GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Not long ago, the balance of power in this rivalry was reversed.
Just 12 months ago, Florida was the reigning SEC East champ working its way to a repeat atop the division with Georgia just another stepping-stone on that path.
The Gators would roll to a 24-10 win in the rivalry showdown in Jacksonville, Fla., last October, shutting out the Bulldogs in the second half and prevailing with little resistance despite middling quarterback play.
Kirby Smart’s task at Georgia looked to be in the early stages then, a true work in progress, while Florida was the team to beat in the East trying to find the next level in its ascent under coach Jim McElwain.
Just 12 months ago, that was.
Well, Georgia is a 14-point favorite heading into Jacksonville this time. The No. 3 Bulldogs are unbeaten and looking every bit like a true national championship contender. And the Gators are sliding in the opposite direction, 3-3 halfway through a trying first half of the season and coming off back-to-back losses while a beleaguered fan base loses more hope with each mounting setback.
How did it all change so much so fast?
The cyclical nature of college football played a role, for sure. Georgia returned 10 starters on defense and 7 on offense.
Buoyed by the surprising return of stud running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and a revelation in freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs have improved an offense that ranked 87th nationally in 2016 (384.7 yards per game) into a 37th-ranked unit producing 454.3 yards per game.
And with one of the most experienced groups in the SEC, the Bulldogs turned a top-20 defense into the No. 3 unit in the country, stifling opponents to an average of 252.6 yards per game.
In the meantime, Florida watched eight key defensive players move on to the next level while experiencing some expected growing pains through the early part of the season. Injuries and suspensions have further strained the depth chart.
After years of almost perennial top-10 defenses, Florida ranks 36th while giving up 354.8 yards per game. The unit is at least trending in the right direction, coming off its best performance of the season two weekends ago against Texas A&M, and will only get better with time.
But as for the offense, the same can’t be said. For the third year in a row, Florida ranks in the 100s, showing no improvement while actually looking worse off at quarterback as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks seems to have hit a rookie ceiling well short of the level the Gators need from him.
The loss of star wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett to indefinite suspensions has further undermined Florida’s plans while accelerating the program’s youth movement.
So this time Georgia is the veteran group catching the young Gators still early in their development.
But unfortunately for Florida fans, this seems to be more than just a matter of year-to-year roster ebb and flow.
Smart has proven to be the real deal for Georgia, delivering on the top-end expectations in just his second season, while back in Gainesville fans are griping and grousing daily about McElwain and the direction of his program.
When highly-touted QB Jacob Eason didn’t quite deliver on the hype and then injured his left knee in the season opener, Georgia had a backup plan. Fromm has thrown 12 touchdowns with 3 interceptions since seizing the job, needing to pass for just 166 yards per game while leaning on that deep rushing attack. That formula has added up to 42.5 points per game in SEC play.
Florida has had no such Plan B at QB, with McElwain showing no interest in turning to graduate transfer Malik Zaire as Franks ranks last among SEC starting quarterbacks with 133.3 passing yards per game. There is nobody else pushing for the job, nobody else ready to step in and seize the opening and provide the necessary complement to the Gators’ own effective rushing attack.
Three years into the tenure of McElwain and his coaching staff, the best hope for the position is a high school senior in California who won’t arrive until the winter.
By that time, Georgia will have one of the deepest QB depth charts in the country once top-prospect Justin Fields joins the program.
Sure, Georgia will lose some of its veteran defensive playmakers and both of its star running backs, but with the seventh-ranked recruiting class in 2017 (according to the 247Sports composite) the Bulldogs figure to be just fine moving forward.
Florida presently has a stacked 2018 recruiting class coming in (No. 6 nationally), if all the commitments hold, but so many questions remain. And until the QB question is finally answered, it’s hard to expect any more than the status quo.
No, moving forward, this doesn’t feel like an ebb-and-flow situation anymore. It feels like a changing of the guard in the SEC East.
Georgia still has to beat the Gators this Saturday. Nothing is predetermined, and the Bulldogs have lost three straight in the series.
But so much has changed since the last time these teams shared the field.
To put it simply, Georgia has found an identity under Smart, while Florida is searching for one, no longer the dominant defense it once was and no closer to being the offense that was envisioned when McElwain arrived.
And that’s the sobering reality for Florida fans this week. Struggling with a young team is one thing. Watching a rival need less time to successfully become what was once hoped for from this regime is only going to make this Gators rebuild all the more frustrating.
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