By Gene Frenette, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — The first month of the 2019 season, nobody could really envision this scenario.
It just didn’t seem realistic. The mere idea that seventh-ranked Florida could have a higher AP poll standing than No. 10 Georgia, or that their November 2 matchup at TIAA Bank Field might be viewed reasonably close to a tossup game, seemed preposterous.
Naturally, Georgia would be a notch above the Gators because Kirby Smart’s team was already a national title contender the past two seasons, and Florida had just begun its rebuild with Dan Mullen. Everyone pretty much accepted UF needed more time to catch up to its biggest rival.
And for a good part of 2019, that perception was accurate. Especially after the way mistake-prone Florida barely survived a 24-20 season opener against Miami, then later needed a 35-yard missed field goal in the final minute by Kentucky’s Chance Poore to avoid a Wildcats’ upset.
Meanwhile, Georgia had been mostly its dominant self through a 5-0 start until South Carolina pulled off one of the biggest shockers two weeks ago, stunning the ’Dogs 20-17 in double overtime in Athens. Four turnovers by normally reliable quarterback Jake Fromm doomed Georgia, bringing into question whether Smart’s team being pegged an overwhelming SEC East favorite or a near-lock to reach the College Football Playoff still applied.
The answer for now is no. Georgia continued to look vulnerable in Saturday’s 21-0 home win over Kentucky, a game that was scoreless in the third quarter and played in tough conditions due to Hurricane Nestor’s impact. Still, it’s getting harder to automatically pencil the ’Dogs into the SEC Championship game.
But nothing makes the Florida-Georgia showdown more intriguing than it looked a month ago than the Gators being so stubbornly resilient. Somehow, they keep finding ways to pull out games despite continually putting themselves in danger of losing them.
No amount of adversity seems to unravel Florida. For the sixth time in Mullen’s 21-game tenure, and third time this season, the Gators prevailed 38-27 against South Carolina despite trailing in the fourth quarter. Not only that, any stress beyond trailing on the scoreboard doesn’t seem to faze them either.
They lose starting quarterback Feleipe Franks to a season-ending ankle injury at Kentucky, trailing 21-10 when Kyle Trask replaces him. All Florida does is score the last 19 points with a quarterback who had attempted 22 career passes. Despite Trask’s inexperience, he now has 14 TD passes and only four interceptions, more evidence that Mullen is a QB whisperer.
Florida wins because it has a habit of playing good situational football. On the road against then No. 5 LSU, the Gators’ two best pass-rushers, Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, miss a good chunk of that game with injuries and UF is somehow leading the Tigers 28-21 in the third quarter.
Now Florida ended up losing 42-28 – the turning point coming on a poor Trask decision to throw a ball on third-and-1 into end zone traffic, resulting in a costly interception. But the fact the Gators (7-1, 4-1 in SEC) had a chance to win at Death Valley reinforces the notion that Mullen’s team keeps ascending as the season moves forward.
“You’re heading into November in control of your own destiny and what’s going to happen,” Mullen said after the South Carolina victory. “That’s where we want to be and where we’re expected to be at Florida.”
His biggest impact during his short time in Gainesville is defined by a toughness standard he set that didn’t exist under predecessors Jim McElwain or Will Muschamp. Those coaches were a combined 14-14 in one-possession games.
Nothing in particular about Florida dazzles anybody, although the receiver corps is as deep as any in the country. The Gators have some nice pieces with their pass-rushers and a secondary featuring C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson.
But UF isn’t stringing together top-3 recruiting classes like Georgia or Alabama. The Gators have evolved into a second-tier national player because Mullen has made them better than the sum of the team’s parts.
Is Florida CFP material? Probably not, but you can’t dismiss that as a possibility the way all of us would have a month ago when nobody looked at the Gators as a legit top-10 team.
What UF has become under Mullen is sneaky good. The Gators have moments where their performance is a head-scratcher for two or three quarters, then they somehow flip a switch. You never know what to expect from that offensive line or when Todd Grantham’s defense might struggle to stop a potent running attack like, say, Georgia’s (236.9 yards per game).
But what Mullen’s team does — besides bring a more explosive element to an offense that was tough to watch for so long — is come up big when it matters. Five of their 18 takeaways happened with opponents in UF’s red zone, tops in the country.
The Gators tend to let other teams self-destruct instead of beating themselves. UF is penalized only 5.38 times per game, 12th-best among Power 5 teams.
Now if Florida is able to win an SEC Eastern division that was assumed to be Georgia’s property, what might Mullen do when he starts scoring big on the recruiting trail?
The good news for Jacksonville is the 2019 Florida-Georgia matchup, featuring top-10 teams for only the seventh time in history (each team has won three times), is essentially a CFP elimination game.
It’s just not the mismatch college football pundits envisioned when the season began. Georgia doesn’t have the same aura of near invincibility. Florida is closing the gap.
And if their showdown evolves into a tight game in the fourth quarter, betting against Mullen might be a bad idea.
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