With 13:28 remaining in the third quarter in the 2018 meeting, Feleipe Franks fired a 36-yard touchdown pass on a post pattern to Freddie Swain to give the Gators a 14-10 lead.
Just like that, the Gators were 28 minutes away from securing an upset victory over No. 7 Georgia that would’ve likely sent them to the SEC Championship Game. They were on the verge of sending a loud message to the rest of the country that the Gators are back to competing for championships ahead of schedule under Dan Mullen.
Just like that, it all evaporated. The Bulldogs scored 26 of the game’s final 29 points to deal the Gators a disheartening loss that left the team and fans wondering about what could’ve been in the year since.
“We just let it slip out our hands,” senior receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “We didn’t finish the game.”
On Saturday, No. 6 UF (7-1, 4-1 SEC) will find itself in an almost identical scenario against No. 8 UGA (6-1, 3-1). While the Gators are ranked higher, Georgia opened as a 6.5-point favorite in Vegas and most experts will probably pick the Bulldogs. Once again, Florida has a chance to all but clinch the SEC East title and earn a ton of respect from the national media.
“They beat us the last two years, so it's kind of personal for me,” Cleveland said. “Just leave out on a good note, get a ‘W’ and finish out the season, this four-game stretch, so this one big right here.”
While the Gators squandered a golden opportunity in the 2018 game, they’ve excelled in second halves this season. In three of their wins, they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter. They found a way to hold off Auburn for a huge top-10 win. They’re outscoring opponents 147-55 in second halves, including 85-21 in fourth quarters.
The Gators hope that trend continues on Saturday in Jacksonville.
“All of the off-season conditioning made us a little stronger, made us push more, made us want it more,” Cleveland said. “And us coming together in the off-season, hanging out with each other, just bonding, you know, that play a big part.”
Redshirt senior center Nick Buchanan, who’s 2-2 against UGA, said the improvement in the second halves this season can be attributed to better mental toughness.
“Having the mental toughness to go out there every day and execute the details and the game plan Coach puts forward,” he said. “No matter what happens in the game, just keep your head up and focus on the next play.”
Of course, beating the Bulldogs will be a tall task. UGA was considered a favorite to make the College Football Playoff this season, and, despite a setback against South Carolina, they’re still one of the most talented teams in the country.
Any discussion of the Bulldogs has to start with their defense. Head coach Kirby Smart is regarded as one of the top defensive minds in the country, and they’ve recruited at an elite level. They have few glaring weaknesses.
[Smart’s] very fundamentally sound,” UF offensive line coach John Hevesy said. “They're in the right place, and you see the talent they have on defense. They do a lot of studying the film, of watching the film. He gets them in the right place, right time. They've always been a good tackling team, always been a very aggressive team, but then they play hard with great fundamentals, which is a great combo.”
While they’ve struggled to generate a consistent pass-rush, their front-seven is limiting teams to 85.8 rushing yards per game, fifth in the country. That doesn’t bode well for UF considering its season-long struggles in the running game and the fact that the team that has rushed for more yards has won the last 13 games in the series.
The Gators likely won’t be able to run the ball. They haven’t for most of the year, so what’s the big deal? They’ll just torch the Bulldogs through the air like they have almost every other team this year, right?
Well, UGA ranks fourth in the conference in passing defense at 181 yards per game.
“We’re going to be tested,” senior receiver Van Jefferson said. “I think we’re up for the challenge. I think we’re just going to go out there and compete, compete at the highest level. It’s going to get us better; we’re going to get them better. So, I just am going to go out there and compete, compete at the highest level. You’re going to have to win your one-and-one battles.
“We just have to execute and play our game. Just come out relaxed and don’t get into the hype of the game. Just play the game the Gators play, and we will be fine.”
The expected return of jack-of-all-trades receiver Kadarius Toney should provide a boost. His explosive, unpredictable, sideline-to-sideline running style could help spread Georgia’s defense out and open up the middle of the field for tight end Kyle Pitts and the running game.
“Today, he was going crazy out there,” Jefferson said. “It’s like he never left. It’s been great to have him back. I think he is going to be a real big factor in the game on Saturday. I love having him on the other side of me because he is a mismatch for anybody that is guarding him. So, I’m glad to have him back.”
And of course, Mullen will likely have a few tricks up his sleeves. His players have hinted as much.
“He been gone for six weeks,” Cleveland said. “Now he comes back in, so most teams couldn't game-plan him. So, most teams think he's just a one-type player, but we've got a lot of tricks up our sleeve."
In other words, be ready to see Toney throw a pass.
Florida is playing for all of the usual things this weekend: bragging rights, a likely trip to the SEC Championship Game and keeping their playoff hopes alive. However, this game will mean a little bit more to the seniors. They’re 1-2 against the Bulldogs with an average margin of 27 points in the defeats.
“This is what you come to Florida for: for the opportunity to win the East and get to the SEC Championship in Atlanta and winning those big games,” Buchanan said. “For us to do what we want to do and accomplish what we want to accomplish, then this game mean everything right now.”
This is their final shot at redemption.