JACKSONVILLE — The tenures of recent Georgia football coaches haven’t necessarily been defined by how they do against Florida. They just seemed to have symbolically ended here.
Ray Goff won his first meeting with the Gators. Then he got smacked six straight years by an average score of 41-17. He was done.
Jim Donnan dropped four out of five to Florida. Done.
Mark Richt, for all of his accomplishments in Athens, too often faceplanted in Jacksonville, losing 10 of 15 meetings. His ending was sealed in 2015, punctuated by two unfortunate words: Faton Bauta.
Kirby Smart has changed a lot of things at Georgia. Demands. Expectations. Recruiting. He has won consecutive titles at a program that hadn’t won even one in four decades and looks on track to make it three straight, something that hasn’t been done anywhere since 1936. But if you’re wondering where his turnaround of this program symbolically began, start in Jacksonville. Start with the Florida rivalry, where the Bulldogs once dropped an unfathomable 18 of 21 meetings against the cackling sounds of Steve Spurrier.
This must be what a football exorcism looks like.
Georgia slammed Florida 43-20 on Saturday. This follows bludgeonings in the previous two meetings by scores of 42-20 and 34-7. That’s three wins by 72 points. It’s the first time since the 1940s Georgia has beaten Florida three straight times by at least 20 points.
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There’s a rule in sports: Anytime you have to travel back in time to black and white film and leather helmets for a point of reference, it’s a significant moment.
“I heard a story a couple of years before I got here that coach Smart asked the team, ‘If you’ve beaten Florida stand up, and nobody stood up,’” defensive tackle Zion Logue said. “They took it personal. Then we got beat in 2020, but every time we’ve beaten Florida since then, it’s been pretty personal.”
Smart’s teams have won 25 consecutive games and 41 of 43. They haven’t lost a regular-season game in three years, this despite populating every corner of the NFL. The defense may not be on the level of the star-laden units in 2021 or 2022, but it’s been solid and played its most impressive game against the Gators. Quarterback Carson Beck, a Jacksonville native making his first start in this rivalry, threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns and completed 19 passes to receivers not named Brock Bowers.
In short, Smart is doing it again, and it started in his second season when the 2017 team drubbed Florida 42-7 and wound up in the national championship game against Alabama, a game that looked good for a while but we’ll just stop there.
Smart has won six of the last seven meetings against Florida. He lost to the Gators in his first season in 2016, but he also lost to Vanderbilt and coached in the Liberty Bowl, so that’s how bad that year was. The only other defeat came in the disjointed 2020 COVID season when nothing was normal.
What we witnessed on Saturday is the new normal.
In the locker room after the game, he reminded his players how important it was to flip this rivalry. He had a close-up view to the misery during his five years in Athens.
“Coach Smart was just talking about it,” wide receiver Ladd McConkey said. “He told us he was 1-4 in his career, and I’m 3-1 now.”
He didn’t need to reference some of the lopsided losses he witnessed as a player under Goff and Donnan. But when asked about the importance of the Florida series, he said, “You can’t win the (SEC) East without going through Jacksonville most of the time. This year, it may or may not play out that way. But in years past, we’ve shown the stat. I don’t know if it’s like eight of the last 10. When building a program, you have to beat the best teams in your division and Florida certainly has been that historically.”
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Not this Florida team. The Gators mirrored the unraveling of Georgia teams past. They drove to a touchdown on the opening possession, then watched Georgia score the next 36 points. A seven-minute stretch beginning late in the first quarter included the Bulldogs driving for a touchdown (and a 10-7 lead); a failed (foolish) Gators fourth-and-short from their 34; another Georgia TD on a short field (17-7); a Florida fumble that led to another TD (24-7); and a blocked Gators punt for a safety (26-7).
Not even an assistant from a Michigan surveillance team could have saved Florida coach Billy Napier. He has been on the wrong end in his first games against Georgia. He’ll be given some time to recruit and rebuild the program in Gainesville. But he has some catching up to do in the conference and this series. It’s all Georgia now. It may be all Georgia for a while.
(Top photo of Dillon Bell catching a touchdown pass in the third quarter: James Gilbert / Getty Images)