Jake Fromm re-establishes himself as Georgia’s No. 1

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was as if nothing had changed: Jake Fromm dutifully took his spot at the center of the cameras, still sweating, covered in red welts, and smiling through it all.

Under head coach Kirby Smart, Fromm has been the cheerful face of Georgia, now a grizzled two-year starter at quarterback whose career has been largely filled with triumphs like the one Saturday afternoon against Florida.

But looking out into a postgame media scrum, his back against the wall in the bowels of TIAA Bank Field — perhaps too unsubtle a metaphor — Fromm’s smile could barely mask his relief.

In the biggest game of the season, if not his relatively young career, Fromm’s 240 yards passing and three touchdowns led the Bulldogs to a 36-17 victory over the Gators. More importantly, the performance possibly ended — at least for the moment — speculation that Fromm was primed to surrender his position to tantalizingly talented freshman Justin Fields.

“There’s no way other way to say it: I had to get better,” Fromm said after the win. “I really wanted to come out and make a statement today.”

Fromm came through with a crisp response following arguably the worst game of his career — a 16-of-34, two-interception, three-sack debacle in a 20-point loss to LSU on Oct. 13. He’d never looked so bad in a big game and the Bulldogs were pushed to the brink of being eliminated from the playoff chase.

That loss in Death Valley left Georgia a damaged brand, its aura of invincibility — rivaled and surpassed only by top-ranked Alabama — punctured in an improbable humbling at the hands of the Tigers.

It also seemingly plunged the Bulldogs into a full-blown identity crisis. After winning their first six games by an average margin of 30 points, they were bullied along the line of scrimmage, and Fromm finally looked like the sort of limited game manager who would keep them from reclaiming the SEC East title — let alone challenge the Crimson Tide for the league championship.

During the bye week in between the LSU loss and Florida win, Smart didn’t exactly dismiss speculation Fields might play a bigger role in the second half of the season. He even implied the coaching staff had talked over inserting Fields into the LSU game to relieve the struggling Fromm. “We considered it a lot and talked about it a lot,” he told reporters last week.

But against Florida, there was no need for Fields and certainly not a full-blown makeover. Fromm returned to his efficient ways — he did enter the game ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency, after all — and the Bulldogs shrugged off some otherwise sloppy play to pull away from the Gators in the fourth quarter.

Fields didn’t even play Saturday, an absence that seemed to confirm Fromm’s hold on the starting spot.

“I’m sure he felt and heard the noise,” Smart said of Fromm. But perhaps aware of the need to keep his highly touted freshman happy, Smart added: “I’m disappointed [Fields] didn’t get an opportunity today, and I’m sure he’s disappointed, too.”

Only two weeks after LSU imperiled their playoff hopes, Fromm and Georgia can win the East Division outright again at Kentucky next Saturday. It was here in Jacksonville, backs against the wall, that they righted themselves and found a resilience that some questioned following that beating in Baton Rouge.

If Fromm is still there at the center of it a little more than a month from now in Atlanta, his rebound performance against Florida will have played no small role in that. He improved his record as a starter to 19-3.

“I don’t have to prove anything,” said Fromm, that ever-present smile leaving his face for a moment, “to anybody.”

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