As the last of the Florida fans filed out of TIAA Bank Field on Saturday evening in Jacksonville, it was hard not to sense that the last of the Gators diehards insisting that Florida football could be turned around quickly were leaving, too.

Georgia won the 100th Cocktail Party, 42-20, but the final score doesn’t tell the whole story.

It was 14-0 Georgia before Florida got a 1st down.

After each team had 4 possessions, Florida had 9 yards. On 12 plays.

Georgia led 21-0 early in the 2nd quarter. And when the Gators kicked a field goal after finally hitting an explosive play on its 7th possession, fans on social media flooded timelines with tweets celebrating or commiserating with one another (it was hard to tell which) over the fact that Florida’s 40-plus-year streak of not being shut out would not end. The fact that Florida was legitimately concerned about the shutout streak for most of 2 quarters is instructive of just how far this once-mighty program has fallen.

Florida trailed 28-3 at halftime, meaning that as UF and defending national champion Georgia went into the locker room for the break, the Bulldogs had outscored the Gators 62-10 in the last 6 quarters of football played between the rivals. Talk talent composites and recruiting battles all you want — and this column will — but sometimes, the scoreboard explains the disparity between a dominant program and a dormant one the best. And that was the case by halftime.

For all the gripes about Florida’s 4-3 start, there were holdouts, fans and commentators resistant to the idea that the team couldn’t be rebuilt quickly. After all, all 3 Gators losses were competitive games, and Florida had a chance to win at Tennessee on the final possession. The Gators also beat Utah, which is in pole position to play Oregon in December for a chance to return to the Rose Bowl as the Pac 12 champion. But there was no way to “dress up” what happened at TIAA Bank Field.

The Gators were whipped in every facet, and it didn’t happen because they were outschemed, outhustled or outcoached.

To suggest that was the case is cynical at best and disingenuous at worst. This wasn’t about failing to rise to the moment. Florida won the turnover battle 3-0. The Gators played with character and heart, rallying from the 28-3 deficit by rattling off 17 straight points in the 3rd quarter to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 8 and send shivers down the spines of Georgia fans still grappling with 28-3 sports trauma.

This wasn’t about scheme, either. Florida had receivers wide open all afternoon, but its young, talented quarterback missed them frequently and made the “I should have hit that throw” wince an art form by the 4th quarter. On defense, the Gators had blanket coverage on multiple huge plays, only to see Georgia make absurd, highlight-reel catches. What happened Saturday wasn’t about heart or “want-to” or having the wrong head coach or scheme. It was about football players.

Georgia has loads of them. Kirby Smart and his staff relentlessly evaluate and recruit. They also develop — as anyone who has seen a Ladd McConkey or Jamon Dumas-Johnson play football figures out quickly. They have a process in place that has been there for more than half a decade, and they trust it, with good reason.

Georgia’s ability to properly evaluate talent and lure it to Athens is part and parcel of why Smart has built a monster that, to the chagrin of the orange and blue-clad Swamp creatures to their south, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Billy Napier — showing the type of class that honored Vince Dooley, who died Friday and personified the word “class” — chalked up the loss to execution, refusing to blame a “talent gap.”

“It doesn’t matter if there was a talent gap or not,” Napier told the media after the game, with his usual deliberative, think-before-I-speak and mean-what-I-say style, another Dooley staple. “It matters who played the best today. Who executed the best today. We didn’t execute the best today.”

That’s all well and good, but the truth is this: the Gators have a long way to go. Napier knows that, too, and admitted as much Saturday.

“There are no shortcuts, OK?” the young head coach said. “What our players and staff got today was a good perspective of what is required to be the type of championship program we know we can be. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

The whole thing, as I wrote earlier this week, was reminiscent of Smart’s first Cocktail Party as a head coach, when his team played excellent football (by its standards) and lost to a Florida team with the nation’s top-ranked defense by 2 touchdowns. Pressed by a tough Georgia media and restless fan base that wondered aloud why Smart was struggling in Year 1 with the bulk of a roster that won 10 games the season before under Mark Richt, the young Georgia head coach replied with a dose of Dooley brutal honesty.

“Most of today had to do with who we were playing,” Smart said. “We didn’t play well on offense today, but that was about Florida more than us. When we talk about who we want to be at the University of Georgia, we want to be the best defense in the country. That’s the standard we want to play at as a program. Today, we saw what that looks like.” Smart then paused, and added, “There is no elevator to the top of the mountain. You just climb.”

Napier has preached, to anyone who would listen, patience in the building process. He hasn’t gummed up expectations, and even after Florida’s upset of then-No. 7 Utah raised 2022 season expectations immediately, Napier remained committed to process and foundation-building. The Gators were years late to the facilities arms race, 1 of 2 large mistakes (Jim McElwain) that legendary athletic director Jeremy Foley made in his career. Florida’s last staff featured 1 of the football’s best offensive minds in Dan Mullen. But Mullen disliked recruiting so much that he refused to even discuss it during the football season. You don’t need to have watched to know how that ended in the cutthroat SEC.

The net result of these miscues is that Florida — constantly playing facilities and recruiting catchup, and coming off its worst decade from a winning percentage standpoint since the SEC integrated completely in 1972 — is just now competing on a level playing field. The Gators are also trying to rebuild at the dawn of a new era in the sport, where NIL money can result in stunning recruiting results — like what happened this week when 5-star talent and national No. 2 recruit Cormani McClain, forever considered a Florida lock, committed to Mario Cristobal and Miami. It’s a whole new world out there, and the Gators — blessed with a tremendously organized collective (The Gator Collective), boosters who care deeply about winning and an athletic director who is outstanding at getting his coaches what they need to succeed — are finally in a position to succeed. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a powerhouse program be in Gainesville.

Many Florida fans don’t want to admit this.

They point to Tennessee, undefeated in Year 2 under Josh Heupel, as evidence it simply doesn’t take that long to rebuild. These arguments miss the mark. For one, Tennessee’s facilities were light years ahead of Florida’s until the Gators’ new facility opened this summer. For two, we haven’t seen the Vols in Year 3 under Heupel, when the offensive line needs to be rebuilt and the Heisman frontrunner runs out of eligibility. Most Vols fans know this, even if they insist Joe Milton can pick up the job and Heupel’s scheme can remedy any personnel flaws. It will be harder for Tennessee next year.

Other Gators fans hope for a Hendon Hooker-like jump from Anthony Richardson, and there were moments Saturday where you could see why that’s possible. Richardson is a prodigious talent, the kind Florida hasn’t seen since Cam Newton and Tim Tebow shared a quarterback room. He’s also a work in progress who will have a rebuilt offensive line himself in 2023. And even if the Gators take a huge jump next season under Napier, which they should, the roster-building piece of program building will be 2 or 3 recruiting classes from where Georgia is and will remain.

Take the position where the game was most obviously won on Saturday: tight end.

Two seasons ago, the Gators had Kyle Pitts, a generational talent at the position who became the tight end taken with a top-5 pick in the NFL Draft. Saturday, Florida had a tight end catch 1 pass on 2 targets. Georgia? It targeted 2 tight ends ranked in the PFF Top 20 14 times, with 8 of those throws resulting in completions, 6 resulting in 1st downs, 1 resulting in a touchdown, 1 resulting in a back-breaking 4th-down conversion and 2 others dropped that would have been huge plays. Is some of that on Florida for not covering the tight end? Perhaps, but then again, Florida had great coverage on 2 of All-SEC tight end Brock Bowers’ best catches. The Gators haven’t covered the tight end well in 4 seasons, and if they want to do that in 2023 or 2024, they have to recruit personnel capable of doing it consistently. That’s a task that, as Napier put it Saturday evening, doesn’t allow for shortcuts.

Florida football can be great again, and Napier, a meticulous, smart, relentlessly energetic CEO, is capable of that build, if Florida fans give him the time to do it.

It’s just that it won’t be an easy. And that has never been more obvious than after Georgia’s 42-20 Cocktail Party win on Saturday.