Georgia sends a message as it silences doubters, finds answers in must-win game vs. Florida
The Bulldogs' SEC Championship Game and College Football Playoff hopes are alive with the win over the Gators
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- These last three weeks have been some sort of hell for Georgia. Even removing Halloween from the equation, the Dawgs have had to be unwilling participants in what looked like some kind of simmering disaster.
Before coming here for the annual jolt of adrenaline against Florida, No. 8 Georgia had been upset at home by South Carolina, slopped its way through a monsoon at Kentucky and endured a bye week.
You might say the muscle car that had breezed through the SEC East the last two years was stuffed in a garage.
"We had to show people we're still here," safety J.R. Reed said.
Hard to believe a resurrected SEC power was falling in significance, but the Gators game was going to define these Dawgs. You see, in a metaphysical football sense, Georgia had to beat Florida at TIAA Bank Field. The Dawgs started the season in the top four and done everything under Smart but beat Alabama.
To do that, they had to get through the SEC East again. To do that, they had to beat the Gators for the third time in a row. A second loss would have screamed regression. A second loss would put No. 6 Florida in the fast track toward the SEC East title. A second loss, frankly, wasn't acceptable.
The deed isn't done yet, but the dream is still alive with a 24-17 win Saturday over the Gators. In the process, the Dawgs proved they weren't who we thought they were at this late date.
A flawed group of receivers lacking in depth and ability to separate? An SEC-winning quarterback off his game? A powerhouse still unable to explain a loss at home to South Carolina?
"Our motto the whole year is, 'Keep Chopping,'" breakout wide receiver Lawrence Cager said. "Unfortunately, we lost to South Carolina. We put it behind us. Kentucky, rain, mud. Keep Chopping."
Who is Cager? A Miami graduate transfer who inside the Georgia bubble was thought to be the team's best receiver. This after its most experienced wideout (Jeremiah Holloman) was kicked off the team in the offseason. True freshman George Pickens went into Saturday leading the team in receiving. This after Cager himself missed 1 ½ games leading up to Saturday with injuries.
"A lot of people say our receivers, we have no game-changers. We have no playmakers," Cager said. "I heard during the South Carolina broadcast, 'Nobody can get open.' To me that's like, 'C'mon man.'"
Jake Fromm, a sensation through his first two seasons, not only hasn't been great, but he's had to watch former teammate Justin Fields create this college football talking point: Did Georgia keep the wrong quarterback?
Ohio State's Fields still looks like a Heisman Trophy finalist. Fromm, finally, looks like himself again. For the first time in his career, he won while throwing 30 passes. (He had been 0-5 in that category.)
"Even if [the fans] didn't think that Jake could throw the ball," coach Kirby Smart cracked.
The 30th pass went to another transfer -- this one from Tennessee -- backup tight end Eli Wolf.
On third-and-7 from Georgia's 35, Wolf found himself open for a 22-yard catch that allowed his team to run out the clock. It was the Dawgs' 12th third-down conversion of the game in 18 tries. The Gators were just 2 of 9 on the down, 0 for 7 until late in the fourth quarter.
"Big time ball," Fromm said, "really kind of a gutsy call. Do you throw the ball, go for the win … or do you play it safe and burn 40 seconds on the clock? We chose to go for the win."
Before that, a 52-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Cager broke open the game in the fourth quarter. Cager also grabbed a two-point conversion to boost UGA's lead to 14.
Viva, transfer portal?
Cager was here for this moment because he had been recruited previously by Smart and played for current Georgia offensive coordinator James Coley at Miami.
"This is obviously the best decision I could make in my life," said Cager, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound specimen. "Two coaches that I trust with my life to play for in my last year."
Inside that Georgia bubble, Cager kept chopping himself. While injured (ribs, shoulder) for the second half of South Carolina and all of Kentucky, he was a fly on the wall as the Dawgs endured doubt.
"It wasn't that bad," he said. "You could see guys work. For me, that's better than watching film. Coach gave me the blessing to travel that week [to Kentucky]. Not a lot of injured players travel."
It still may not be the Georgia we remember in 2017-18, but it is the Georgia we've got 10 weeks into the season.
Cager broke out with a career game grabbing seven balls for 132 yards (both career-highs). He had caught 19 passes all season coming into the game. Fromm operated the offense like a Swiss time piece -- efficiently. That after coming out of Kentucky with a career-low 35 passing yards.
Of those 12 third-down conversions, the Dawgs converted 8 of 11 in the first half alone.
"That's very, very hard to do," Cager said.
UGA went into the game second-worst in the SEC in third-down conversions.
In a game that featured no turnovers, Fromm wasn't sacked once while the offense held onto the ball for almost 36 minutes. That explains why the five scoring drives averaged almost 10 plays (9.8).
The SEC's best defense held Florida to 21 rushing yards.
And no matter how you want to scrutinize it, Georgia is in line to win the SEC East for the third straight year. For now, that should be enough. Georgia's destiny reflected in that preseason poll is still possible.
"So many people doubted, and [the players] never did," Smart said.
No, it has not been drop-dead gorgeous. That South Carolina loss is still pinned to this program like trash that's been left out in the sun too long.
There will be the obvious projections now whether Georgia can beat next Saturday's Alabama-LSU winner. But for now, it doesn't matter.
After Saturday, Georgia is in a position to at least talk about its goals being alive. Either the Dawgs are going to win the rest of them or they're not.
The College Football Playoff Selection Committee is not going to keep a 12-1 Georgia as SEC champion out of the playoff, the South Carolina loss be damned.
"Oh man," 330-pound Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis said, "I hope not."
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