JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — With Saturday’s lopsided victory over Florida at EverBank Field, whatever this transfusion of Georgia football is that we’ve been witnessing is complete.
I’m not saying the Bulldogs can rest on their laurels now. They still haven’t won anything and they’re not about to relax. Just review Saturday’s postgame comments.
But the balance of power in the SEC East has made a complete shift. After defeating the Gators 42-7 on Saturday, Georgia (8-0, 5-0 SEC) has beaten rivals Tennessee and Florida by an aggregate score of 83-7. The Bulldogs will be double-digit favorites again next Saturday when South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) visits Sanford Stadium.
Meanwhile, Florida beat writers on Saturday were barely paying attention to the ballgame. They were busy scurrying about in the hallways behind press row, whispering to each other and into their phones as they scrambled to verify whether coach Jim McElwain was going to get fired, possibly before the postgame news conference.
He didn’t, by the way, but this was one of the stranger scenes I’ve witnessed while covering this ancient rivalry. And I’ve seen some strange things here.
In stark contrast, things are rolling for Georgia, and there is no sign of a letup. Second-year coach Kirby Smart spent much of his time in his 12-minute presser outlining all the things his team needed to do better.
“The mission is for us to play better football, to move toward our best and be as good as we can be,” he said. “We want to continue to take steps in that direction.”
Certainly, this victory came with a few flaws, but it was also thorough and dominant. And things got even better afterward. Both No. 2-ranked Penn State and No. 4 TCU went down shortly after the Georgia result was official.
More than likely the Bulldogs will be No. 2 when the first College Football Playoff rankings of 2017 are released on Tuesday. To say that Smart’s rebuild of the UGA football program is ahead of schedule would be an understatement.
That was another odd thing about this whole week. McElwain, 2 for 2 in winning the SEC East as Florida’s head coach, has put himself on this suddenly hot seat. It started with him saying something about himself and his family receiving death threats from disgruntled Gators fans. That was something neither university police nor the UF administration could substantiate after learning of them when McElwain talked about it Monday during his weekly news conference.
Meanwhile, while the Gators were coming in 3-3 as two-touchdown underdogs to Georgia, it was their players who were trash-talking and providing bulletin-board material during the week. Florida safety Chauncey Gardner, for instance, criticized Jake Fromm’s ability as a quarterback, saying he threw nothing more complicated than a slant route in the passing game.
Fittingly, Fromm completed a slant to D’Andre Swift for 18 yards in the third quarter with Gardner defending. Gardner was shaken up on the play and had to be helped up.
“That was big time,” Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith said. “We got pretty rowdy after that.”
That’s definitely one of the “culture changes” we have observed in Year 2 of Smart’s regime. While it can make for boring copy for fans to read, Georgia players are going out of their way not to provide much in the way of lively remarks. Well, not in advance of any of their contests.
They’re reserving the best commentary for after the games are over, and then they’re still careful about what comes out of their mouths.
A couple of the players, including Smith, acknowledged that the comments of Florida’s players “added a little fuel to the fire.” Most didn’t, though.
“In the SEC, a game has never been won by talking,” Smith said. “It is what it is.”
Added outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, without further elaboration: “Disrespected. Disrespected. Disrespected.”
There’s no question after Saturday’s game that we witnessed two programs heading in different directions. Florida had won the previous three in this series and 21 of the past 27 going back to Steve Spurrier’s first year as head coach in 1990. The Ol’ Ball Coach, by the way, stood in the hallway behind press row on Saturday, talking to reporters and shaking his head a lot when his Gators would fail to gain a first down or give up another explosive play.
“It’s like I told the team: The present affects the present; the past doesn’t affect the present,” Smart said. “That has nothing to do with this team. We talked a long time this week about owning their burden of being a highly ranked team and being favored. ‘Only be burdened with your work and let it pay off on Saturdays,’ and they’ve done that.”
Smart, like his charges, was careful not to come off as beating his chest. But he did acknowledge for the first time that he felt good about his team giving its hungry fan base a much-needed, drama-free victory it could enjoy for a little while.
“It was special for all the seniors and it was special for our entire university,” Smart said. “Our fan base was starving for some success against Florida. … But the most important thing for our team is to keep chopping wood and keep moving ahead.”
Yeah, some demons were exorcised here on the banks of the St. Johns on Saturday, whether the Bulldogs want to admit it or not. And while the Gators went west after the game and Georgia north, that wasn’t the only directional change we witnessed.