There was around 10:18 left in the fourth quarter. Georgia was three yards out from the goal line, trailing 20-3 and ready to make things interesting.
As Faton Bauta threw for the endzone, Keanu Neal eased up and snatched the ball out of the air for the interception and a touchback.
While Neal celebrated with his teammates, Georgia fans grabbed their coats. A Florida Gators fan that was entrenched on the Bulldogs side later told me many could be heard mumbling, “Two years in a row, let’s just go.”
Fans on the Gators side weren’t mumbling it though. They were shaking keys a la the student sections at high schools and yelling it, “Just go on home Dawgs!”
One row up from where I was sitting a fan turned to his friend and said, “Dude we have to find tickets for Atlanta now.”
It was a sentiment that had been tossed around for much of the week.
Win this game and Florida Gators football fans could all but book their hotels on Peachtree. But there still remained the possible loss; the next chapter in what has been a wacky weird woozy college football season.
Then Mark Richt named a quarterback that I’m still convinced was just his bag boy at Publix last week and made the comment as he packed the milk that he’d like to dress up as a quarterback for Halloween.
And Richt started him for the game that would essentially decide the SEC East—thus setting up the Gator defense—a defense that has been licking its chops to redeem the loss to LSU—a chance to feast on Faton.
There was almost a weird energy around the game all day.
As the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Florida-Georgia game and corresponding tailgating carries with it a party atmosphere. And sure the music and the tailgate games and the cheers were still there as fans milled about around Everbank Field on Saturday morning. But there was also a sense of anticipation; maybe even trepidation. The smiles were taut with nervousness. As two fans passed by I heard one say, “I’m nervous” to which the other replied, “Don’t be nervous. Don’t be nervous. We’re going to win.” It sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than anyone.
After all, it’s almost easier to enjoy the party when you’re not worried all night about the ride home. Come into Jacksonville feeling assured of the outcome and it becomes the Ole Miss attitude of “we may lose the game but we’ll never lose the party.” And while Florida Gators fans may have wanted to seem confident in the outcome, the truth of the matter was, this game could go either way (as 2014 showed) and the Gators are in fact way ahead of schedule in the rebuilding phase.
But week after week, it seems “the real test” arises and week after week, this team has passed it. Such was the case yet again on Saturday.
It seemed like the ghost of Halloween past was going to sneak up on the Gators when the opening kickoff was fumbled by Brandon Powell before being promptly recovered by Florida’s Duke Dawson; and even though the Gators came away with the ball, fans sunk back down into their seats with the “Welp, here we go again” look back on their faces after a long vacation.
Going 2/5 on the opening drive and the ensuing four drives by both the Florida Gators and the Georgia Bulldogs had fans checking in on Facebook with the surprisingly fast and dependable stadium wifi (kudos to the city of Jacksonville).
But as soon as Nick Washington dove on a ball in the endzone, the result of a muffed punt by the Bulldogs, to put the Florida Gators up 6-0, fans were out of their seats.
By the time Treon Harris rolled out to find Antonio Callaway for a 66-yard touchdown pass, the oppressive fall heat had been forgotten and the random disgruntled Georgia fan who had been in the Florida section went for nachos and never came back.
Five turnovers (including four interceptions) made sure Baton’s confidence stayed low all day, while Treon Harris’ rose with each play. Fans that have remained skeptical of Treon’s play were encouraging by the end. When the scoreboard hit zero and the Gators had officially won 27-3, a guy in front of me said, “Well it may not have been pretty and Treon may roll out of the pocket every dang play but this team sure does know how to win.”
And that’s the crux of it. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has turned into a party again for Florida Gators fans. They could be heard chanting the whole way out “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” and bragging that, yet again, they’d emptied the Georgia side of the stadium.
For a game that’s been played over 100 years (we won’t get into the argument right now of how long it’s actually been going on), these last two years have to be remembered for the way Florida has run out the Georgia fans; especially considering 2014 was a game that Georgia was supposed to dominate and 2015 Florida was supposed to at least get a fight from the Bulldogs. Instead for back-to-back games now, the seats in Everbank have been laughably lopsided by the time the 4th quarter comes around.
— Kassidy Hill (@KassidyGHill) October 31, 2015
When the Jacksonville Jaguars play in their home stadium there at Everbank, they have a fan initiative to get loud on defense by saying “Lock Down the Bank.” There’s this graphic that runs on those massive video boards seen from space that show a vault locking and it indicates the stadium itself is a bank. Well after the last two years, the Florida Gators could lay their own claim to the bank and push to empty it year after year. It’s a sight that should give Georgia fans shame, which is probably why Gator fans relish in it so much.
But that’s another year away and there’s plenty more football to be played between now and then—starting with a Homecoming matchup against the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-5, 1-3 SEC).
This is the game Florida needs to win to truly book their tickets to Atlanta. If Vandy takes the contest and wins out then they’ll be the one’s representing the SEC East in the Championship game…although let’s be honest. If that happens this year then the halftime show will probably be Jesus coming back.
Instead it’s up the Gators to control their own destiny. Beat Vandy, and that road to Atlanta becomes a straight shot. This team has believed they could do it from the beginning. And what I saw on Saturday were fans finally truly believing it as well.
The smiles coming out of the stadium were a lot more relaxed than the ones going in, because as the fan up in Section 404, Row Q said, it may not be pretty, but they sure know how to win. And winning is more fun than any party.
*As a special treat following this Halloween Cocktail Party, watch below to see exclusive footage of the escort the Gators got into Everbank. Special thanks to GatorCountry.com members and policemen for this footage.