JACKSONVILLE -- Even if Hurricane Sandy had dumped a foot of rain on EverBank Field and turned it into a muddy quagmire as it churned past out in the open Atlantic, it’s hard to imagine it would have made matters any sloppier for the Florida Gators.
Sandy wasn’t a factor, bringing a mass of swirling gray clouds and little else.
Nope, it was the third-ranked Gators who made their own mess with six turnovers in a 17-9 defeat to No. 12 Georgia that put a major crimp in any SEC and national title prospects.
Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel turned the ball over four times, and UF receiver Jordan Reed coughed up the ball in the end zone late in the game as the Bulldogs handed Florida (7-1) its first loss of the season.
“Six turnovers. Wow,” said UF coach Will Muschamp of the mistakes. “You can’t do that. We haven’t done it all year.”
No they hadn’t. The Gators had turned the ball over exactly four times total on offense in their seven games leading into Saturday’s rivalry with Georgia — one of the big reasons they had climbed to No. 2 in the BCS poll.
But ball security was their undoing in a stinker that removed their grasp on a possible conference championship. Had the Gators won Saturday, they would have clinched a berth in the SEC title game in Atlanta.
For that to happen now, UF needs to defeat Missouri and hope that Georgia stumbles against either Ole Miss or Auburn.
“We’ve got to regroup,” Muschamp said.
The Gators were outmuscled by Georgia on the offensive line, committed a handful of costly penalties and kept giving the ball to the Bulldogs at all the wrong times.
“A lot of self-inflicted situations today,” Muschamp said.
Trailing 7-6, the Gators had a chance to take the halftime lead when they marched from their 40 to the Georgia 5. But Driskel was intercepted in the end zone on the last play of the half.
“We’ve got to get points in that situation,” Muschamp said.
Said Driskel in describing the play: “It was a scramble move, and I saw Trey Burton late. It made me throw across the body, and you can’t make that mistake. It was a dumb move, and I’m going to learn from it.”
An even bigger turnover came late in the fourth quarter.
With Georgia leading 17-9 with two minutes remaining and time growing desperate for UF, Driskel threw up the middle to Reed for a completion inside the Bulldogs 5. But as Reed leaped in the air in an attempt to reach the goal line, the ball was popped out from behind by Jarvis Jones and recovered in the end zone by Georgia’s Sanders Cummings.
Instead of a touchdown that would have pulled UF to within a two-point conversion of tying the score, the Gators watched helplessly as Georgia ran out the clock.
Florida’s only points Saturday came on three Caleb Sturgis field goals.
Not only was the sophomore Driskel a detriment at quarterback, but the Gators didn’t do a whole lot on the ground, either. It marked the second straight week that Gators offense struggled to mount any sustained marches. In their past two contests — a win over South Carolina and Saturday’s loss to Georgia — they scored only one touchdown in which the drive started on their own side of the field.
The Bulldogs didn’t exactly look like a well-oiled machine on offense. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray threw three interceptions — one more than his UF counterpart.
But Georgia at least managed to put the ball in the end zone, with their first touchdown coming on Todd Gurley’s 10-yard run in the first quarter and their second coming in the fourth when Murray hit Malcolm Mitchell on a 45-yard pass play.
Florida put the ball in the end zone exactly three times. But two of those ended up in the arms of Georgia defenders and the third was an interference call in the first half.
“I made some critical mistakes,” Driskel said. “When you make that many errors, putting the ball on the ground and throwing interceptions, it’s hard to win games.”