JACKSONVILLE — Florida’s season isn’t over — far from it, in fact.
But after Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Georgia, Gators coach Dan Mullen didn’t shy away from the obvious.
“There’s an awful lot to still play for. A lot of football still left. We have three more games to go play and a bye week. We’ve qualified for a bowl game, so we’ll get that extra (practice). How good that is, we’ll see. The East still hasn’t been decided,” Mullen said. “Unfortunately we don’t control our own destiny anymore, which is frustrating for us. But we’ll see.”
The Gators arrived in Jacksonville in sole possession of first place in the SEC East. The Bulldogs left town firmly in control.
That realization was the exclamation point on an all-around frustrating day for the Gators, who played turnover-free football yet consistently came up short when it mattered — namely on third down.
The Dawgs converted 12-of-18 third-down attempts, while the Gators would only muster a pair of first downs on nine attempts.
Ultimately that lack of success in critical moments — in possibly the most crucial game to date in the Mullen era — proved to be the difference between the two teams.
“We just had to miss a couple things that we needed to get off the field on third downs. A lot of stuff that could have changed the game,” Gators defensive lineman Jon Greenard said. “We just have to execute. It hurts. We just have to bounce back.”
There’s still a path to Atlanta, but it will require Georgia to do something it didn’t Saturday — slip up.
For Florida, the rebound begins with the team’s first home game in more than a month when Vanderbilt arrives for a 12 p.m. showdown Saturday, while the Dawgs have a formidable slate of their own ahead; UGA will have to travel to Auburn, while home games against Missouri and Texas A&M remain ahead. To reclaim their lead atop the standings, the Gators will need to win out and hope the Dawgs lose two of their remaining three contests — an unlikely yet feasible task.
But it was hard for the Gators to quickly turn their thinking toward the future in the aftermath. Not after a third-straight loss to Georgia, and especially not after the team felt it squandered an opportunity rather than got beat outright.
“Definitely give Georgia credit (but) we were right there. If you look at the plays, guys are right there. It’s a matter of making that play. Credit to them, they’ve got some ballplayers and a really good system over there, really good play calling. Hats off to them,” Greenard said. “I think everybody could have done one thing better today. That’s the whole mindset. That’s the feeling we didn’t want to have coming out of this game.”
Yet it’s a feeling Florida is no stranger to. After last season’s loss to the Dawgs, the Gators experienced a hangover of sorts, one that seemed to affect the team’s play the ensuing week against Missouri. One loss quickly turned into two, which almost turned into a third before some second-half heroics against South Carolina. The setbacks can amass if dwelled upon.
However, Greenard said the Gators should briefly mull over Saturday’s result rather than putting it aside, in the hope that Florida understands the importance of executing on every play.
“It’s tough right now. We have to sit on this loss just for a little bit. Tomorrow we’ve got to get it out of our heads and realize we can still do something for this university, with our team this year. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the result we wanted. But to get where we wanted to be as far as a successful season, it’s still in the hunt. A lot of things can happen between now and then,” Greenard said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to still keep fighting, get back to work. We’re going to get better.”