JACKSONVILLE — Basking in the glory of Florida’s 44-28 triumph over No. 5 Georgia on Saturday, Gators coach Dan Mullen saw one more hurdle to conquer.
He had seen some of his players scale a black wall to savor the victory with their fans. He decided to go, too. So up he climbed until he reached the guardrail, where he pumped his fist and roared.
After two and a half years, Mullen and his No. 8 Gators (4-1) had done it. They were finally on top.
On top of this rivalry. On top of the SEC East. And, if they play the way they did at TIAA Bank Field, on their way to climbing atop a lot more, too.
“You have to enjoy it,” Mullen said. “I may be 48 years old, but I am still really young on the inside, so I’ve got to enjoy some of that stuff.”
There was plenty to enjoy, starting with the end of UF’s three-game losing streak in this historic series.
As much as the Gators tried to treat this game like any other, even the normally steady-headed, one-game-at-a-time Kyle Trask had to acknowledge its stakes.
“It just means the world to this team to finally get over that hump and get a win against this very good, and well-coached Georgia team,” Trask said.
Especially with what it means for the big picture. Although nothing is guaranteed in this crazy year, UF enters the second half of its season as the undisputed favorite in the East and a good bet to meet mighty Alabama in Atlanta for the Dec. 19 SEC title game.
“It’s put us in a good and decent position,” Mullen said in an uncharacteristic understatement.
It also put Trask in a good and decent position for the Heisman Trophy after his record-setting day.
At halftime, he was already the first quarterback in SEC history to throw at least four touchdown passes in five consecutive games. Through three quarters, he had thrown for more yards than any UF quarterback ever had against Georgia (4-2). And by the time he lined up in victory formation, he had broken the program record for most passing yards in a regular-season game (474).
“I thought he did a really good job of managing the game, making the throws he needed to make,” Mullen said.
Although Trask was the clear headliner, the rest of his team deserved to celebrate UF’s most complete performance so far.
The Gators hit a pair of 50-yard field goals on special teams. After giving up two scores in the first four minutes, the defense buckled down; Georgia racked up 136 yards on its first two drives but only 119 over the next 10.
UF’s offense scored more through two quarters (38) than it did in Mullen’s first two Cocktail Parties combined (34). Their 572 total yards were the most Kirby Smart has ever allowed as a head coach and qualified as a dominant performance against a team that entered with the top defense in the country, according to the SP+ advanced metrics.
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Consider it a massive vindication for Mullen, who has become a lightning rod of controversy and was overdue for a statement victory.
His first two seasons had been an unquestioned success, with a pair of top-10 finishes and New Year’s Six bowl wins. But two related things had been holding him back — his struggles against Georgia and his record in big games.
He entered the weekend in danger of joining Will Muschamp and Charley Pell as the only UF coaches since 1950 to lose their first three games to the Bulldogs. And while Mullen has won almost all of the games he should have, he was 2-11 in his career against top-five teams (including his time at Mississippi State).
That changed Saturday with four impressive quarters against a top-tier rival.
It was a performance and celebration that, finally, put him and his Gators back on top.
• Kyle Pitts might be the best college tight end I’ve seen. His jump-ball touchdown catch in the second quarter was his eighth of the season, the most ever by a UF tight end. The fact that he caught it over a future NFL defensive back (Tyson Campbell) while getting interfered with was remarkable.
• Kirby Smart has recruited at an elite level at Georgia … which makes his struggles at quarterback so surprising. Some of it is unfortunate luck or bad roster management (Jamie Newman opting out, JT Daniels being limited from an injury, Justin Fields transferring), but it’s the only glaring hole holding his program back.
• As odd as it was to approach the stadium without seeing a drunken sea of humanity, there was a little normalcy — a fight broke out in the upper deck before the game. Even during a pandemic, it’s still the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.