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Florida vs. Georgia, Three Takeaways: Gators’ stout defense cements SEC East superiority

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Florida shut down another foe on Saturday. And the Gators look like the class of the SEC East again.

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NCAA Football: Georgia vs Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There might be other recaps of Florida’s 24-10 win over Georgia, but I make no promises. Last time I did, duct work and drywall had to happen.

Florida’s defense is dominant despite mistakes

There is no perfect defense in college football. There’s no perfect defense in football, period, in 2016, not with rules and officiating that slant heavily toward explosive, inventive offenses that defenses must keep up with, Ginger Rogersing a slew of dashing Fred Astaires.

Florida’s is close, in ways that only truly elite defenses — Alabama’s and Michigan’s, and maybe Clemson’s and Wisconsin’s — are.

The Gators had their typical combination of blanket coverage and ferocious pass rush working against Georgia, allowing Jacob Eason to complete just 15 of 33 passes while hurrying him an utterly astounding 16 times, and sacking him twice. Eason might have completed just more than half of his passes, becoming just the second starting QB to do so against Florida this year, if not for two bad drops, but apart from one drive of blown coverages, he never found a rhythm: Eason completed three consecutive attempts on that drive, then never more than two at any other point.

But while Florida held the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class to 143 yards and just 4.3 yards per attempt through the air, what it did to Georgia’s running game was more impressive — and historic.

The Bulldogs ran for just 21 yards on 19 carries, with Nick Chubb — an erstwhile Heisman candidate, and a player who had 156 yards and a touchdown in his only other contest against Florida — gaining 20 of those yards on nine carries, none for more than seven yards. Sony Michel — who, like Chubb, was a top-six back in the vaunted 2014 class that also featured Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Royce Freeman — had three carries for two yards.

Florida held a running game with those two backs to 1.1 yards per carry, or about as many as the 6’5” Eason might gain by simply falling forward on every play.

It was the worst day Georgia’s offense has had in decades.

And Florida did that after allowing 179, 144, and 265 rushing yards in its last three contests. It turns out that having healthy(ish) versions of Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox, Jr., Caleb Brantley, Jordan Sherit, and Jarrad Davis helped shore up Florida’s run defense!

What awaits the Gators in November is a trio of very good offenses — Florida State and LSU are in the top 20 per S&P+, and Arkansas is in the top 40 — that will challenge this defense in ways that it has yet to be tested in 2016. All three teams arguably have better balance than Florida has had to deal with, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook are a step up from every back the Gators have seen so far, and Deondre Francois has an adamantium skeleton and a whip-quick release, and can move around not entirely unlike Josh Dobbs did, though he is less likely to turn scrambles into back-breaking runs.

But what defense is better-positioned to shut those offenses down? Alabama’s, maybe, because Alabama’s depth outstrips everyone else’s. Michigan’s married scheme to playmakers about as well as Geoff Collins has, but Michigan’s players enjoy a greater speed differential relative to their Big Ten competition.

Florida’s defense still has flaws, sure. Its corners don’t play tight coverage all the time, coverage busts still happen, Quincy Wilson is still susceptible to quicker receivers making cuts, and pass interference penalties are a likelihood, given how handsy Wilson and Teez Tabor can be.

But I just cited four nitpicks of Florida’s secondary — which has allowed the lowest completion percentage and the lowest passer rating in the country thus far — in that critique of the defense. I can’t really come up with any similar critiques for the line after this week, because “They don’t make the holding that happens against them look obvious enough to get it called” isn’t an actual gripe, and my perennial “Linebackers are a weakness in coverage!” drumbeat has more to do with linebackers being a weakness in coverage for every defense that has ever played football since the popularization of the forward pass.

We can either lament one bad half against Tennessee and hold it up as the most important outlier ever or simply concede, given the evidence of the other 26 quarters of football it has played, that Florida’s defense is a great defense, period.

I’m going to do the latter.

Florida’s offense can do enough

I have written a variation on this dozens of times over the last five years, and it’s still true: Florida’s offense is capable of winning the games that its superhuman defense allows it to win.

Luke Del Rio is no world-beater. The pick he threw on Saturday was atrocious, as bad as or worse than any Jeff Driskel or Treon Harris ever chucked. (The last Florida picks I think were as emphatically bad came from John Brantley’s heave into quadruple coverage and Jacoby Brissett’s dying quail against Florida State on the same night in 2011.) His arm strength is more like arm mediocrity. He’s still a bit too slow in going through his progressions after returning from his knee injury, and his pocket presence has suffered, too.

Jordan Scarlett is Florida’s best back, and Lamical Perine is a really good backup. (Did you miss either Mark Thompson or Jordan Cronkrite on Saturday?) Scarlett still rushed for just 93 yards on 26 carries — a 3.6 yards per carry average — and Perine had 15 carries, none for more than five yards, for a tidy total of 36 yards.

Antonio Callaway is absurdly versatile, but his best role is game-breaking wideout, and there’s enough talent around him in Florida’s receiving corps and at tight end to expect big plays on a somewhat regular basis. Yet while Callaway had just four catches against Georgia, he still led the Gators in that category, and in receiving yards (43), as the Gators hit on just one “explosive” pass play of more than 20 yards.

Florida’s line consistently pushed Georgia’s off the line of scrimmage, and generally kept Del Rio upright and unharried — the major breakdowns in protection came from blitzes by corners, I thought. But Florida still gained just 231 yards on its 73 plays.

All of that is lamentable. But it was also more than enough.

Florida went 9-for-18 on third down and 3-for-3 on scoring touchdowns in the red zone. It held the ball for more than 37 minutes of the game clock, and had just five three-and-outs — Georgia had four in the first half, and would have had five in the second except for two drives that ended in turnovers on downs. Three Florida drives bled more than five minutes from the clock, and two others drained more than three, including a game-ending drive that could have added a meaningless touchdown, had Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier pressed for it against the exhausted Georgia defense.

Two weeks after rolling up over 500 yards against Missouri, Florida tallied fewer than half as many on Georgia — and 24 offensive points, more than the 19 it scored that night in The Swamp.

It is possible, the optimist in me bleats, that Florida will someday marry yard-gathering explosiveness with point-procuring efficiency. That day might not even be far off, if the improving offensive line turns into a genuinely good one, if Del Rio — or a quarterback with more physical talent, more likely — emerges as a rope-throwing field general, and if the young receiving corps matures into an arsenal.

It is inarguable, the realist in me must note, that Florida’s offense can be good enough to win games with this defense. It has been too often to dismiss. It can be.

The only question: Will it?

Florida is the class of the SEC East

Look, I know Florida lost to Tennessee. I saw that game. Wrote about it, too.

But are we really going to argue that Florida’s not better than Tennessee at this point?

The Gators didn’t deserve to win on that Saturday in Neyland, except in the sense that a team that builds a three-touchdown lead probably ought to go ahead and win that game. Dobbs was a magician, Jauan Jennings was incredible, and Florida’s offense vanished for too long in the second half to keep the Gators in a shootout.

Tennessee was the better team on that day, and, accordingly and deservingly, it won that game.

Since the second half of that game, in which Tennessee scored 28 points, Florida has allowed 30 points over three contests and gone 3-0, winning each game by at least a touchdown. (Before those two quarters, Florida had allowed just 24 points through 14 quarters. That half, man.)

Since that game, Tennessee has:

  • Gotten a Hail Mary to beat Georgia, after conceding an equally unlikely long touchdown to fall behind in the final minute
  • Lost in overtime to Texas A&M, after erasing a 14-point deficit in the final 3:22 of play thanks in part to an Aggies fumble at the Tennessee 2 on a 70-yard run
  • Been skunked, 49-10, by Alabama, getting outgained nearly 4-to-1 and about 2.5-to-1 by the Crimson Tide running game alone
  • Lost to South Carolina — which is currently coached by Will Muschamp, quarterbacked by an 18-year-old who should be playing high school football, and has yet to beat any team by more than six points — coming off a bye

Now, to be fair to Tennessee, the Vols are not the same team that they were when Florida traveled to Neyland. Virtually every Tennessee lineman and linebacker has dealt with an injury, and key contributors like Cameron Sutton, Jalen Hurd, and Alvin Kamara all have, too.

But Tennessee is 5-3 and being hailed for its hardiness, when it is an overtime fumble bouncing directly to Hurd against Appalachian State and a Hail Mary to Jennings from being 3-5 — and Tennessee, unlike another injury-devastated team I can recall, has had its starting quarterback, a Heisman contender at the outset of the season, for the whole ride to this point.

Tennessee is also the only other SEC East team I can even consider being better than Florida at this moment, given that Florida has defeated four of the other ones — including working Kentucky, now alone in second in the East, by 38 points — and that South Carolina, the only SEC East squad the Gators have yet to play, has losses to Kentucky and Georgia on its record.

It’s entirely possible that Florida could still lose the East, because its SEC West tests — both now road trips, because wheeeeee — are still ahead of it, and each should be a difficult game. But Florida is a half-game ahead of Kentucky in the standings with a head-to-head tiebreaker in hand, and Kentucky still has to go to Tennessee. Tennessee — the only other SEC East team with fewer than four conference losses — has to hope the Gators lose twice and fall into a three-way tie with the Wildcats and Vols.

Florida may not have been better than Tennessee when they played, but the Gators are riding higher right now, and poised to have a better season, too.

If the fallout from the Gators losing to the Vols for the first time in 12 years is just Florida winning the East anyway, I’m going to laugh so hard.