JACKSONVILLE — In the corner of the Jaguars meeting room where he had just conducted a second losing news conference as Florida’s coach, Dan Mullen was still talking excitedly on a day when no Gator fans were excited.
He was trying to get across the point that his team has to learn from a game like this and so do the coaches.
It was a rough lesson.
Saturday was a depressing end to a pipedream of going to Atlanta and caring deeply about where the Gators would be when the first College Football Playoff rankings are announced Tuesday.
Still, just being in a game that was this big a deal was a step forward even if the Gators took a step back in the game.
“We haven’t played in a big game like this in a long time,” Mullen said.
But that was part of the problem.
The Gators played like a bunch of guys who were in over their heads. Mullen said after the game that they may have wanted it too much.
“I wanted it really, really bad,” said senior Cece Jefferson.
To win a game of this magnitude in a rivalry they write books about, it takes more than wanting it. You have to play at a certain level.
“How do we get to that level?” Mullen asked.
Not by doing what they did Saturday.
To say the Gators left it all on the field would be true, but we’re talking about turnovers and busted coverages that littered the story of a brutal game. Florida ran out of SEC caliber cornerbacks when C.J. Henderson went down with a back injury and Georgia took advantage. The nation’s sixth-ranked pass defense was exposed by big plays against a slew of back-up defenders.
And with Feleipe Franks looking like Feleipe 2017, the Gators were in trouble from the first possession.
Franks made two huge mistakes, an interception that ended a drive that literally was thrown right at the defender and a fumble at the 1-yard line that could have been a backbreaker but instead showed that Florida still has some want-to.
The goal-line stand, six plays including one phantom pass interference call that ended with a field goal, gave Florida a chance.
But the mistakes kept coming and the Gators were eventually buried under an avalanche of third-down big plays and blown coverages.
“They were minus-four in turnovers against LSU and plus-three against us,” Mullen said. “You flip that and they probably beat LSU and lose to us.”
Yep, but you can’t flip it. You could only watch until you had seen enough and left early or flipped the channel.
“I gotta be better than that,” Franks said. “It’s not good enough to win a big-time game like this.”
It certainly wasn’t good enough on this day.
Bad offense, bad defense. The first Florida offensive play was a flea flicker that Franks overthrew. The last drive of the first half was an embarrassment, four straight throws to tight end Isaac Nauta for 66 yards after the Bulldogs got the ball at their own 20 with 50 seconds left in the half.
But when Florida started the second half by taking the lead, you couldn’t help but wonder if this plucky team had some more magic. Instead, this was where the game was really decided, as Georgia needed only seven plays, one of them a 35-yard pass to an uncovered receiver to retake the lead.
Not much went right after that.
The clincher was a touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to Terry Godwin, who was wide open in part because he was being covered by a safety. Georgia had every second-half answer.
“The biggest difference,” said Mullen, “was they executed for four quarters.”
And therein lies the biggest disappointment for Mullen, who has harped on the weekly improvement theme all season.
“Everyone is going to be disappointed when they see this film,” he said. “This is on all of us.”
Whether they were too hyped or too confident or too undisciplined or too short on talent, the Gators got it handed to them on a windy day in Jacksonville.
Now, we see where they go from here.
Florida is basically playing the rest of the season for bowl position. The players know they took a step back and need to take a big one forward the rest of this season.
Maybe they just didn’t belong in a game this big this soon in Mullen’s UF career.
At least on this day, they sure didn’t look like they did.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.