JACKSONVILLE — In retrospect, their greatest commodity seemed to be hope.
The head coach exuded hope. The backup quarterback provided hope. The Southeastern Conference standings and the national polls suggested the future held more hope than the Florida Gators had known in quite a few years.
Then Saturday happened. And all that hope looked like so much delusion.
It’s true, the Gators are in a much better place than they were at this moment two years ago. But Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Georgia suggests they are not yet ready to rejoin the nation’s elite programs, no matter how much potential or promise the past few months have provided.
“It hurts, it’s a big game," said senior center Nick Buchanan. “We have to feel that pain tonight, and tomorrow morning."
This is what happens when a team’s ambitions exceed its reach. Eventually, it runs headfirst into a reality it didn’t see coming.
For the Gators, that means accepting they are no longer on top of the SEC East. And it means their chances of playing in the conference championship game are slim. And it means — if you want to remember the last time Florida won an SEC title — you must close your eyes and recall the days of Tim Tebow.
That’s not the way head coach Dan Mullen sees it. He believes the Gators were a handful of mistakes away from winning Saturday’s game. He believes a call that was not reversed by video replay officials was a turning point in the second quarter. When asked how close Florida was to replacing Georgia as the division’s top team, Mullen suggested looking at the scoreboard.
“Seven points," he said. “We’re seven points behind Georgia."
It felt like more. For most of the game, it looked like more. The Bulldogs did not blow Florida out of the stadium, but they also never seemed to be in much danger of losing. They converted third downs whenever they needed. They scored when the time was right. And they held Florida at bay for most of the day.
“I think this is an elite football team," Florida quarterback Kyle Trask said. “I think it’s just a lack of execution. It wasn’t anything talent-wise. We are an elite team. (If) we just execute at a higher level early in games and finish drives, I think we can play with anybody in the country."
For spurts, yes. For 60 minutes, no.
We saw it last month in the LSU game. The Gators played well enough against the No. 1 team in the country to fool you into thinking they were on the verge of something big. But, in the end, the results were the same. This is a good team that still lacks the talent necessary to be great.
You do not fail on third down as thoroughly and spectacularly as Florida did on Saturday if you have an abundance of playmakers on the field. Georgia converted 12-of-18 third downs against the Florida defense. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the Gator offense converted only one third down that wasn’t due to a penalty.
From Mullen’s point of view, the third-down numbers were unfortunate but do not define his team. He said that final evaluation will be made when the season is completed.
“That’s our test of character. That’s what’s ahead of us as a team," Mullen said. “It’s a great check of where our character’s going to be over these next three games and what type of team, how we’re going to finish this up."
The Gators did have one advantage. One potential shortcut to the end zone. And instead, for much of the first half, they chose the long road.
Florida stubbornly tried to run in the first half when there was no evidence that was going to work. It wasn’t until the Gators switched to a hurry-up offense that the game got momentarily interesting, but it was too little and too late.
There is still a chance Georgia stumbles and Florida gets back in the division race. And there’s still a chance that Florida finishes strong and ends up in a quality bowl game.
“Our future," receiver Freddie Swain said, “isn’t decided."
No, but it seems farther off than it did a week ago.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes