogs rank 11th in the country in rushing and you don’t get there without a strong offensive line.
Florida started the season as a team that was being touted as having one of the best offensive lines in the country. There have been some improvements, but when they have needed first downs in their last two games the Gators haven’t delivered.
Georgia’s special teams were a mess last year. Columbia grad student transfer Cameron Nizialek has made a difference at punter and placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship is 20-of-24 on field goals after being erratic last season.
The Bulldogs are fifth in the nation in net punting and in the top 20 nationally in kickoff returns.
Florida has found out that there is more to special teams than strong-legged kickers. We’ll leave it at that.
Georgia got Notre Dame early before the Irish figured everything out and even in that road game had a home-crowd advantage. The Bulldogs also got Mississippi State at home and those Bulldogs can’t play dead on the road.
Georgia is 4-0 in the SEC. The combined conference record of those four teams is 2-14.
Florida just lost back-to-back games by a combined three points to teams who are 11-2 overall.
The issues and non-issues
We all know that Florida has had nine players suspended all season. No matter how you look at the reasons for it, it has made a huge difference in Florida’s personnel. Add in the injured players and the Gators are hardly the team that was advertised in the summer.
Georgia, for the most part, has been able to avoid trouble, something that was a big part of Mark Richt’s tenure. Remember how Steve Spurrier used to joke when he was at South Carolina how he liked to play the ’Dogs early because there were likely going to be suspended players?
Linebacker Natrez Patrick is serving a four-game suspension. Other than that, Georgia has kept its nose clean.
Add it all together and you get the stark realities of a rivalry game where one side is getting a lot of love and the other, not so much.
But if I’ve taught you anything, it’s that every game is its own game.
It’s just that every thing that could go right for Smart and his team has done just that. And then there’s Florida.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.