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Florida vs. Georgia, Preview: Party down

The Gators face one of the nation’s best teams after a fortnight of distractions. Whee.

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

Let the world tell it, and the Florida Gators are in disarray heading into their Saturday matchup with the Georgia Bulldogs, “reeling” after two straight close losses by a total of three points without Tyrie Cleveland and with only three quarters of offensive contributions from Kadarius Toney and coached by an “embattled” Jim McElwain, for whom a team losing two close games became evidence of ... something, anyway, and whose bizarre claim of death threats has sparked another round of speculation that he might not be long for Gainesville.

Let the Gators tell a different story in a football game on this Saturday, though, and see how quickly the world starts singing a different tune.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Texas A&M rush defense

You know the story: Florida’s running game is its best offense, Malik Davis and Lamical Perine are both very good, Toney is an excellent change-of-pace option. None of this has changed over the last month.

Georgia’s rush defense, though, is quite stout, ranking No. 4 nationally in yards per game allowed and No. 7 in yards per carry allowed. Florida is going to find making headway against the Dawgs harder than against every previous opponent save Michigan, in all likelihood.

Slight edge: Georgia

Florida passing game vs. Georgia pass defense

For what seems like the sixth straight week, Feleipe Franks and Florida’s passing game should have chances to make plays against a less than airtight secondary. Georgia came off a three-game stretch of allowing fewer than 175 passing yards and promptly gave up 253 and four touchdowns to Missouri, no one’s idea of a great offense, and gave up just over 10 yards per attempt to boot.

A relatively low-profile secondary — safety Dominick Sanders is its standout name, but his squadmates are more good than well-known — has been very good for much of the year, though, and Georgia gets great pressure by blitzing its linebackers and defensive backs, ranking in the top 10 in Havoc Rate for both position groups. (That helps compensate for a triple-digit Havoc Rate ranking for the Dawgs’ defensive line.) Georgia is also first nationally in Defensive S&P+ for the first and third quarters — or the moments when other teams are scripting plays and trying to establish the run.

If Florida can get Georgia in unusual situations and/or off balance, it might be able to unlock the Georgia defense unlike any other team has this year — but predicting Florida to do that would require far more trust than I have, even if Cleveland’s return should be a significant boost to a passing game that missed his field-stretching capabilities dearly.

Edge: Georgia

When Georgia has the ball

Georgia running game vs. Florida rush defense

For approximately the 41st consecutive year, Georgia has a stable of talented running backs that has done much to cover itself in glory.

This year, those backs are led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the battle-tested thunder-and-lightning duo, and supplemented by D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, younger players who are also over six yards per carry on the season. Quarterback Jake Fromm is also one of six Bulldogs to have at least 100 rushing yards in 2017 — and while Chubb and Michel are cannibalizing each other’s stats, Georgia has had plenty to go around, tallying 185 or more rushing yards in every game this fall.

This is a bad game to be Florida’s first without defensive end Jordan Sherit, lost for the season — and his Florida career, in all likelihood — to another injury sustained against Texas A&M.

But Florida did an excellent job of gumming up the more conventional aspects of the LSU and Texas A&M running games: LSU’s leading rusher was wideout Russell Gage thanks to some sweeps and good work against Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams (29 carries, 85 yards combined), and Texas A&M’s was quarterback Kellen Mond, while Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams mustered just 40 yards on 19 carries. And Georgia’s running game is certainly more conventional than creative.

Edge: Georgia

Georgia passing game vs. Florida pass defense

The comments that could have taken most of the headlines this week, had McElwain not decided the middle of a press conference was the right moment to hint at threats made against him, his family, his coaches, and his players, were those from Chauncey Gardner about the limited use of Georgia QB Jake Fromm, who has been more caretaker than gamebreaker since stepping in for the injured Jacob Eason earlier this season.

Specifically, Gardner’s derisive “Anybody can throw a slant route” was part of a media appearance that was almost pure bulletin-board material — not that anyone in college football still uses bulletin boards, mind — and crystallized a line of thinking about Fromm as a glorified game manager whose gaudy stats are more product of his team steamrolling through its schedule than his own skill.

And while Gardner isn’t entirely right, he has a point: Fromm has been superb from an efficiency standpoint, ranking seventh nationally in passer rating entering Saturday, but he’s also been asked to do a whole lot less than most big-time QBs, throwing at least 28 fewer passes this year than every other QB among the nation’s top 15 in passer rating and not even ranking in the national top 100 in completions.

Yet Fromm has thrown for a very healthy 9.6 yards per attempt, and has been very good at finding Terry Godwin on deep balls, helping the junior receiver emerge as a big-play threat and average better than 23 yards a reception. In Godwin, big-bodied former JUCO star Javon Wims, quicker-than-blinking Mecole Hardman, and burly tight end Isaac Nauta, Fromm’s got a range of options to choose from as a passer — and, thanks to Georgia’s dominant running game, sometimes all Fromm has to do is throw a slant or two.

Florida’s task will be trying to prey on those, and make the most of what could be a scant number of pass attempts by the folks from the Peach State. And while Florida’s coverage has been far better than hoped for given the youth of its secondary, the Gators’ lack of consistent pass rush could be a problem against Georgia’s experienced offensive line.

Slight edge: Georgia

Special teams

Georgia’s No. 1 in Special Teams S&P+. Florida doesn’t know how to return kicks or punts effectively, and occasionally punts so often that the last brilliant punt of a brilliant night from Johnny Townsend bites it in the ass thanks to a gassed coverage team. So be it.

Edge: Georgia

Other factors

Florida has won three straight games in this rivalry, all in somewhat unexpected ways — Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones ran roughshod just three years ago, somehow — and seems confident about belonging on the same field as the Bulldogs, despite the Gators having three losses to Georgia’s zero. Florida’s last two weeks of existence have also been about as distracting as can be without a loss of life or a natural disaster.

Georgia would probably like to rout Florida for once. That hasn’t happened often for Georgia in the last few decades, really.

Edge: Georgia