The Georgia Bulldogs finally had their day, which made for an ugly finish to a very bad week for the Florida Gators.
Third-ranked UGa scored 21 points in the first 7:28 and went on to pound UF 42-7 on Saturday in front of 84,107 at EverBank Field who witnessed the most lopsided ‘Dogs victory in 35 years, the end of their three-game losing streak in the series and possibly the end of Jim McElwain’s tenure as the Florida coach.
Georgia (8-0, 5-0) can clinch the SEC East as early as next week with a victory over South Carolina (combined with a loss by Kentucky), which would put the Bulldogs into the conference championship game for the first time since 2012, likely against Smart’s old boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Florida (3-4, 3-3) lost its third game in a row for the first time in three seasons under McElwain and was saved from its first shutout since 1988 when Mark Thompson scored on a 1-yard plunge with 2:42 left in the game.
Before that it was all ‘Dogs, nearly all the time. Georgia scored on its first three possessions, a 6-yard run by Nick Chubb, a 17-yard touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to White graduate Javon Wims and a 74-yard sprint by Sony Michel. UGA out-gained Florida 188-34 in the first quarter.
“I think it surprised them early and we shocked them a little bit,” Smart said.
“We set the tone for the game,” said UGA linebacker Lorenzo Carter of a defensive that forced Florida to punt, followed by Chubb’s touchdown, set up by Fromm’s swing pass to D’Andre Swift that went for 39 yards. “We came out there and played hard and I can’t ask for more.”
Georgia bogged down for the rest of the first half, but in the third quarter Michel added another score, on a 45-yard run, and J.R. Reed took a fumble by UF quarterback Feleipe Franks into the end zone from 3 yards out.
Elijah Holyfield came off the bench to score on a 39-yard run early in the final quarter as Georgia scored the most points against Florida since Herschel Walker led a 44-0 victory in 1982.
Michel had 137 yards on only six carries and Chubb added 77 yards. Fromm completed 4 of 7 passes for 101 yards and the Georgia defense held Franks to 7 of 19 passing for 30 yards, sacking him five times, before Malik Zaire played for the first time since the opening game and led the Gators to their only scoring drive.
“We were expecting nothing less,” said Wims. “We dominated them from the beginning.”
Georgia and Florida are heading in polar opposite directions, UGA on a fast track to the SEC championship game and a possible College Football Playoff berth and UF possibly to a third regime change in seven years.
A tumultuous week in Gainesville that began with McElwain claiming he had received death threats against his players, coaches and their families that are still unsubstantiated, was followed by two hapless attempts to explain them. McElwain was already under fire for an offense that remains at the bottom of the SEC and the suspension of nine players who have been embroiled in a credit-card fraud scheme.
Controversy trailed McElwain to Jacksonville as social media rumors swirled before the game that the Florida administration was seeking to negotiate a buyout of his contract, which was quickly denied by athletic director Scott Stricklin.
During the third quarter, espn.com posted a story, citing multiple unnamed sources, that UF was trying to find a way to fire McElwain with cause to avoid the nearly $13 million he would be owed.
McElwain said he was among the people disappointed in Florida’s season.
“This is a dream job … it’s a great place, it’s great fans, great support,” he said. “Obviously I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to deliver in the time I’ve been here. But you know what, it’s an opportunity … it’s something that’s real special.”
Florida players who were interviewed said they support their coach.
“We stand behind coach McElwain,” said defensive back Chauncey Gardner. “He stands behind us and the program stands behind us. We’re going to keep playing football and outsiders are going to be outsiders. We’re not going to worry about them.”
Franks also stood behind the coach who has benched him three times this season.
“I love coach McElwain,” Franks said. “If they’re going to have faith in us, we have to have faith in each other to get it done. We have to keep on playing. We are going to regroup and get to work this week.”
However, it’s going to take a lot of work to salvage a winning record and bowl trip.
Florida will have to win three of its last four games to be eligible for the postseason, starting with two road trips in the next two weeks, to Missouri and South Carolina.
The Gators return home to play UAB and Florida State.
After playing home against South Carolina, Georgia plays at Auburn, and then returns home to face Kentucky.
“We’re just keeping the circle tight,” Michel said. “Once you start playing for each other you start having fun and you start winning.”