The Florida Gators simply aren’t there yet. (Photo via University of Georgia Athletics)
The Gators showed some fight at times during their rivalry game against Georgia in Jacksonville, but ultimately went down, 42-20, and dropped to 4-4 on the season. There was the faintest, slightest glimmer of hope in the River City when Anthony Richardson hit Xzavier Henderson for a 78-yard bomb to cut what was a 28-3 Georgia lead down to 28-20, but that was followed up by Florida’s defense wilting and giving up 14 unanswered points to end the game. And thus, Florida lost to Georgia for the fifth time in the last six years.
What stood out in the 2022 Cocktail Party?
1: The Florida Gators’ defense is just plain bad, and we have to live with that the rest of the season
I’m not going to waste ink talking about the fluke play where Amari Burney batted the ball high into the air to Brock Bowers, and Bowers took it 73 yards for a touchdown. In fact- you know what?- I’ll be nice, and I’ll strike that play off the books as far as the statistics, and my analysis of them, are concerned. I’ll just pretend that didn’t happen for one second.
Even without that play, Florida surrendered a whopping 482 yards’ worth of terrain to a unit from Georgia that’s certainly solid, but by no means a juggernaut. Stetson Bennett IV missed at least three open receivers- as in, three separate times, he had receivers wide open, and simply didn’t throw it to them- and his receivers dropped two passes when they were wide open. Georgia also turned the ball over three times. And even still, even with those mistakes, and with that 73 yard fluke play taken out of the equation, Georgia amassed 482 yards of offense and 35 points.
The Bulldogs punished Florida up front. On the rare occasions when Georgia running backs couldn’t beat Florida defenders to the hole or the edge, they simply threw them out of their way (most notably Branson Hall on Rashad Torrence II). Brock Bowers routinely made Florida defensive backs and linebackers alike look silly in their efforts to cover him. And though Bennett made mistakes, he picked Florida apart on several deep throws because assignments were missed.
And none of that is new. That’s just what this defense is. It’s a bad unit. There are good individual plays that this unit makes, like Jadarrius Perkins’ incredible, acrobatic interception, but when the history of the Gator football program in the 2020’s is written, this defensive unit will be remembered as a very bad one. The Utah and Kentucky games have been proven to be smoke and mirrors. Not only has this defense regressed since those first two games, but now Florida is losing players from that defense, which will force more young guys into larger roles. Which is exactly what we want for the long run- but could make for a bumpy ride these next four games as the youngsters go through growing pains and learn on the fly.
2: AR has no choice, he has to come back in 2023
I thought there was something of an outside chance that, if Anthony Richardson played well against Georgia and then played phenomenally the last four games of the season, that he would leave early for the NFL Draft. But that didn’t happen. And now, with no more spectacular defenses for Richardson to shine against, he really doesn’t have a choice: he has to come back for one more year. He’s incredibly talented, a hard worker, and a stand-up human being, all of which NFL teams will love, but he’s just not ready.
On four separate occasions, Richardson had different receivers open that he just never saw. The most damaging was after Florida had taken the ball away on a fumble recovery deep in Georgia territory down 28-10, and was looking to cut the deficit down to 28-17 or possibly even 28-18. But Richardson never saw his open running back in the flat on a second and long, and instead threw an incomplete ball in the direction of Justin Shorter. Florida would eventually settle for a field goal.
Richardson was also very inaccurate on a lot of his throws, something we’ve seen him vacillate wildly with. There have been games where he’s had NFL-caliber touch on most of his throws, and then there have been games where… he has not. He did look off a safety on a 78 yard touchdown pass to Xzavier Henderson that he threw beautifully, but there’s a reason he completed fewer than half his passes. The worst of his misses was a second quarter overthrow to a wide open Marcus Burke. Burke had broken free and gained multiple steps of separation, and Richardson just missed him.
So with that said, it would be in his best interest to come back for another year to fine-tune his skills, show some consistency with his throws and field-reading abilities to go along with his leadership, cannon for an arm, and crazy athleticism, and loft his name to the top of teams’ draft boards.
3: Florida might have found something in DL Chris McClellan
Combine the dismissal of Brenton Cox with the fact that Trey Dean, Ventrell Miller, and Amari Burney are fifth-year seniors, and the fact that most of Florida’s best players are either transfers or Napier’s freshman signees, and it’s glaringly obvious that a roster purge is coming. The Florida Gators will look very, very different next year with what’s shaping up to be a top-ten recruiting class coming in, and current freshmen being sophomores, and thus one year more experienced.
And then there’s defensive lineman Chris McClellan- one of the few key contributors on this team that Napier did not bring in. McClellan, if you remember, committed to a coachless program back in November, in the interval between Dan Mullen’s firing and Billy Napier’s hiring. The kid committed to a program, not a coach. He came to Florida for a coach who did not recruit him, worked hard to impress him, and earned some playing time. And against Georgia, he made the most of it.
McClellan was everywhere. A stout Georgia offensive line that mostly stymied the Florida Gators’ front seven for most of the day had a peculiar amount of trouble with McClellan, the freshman from Owasso, OK. McClellan won a little more than half of his 1-on-1 matchups in the trenches, and accumulated three tackles and a shared TFL. No doubt that as he continues to work and grow, he’ll become more and more of a featured part of the front line of the Florida Gators’ defense.
4: Florida-Georgia belongs in Jacksonville forever
There was a time, way back in the mid-2010’s, when I wanted to explore different options for the location of this game. No more. I’ve attended the last two Cocktail Parties (and I will continue to call it that until my dying day, people simply need to be responsible with their choices) in Jacksonville and I’m sold.
The best way I can think to describe this game to people who have never been to one is as a high-stakes mid-season bowl game. It’s more than just a football game; it’s a full weekend of events leading up to that game, and then the game just caps it. The two schools and their fans take over a beautiful medium-sized city on the banks of the St. John’s for an entire weekend, and all day Friday and Saturday morning, anywhere you go within Jacksonville’s massive city limits, you’ll encounter a sea of orange, blue, red, and black. The only major difference between this game and a bowl game, aside from the lack of opt-outs, is that instead of matching up two teams from different parts of the country, it’s a matchup of bitter rivals.
Also, though I do acknowledge the difficulty in getting from Athens to Jacksonville, my empathy for Dawg fans’ travel woes are gone. For one thing, there were more Georgia fans than Florida fans there. For another thing, I flew down from New York City to Jacksonville each of the last two years to attend the game; if I can deal with the headache of that trip, Georgia fans can deal with having their own cars and not needing to pay for flights. And lastly, Georgia fans sure don’t seem to mind the SEC Championship Game being played in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, I may have hopped onboard this train of thought too late, as Florida and Georgia do seem to be contemplating other location options for this game. But since I have this platform to publish my thoughts on all things Florida Gators sports-related, I may as well use it to be yet another voice clamoring to keep the game in the River City.
The Verdict: The Florida Gators simply aren’t there as a program
Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but just shrug your shoulders and admit defeat after you’ve done everything you can do on a given day and still fall well short. The effort in the first half was certainly questionable, but Florida came out roaring in the second half on both sides of the ball. And then Georgia collected itself and dominated the final 18 minutes of the game.
It’s not one player. It’s not one decision-maker on the coaching staff. It’s not one trait that Florida’s lacking in, like speed, strength, basic game fundamentals, and so on. It’s all of those things, and then some. And it’s just a fact that this current roster- granted, a few exceptions stand out, but the sum of this roster is one that is simply not able to compete at the SEC level. It’s really that simple.
Billy Napier was brought in to change that. He was hired to import a completely new cast of players, with a different collective mindset and a higher level of collective skill, so that Florida can have the pieces it needs to not be at such a lopsided disadvantage against the top dogs in the SEC before games even kick off. And even after Cormani McClain spurned Florida, I do believe he’s on his way to doing so. Saturday simply proved just how much work he has to do.