Florida flipped the Cocktail Party script, but Gators haven't shifted balance in East. Yet
As Florida’s jubilant players took a victory lap and Dan Mullen leapt into the TIAA Bank Field stands to celebrate No. 8 Florida’s win over No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night, it was easy to see just how much this win meant to the Gators.
It was a massive win for Dan Mullen’s program in a game the third-year head coach simply had to have. Georgia had won 3 consecutive games on the banks of the St. John’s and just closed the Dawgs’ first winning decade in the rivalry since the 1980s. Kirby Smart entered Saturday’s contest 3-0 vs. Dan Mullen as a head coach, and while one of those wins came when Mullen was still head coach at Miss State, all of those wins came in matchups between ranked teams.
Georgia arrived in Jacksonville with questions at quarterback and critical injuries to its best player on defense and best playmaker on offense. The circumstances and trendlines all seemed to favor Florida, which led many in the media and Gator fan base to ask — if Mullen couldn’t best Georgia on Saturday, then when?
When the Gators fell behind 14-0 within 3:30 minutes, there was a sense that mabye this moment was again too big for Florida. It wasn’t.
Behind the unflappable senior Kyle Trask’s 474 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, the Gators ripped of 41 of the next 48 points, storming to a 20-point lead and holding on late for their first win over their rival since 2016, Smart’s first season in Athens.
“We have such an explosive offense, such a great team, top-down,” Trask said after the win. “We just had a lot of confidence, a lot of energy. We went down 14-nothing early and this team had no panic.”
There wasn’t any panic, and as such, there was no Cocktail Party heartbreak this time for the Gators.
In the aftermath, it was tempting to ask if the win shifted the balance of power in the SEC East from Smart’s program in Georgia to Mullen’s in Gainesville. It’s a question that often gets asked when a longtime underdog finally vanquishes a rival, and it’s one that was fair given the way Florida dominated Georgia.
It’s also a bit premature.
If you are a Gators fan, don’t read this like I’m pouring oil on your cheerios or writing through a headache-induced blur of Boone’s Farm. Beating Georiga represented an important and immense obstacle for Florida, and Mullen, the Gators and the fan base should all celebrate the accomplishment. In this difficult year, Florida fans should savor a win over their archrival even more than usual.
But it’s too early to say the balance has shifted in the SEC East.
There are a number of reasons to tap the brakes on the “shift of power” narrative, but let’s start with the obvious one. If Florida doesn’t use this victory as a springboard to win the SEC East, Georgia gets the last laugh.
Mullen knows it. He knows this win in Jacksonville will make fans happy but means little if the Gators can’t close strong and reach Atlanta for the SEC Championship this December.
“It was a big win for us,” Mullen said after the game. “Anytime you have a top-10 matchup, those are big games, so I don’t know the hump. Hopefully, if we can find a way to continue to improve, we might get more top-10 matchups as the year goes on, and we’ll see how that goes. But this puts us in a decent position. We have Arkansas in seven days.”
That’s an Arkansas team that, if you haven’t noticed, has the two things you need to upset Florida: a really good secondary and a very good quarterback. Florida fans might be familiar with Feleipe Franks. He won’t miss the throws Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis did Saturday. Lose that game at home, and the Gator goodwill generated Saturday evaporates fast.
But the turning point and power shift conversation isn’t just about what happens this season.
There are still some realities to face for the Gators.
Georgia is the most talented program in the country, per the 247 Composite, a testament to Smart’s reputation as arguably the best recruiter in the sport. Mullen has clawed and fought like crazy to close the gap. When he arrived at Florida, the Gators had the 17th most talented team in the country, talent the staff used so well they went 4-7. Thanks to Mullen’s improved recruiting operation and his willingness and success in using the transfer portal, Florida is now the 7th most talented program in the country. The gap between Florida and Georgia has tightened, and you saw it Saturday, when Florida received multiple winning contributions from depth pieces like tight end Kemore Gamble and freshman running back Nay’Quan Wright.
So yes, math says the Gators have closed the gap, but Florida still loses more 1-on-1 recruiting battles with Smart and Georgia than it wins and as long as that happens, the game in Jacksonville will mostly be a toss-up where Florida has to hope to hace a consistent schematic edge. That can happen, but the better outcome would be for Florida to use this type of win, one where they played modern, fun offense and Georgia looked stuck in a 1980s Vince Dooley twilight zone, to sell their program as the more attractive landing spot. That’s especially important in the Sunshine state, where Smart has outfoxed and outflanked the Florida staff for too many outstanding players since arriving at his alma mater.
Can Florida bridge that recruiting gap? Do results on the field really impact recruiting? All fair questions. Most analysts think long-term program trends impact recruiting more than one game. If that’s true, Florida can sell the changing nature of the sport. It’s an offense-first game now, and Georgia, despite the elite defenses, hasn’t figured it out on that side of the football. What’s more, the Dawgs vaunted defense has now come up woefully short against elite offenses and quarterbacks, from Tua to Jalen Hurts to Joe Burrow to Mac Jones and now, Kyle Trask. If Mullen’s program is more in step with the modern game, maybe that generates a recruiting edge. Time will tell.
For now, it’s too soon to know if the balance has shifted. As Mullen said after the win Saturday: “Last year’s game didn’t affect this year’s game and I don’t know if this year’s game will affect next year’s game.”
What’s clear, after 3 years of top-10 duels on the banks of the St. John’s River, is that we finally have a Floria win in the Cocktail Party again, and with it, the promise of more heavyweight duels to come between Smart and Mullen. That’s fun for everyone, but it’s especially fun for the team taking the victory lap on Saturday night. The Gators hope there are plenty more of those to come in Jacksonville in the future.