HOOVER, Ala. — In the frigid main media room at SEC Media Days, Kirby Smart was part swagger and part humility.
His team has been so close to taking down the king of the league in consecutive seasons, losing on the last play of the national championship game and blowing a late lead in the SEC title game.
The key to beating Alabama going forward?
“Get rid of their back-up quarterback,” he said. Part joke, part reality.
Smart is 24-5 in his last two seasons, but last year ended with a thud, consecutive losses to close it out. On the other hand, there was Florida, winning its bowl game and finishing ahead of the Bulldogs in the coaches’ poll at the end of the season.
But there is still the perception Smart has recruited so well there is a talent gap between Florida and Georgia. And the rest of the East.
And most of the country.
It’s based on recruiting reality. Georgia has signed 12 five-star recruits the last two years. Florida has not signed any.
“I wouldn’t say talent gap,” Georgia offensive lineman Andrew Thomas said Tuesday. “We have really good players. There are great players in the East. Florida is a really talented team. I guess according to the recruiting services … “
They will tell you Florida has been unable to close the gap that existed when Dan Mullen took over.
And on the field, the Bulldogs have won the last two games between the two schools by a combined 78-24.
But Florida can point to a game that was a one-possession game until the middle of the fourth quarter last year. So is there a real talent gap or one just based on Georgia’s ascension to the elite level in college football?
“None at all,” Florida running back Lamical Perine said. “We have just as much talent as Georgia has, maybe more. You can tell by looking at our roster.
“We had a lot of turnovers in that game last year (three). Turnovers will kill you.”
So will missing a wide open receiver on a flea flicker on your first offensive play of the game as Feleipe Franks did last year.
“Every game in Jacksonville is going to be a game,” Perine said.
Let’s face it. Despite the finish to last season, Georgia is where Florida wants to be. Georgia is where a lot of programs want to be. The Bulldogs just haven’t been able to finish.
When the voting is released later this week, Georgia will be picked to win the East again. Smart has shown that — unlike so many Nick Saban assistants hired to head SEC programs — he has been able to apply the relentless effort in recruiting that is the Tide model.
As a result, the Bulldogs are the only team that can be mentioned in the same breath with Alabama when it comes to talent in this conference. (LSU fans might disagree but they have scored 10 points in the last three seasons against the Tide and have lost eight straight to Alabama. So pipe down.)
Mullen has been on the job in Gainesville for only 13 games, but we know this much — he hasn’t been able to recruit at a high enough level to significantly tighten the gap. But at the same time, he has shown he can develop players well enough to rise above their recruiting ranking.
Is that going to be enough to overtake Georgia? We’ll see.
Don’t forget, Florida owned Georgia under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. That seems like a long time ago after the results the last two years.
Heck, Jim McElwain’s two SEC East championships seem like a long time ago.
There’s only one way to show that there is no talent gap between the two programs.
“We have to beat them,” said Florida’s Jabari Zuniga.
Yeah, that would help.
On the field and off the field, in Jacksonville and in the living rooms of elite recruits.
Football can be brutally cyclical. In the East, it’s Georgia’s turn at the front of the parade. But we’ve seen that it can turn quickly. Four different teams have represented the East in Atlanta this decade.
But as this decade closes, the perception is that it’s a red and black division and everyone else is fighting to be in the conversation.
The reality is that Florida beat LSU last year and the Tigers turned around and smacked Georgia a week later. The reality is that Florida has better receivers than Georgia heading into this season and probably wouldn’t trade defenses.
There is also the reality that Georgia was disappointed with 11 wins last year and Florida was ecstatic to win 10 games.
The truth may be somewhere in between and may depend on which team you are rooting for.
There’s only one way to settle it, but November is a long way off. Trolling on Twitter isn’t going to change anything. Neither is anything that happened last season.
You want to change perception?
You know what to do.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.