JACKSONVILLE — You knew eventually it had to happen.
You knew sooner or later the Florida Gators couldn't keep winning the way they were winning — with defense, special teams, punting and kicking, smoke and mirrors.
Well, Florida's tiny margin of error finally gave way to a monumental monsoon of mistakes in a deflating and devastating 17-9 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. The undefeated and No. 2-ranked Gators turned into the slipshod and mistake-prone team many experts predicted they would be before the season. And just like that, Florida's national championship and Southeastern Conference title hopes came crashing down on a gray day of dismay at the World's Largest Outdoor Turnover Festival.
For Florida coach Will Muschamp, any loss at this stage of the season is a demoralizing one considering what's at stake, but this one hurts much more than most. Muschamp grew up a Florida fan in Gainesville but was the captain of the football team at Georgia. He knows what this game means and what this rivalry represents. But in six tries as a player and a coach, he's never ever won the Florida-Georgia game.
Now those blasted Bulldogs have beaten the Gators in back-to-back games for the first time since 1989 and can clinch the SEC East and a spot in the conference title game with wins against lowly Ole Miss and Auburn the next two weeks. The Gators must regroup and hope Georgia somehow stumbles against a couple of conference cupcakes.
Even more irksome to Muschamp is that this loss represents everything he despises. He is a coach who stresses discipline, ball security and precision. And the Gators displayed none of that on Saturday. They turned the ball over six times, committed 10 penalties and yielded five sacks.
"Six turnovers — wow!" an exasperated Muschamp said. "That's tough to overcome. I've said all season we're not a team that has a large margin of error. We just aren't explosive enough to overcome that many turnovers."
Not even close. When you have six turnovers and no touchdowns, you're not going to win. When you have more penalties than points, you're not going to win. Even against a Georgia team that was nearly as sloppy as the Gators.
This was Florida-Georgia — one of the proudest rivalries in college football — but it was played with all of the skill and precision of Florida Atlantic-Georgia State. For the most part, the winner of Florida-Georgia earned the right to get crushed by Alabama in the SEC title game. And please spare me the rhetoric about how this was just hard-nosed "SEC" football. No, this was just hard-to-watch BAD football with the two teams combining for nine turnovers, 24 penalties and just two touchdowns.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray tossed three interceptions in the game to keep the Gators close. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel committed four turnovers — two fumbles and two picks — to keep the Bulldogs close.
"I made some critical mistakes," Driskel admitted. "You can't force things. When you have a defense like ours, you have to protect the ball."
The day started with Driskel fumbling on the first play from scrimmage and it ended with tight end Jordan Reed fumbling into the end zone, ending a potential game-tying touchdown drive for the Gators. How does this happen? How does a team go from one of the national leaders in turnover margin to a national violator of securing the ball?
Honestly, we should have seen this coming. Florida simply couldn't continue to win like it was winning — for instance, last week against South Carolina when the Gators scored 21 points in the first half and had just 29 yards of offense.
Eventually, the Gators are going to have to learn to throw the ball down the field. They came into Saturday's game last in the SEC in passing offense, having thrown for less than 100 yards in each of the previous three games. Driskel did throw for 185 yards against Georgia but completed just 14-of-26 passes with the two interceptions.
"This is a huge loss," Driskel said. "We knew what was at stake. We knew if we handled our business, our goals were in front of us."
This one loss may have ruined virtually all of their goals.
It may have cost them not only a chance at a national championship but an opportunity for an SEC title, too.
A win against Georgia, and the Gators would have been headed to Atlanta.
Now they are headed back to Gainesville wondering if they've just fumbled away the season.
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