GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bad timing.
The worst possible timing.
The Florida Gators not only picked the most inopportune time to revert to their offensively challenged, mistake-prone ways of last year, but in doing so went back even further in time.
This was Vince Dooley-like devastation, circa some of the toughest defeats of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
With the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title there for the taking, the third-ranked Gators instead played giveaway. The rival and 12th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs forced six turnovers Saturday -- against a UF team that had just four in the previous seven games -- and took a 17-9 victory back to the Peach State, along with control of the division race.
"I've said it all season," UF coach Will Muschamp lamented afterward. "We're not a team that has a lot of margin for error."
Three fumbles and three interceptions will eviscerate even canyon-like margins for error.
In losing for the first time all season, the Gators (7-1, 6-1) were not only loose with the ball, they coughed it up at the worst possible times, including on their final offensive plays of both halves.
"We hadn't had a lot of turnovers this year," cornerback Jaylen Watkins. "It's kind of a shock to everybody."
Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had two turnovers all season, fumbled twice in the first quarter, including on the game's third play to set up a short-field touchdown for the Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) and early momentum. When he threw a third-quarter interception, Driskel equaled UF's turnover total for 2012 by himself.
But it was his interception in the final seconds of the first half, with the Gators down just 7-6 and in easy field goal range for the best kicker in the country, that was a killer. On second-and-goal from the 5, Driskel was flushed from the pocket, raced to his right and instead of sailing the ball out of bounds he fired across his body into kennel of Bulldogs where safety Barcarri Rambo picked it off in the end zone with 10 seconds to go.
"Football is about taking care of the ball," Driskel said. "It was a dumb mistake and you have to learn from it."
The turnover on UF's final possession of the game was equally crushing; maybe even fitting, given the Gators' generosity on the day.
Down by eight points, Florida needed a touchdown and two-point conversion to perhaps force overtime. The Gators had just 192 yards of offense when they took possession with 7:11 to go, yet Driskel marched them inside the Georgia 20.
On second-and-6, he hit tight end Jordan Reed over the middle. Reed alluded the first tackle and stormed toward the end zone, vaulting a tackler to try and score. That's when Georgia linebacker/holy terror Jarvis Jones (13 tackles, 3 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) chased Reed down and punched the ball from his grasp, into the end zone, where the Bulldogs recovered with 2:05 remaining.
"Great effort. Outstanding play, turning upfield and trying to make a play for the Gators," Muschamp said. "But in that situation, just got to have better ball security. Again, don't fault the effort."
There's a cruel sense of irony in all this.
The Gators spoke a lot last week about taking advantage of "violators," the phrase they use for opponents who carry the football carelessly. They punched South Carolina runners for four turnovers last week -- while being perfect with their possessions -- and climbed on the bus to Jacksonville boasting a plus-11 turnover margin (15 takeaways vs. 4 giveaways) through seven games compared to the minus-12 ratio of a year ago that ranked last in the SEC and 108th in the nation.
When they look at the tape this week, the Gators will feel collectively violated.
They held Georgia to just 273 yards, forced three Aaron Murray interceptions and despite the carelessness with the ball the Gators were right there with a chance at the end.
Until the the ball was on the ground, then they weren't.
"Six turnovers. Wow! That's tough to overcome," said Muschamp, who has rode the theme of ball-security since last season became the offseason, into the preseason and regular season. "No question, I've said it the entire year, preached it constantly. ... We have go back and regroup."
Now, for the view through the orange-and-blue goggles.
Florida fans may not want to hear this now -- not after starting 7-0 and rocketing to No. 2 in the BCS rankings -- but raise your hand if you would have signed a contract last summer knowing the Gators would be 7-1 heading into November.
Muschamp and his staff won't let this loss linger. They will have the team ready for next weekend's SEC finale against Missouri, which is all the Gators can control. Win that game, finish 7-1 in the SEC and see what the Bulldogs do in their final two games (albeit against middling Ole Miss and woeful Auburn).
This team can still win 10 games (at least), still has a big one in Tallahassee at the end of November, and has a chance to play in a really good bowl game a year after posting a 7-6 record that marked the program's most losses in 24 years.
"We have a great team," senior nose guard Omar Hunter said. "We'll be focused."
Be secure in that statement.
More importantly, Gators, be secure with the ball.