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Florida vs. Georgia, Preview: Can the Gators prevail in Jacksonville?

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Florida faces its toughest test in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. But Georgia may be facing the same.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It had long been presumed that the Florida Gators would be facing the toughest test of their 2018 season on this weekend in Jacksonville.

The Georgia Bulldogs had a stacked roster, a lofty preseason ranking, a hot start to the fall, and an appearance in last year’s national championship game. They were supposed to be good, likely very good, and possibly great.

The Gators? Not so much. Jim McElwain had supposedly left Dan Mullen a relatively bare cupboard, including a big question mark at quarterback, and Florida was not expected to contend for much of anything in 2018.

Yet here they are, as a top-10 team just like Georgia, set to meet the Bulldogs in Jacksonville as something closer to equal rivals than the hammer and nail that took the field a year ago, when Georgia’s 42-7 win came under 24 hours before McElwain’s firing.

Will the Gators leave Jacksonville as victors? Let’s break it down.

When Florida has the ball

Florida ran — and threw — all over Vanderbilt two weeks ago. Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine each topped 100 yards on the ground, and Perine added another 93 yards as a receiver. Feleipe Franks set a new career high in passing yards in his fourth game with a passer rating of better than 150.00 this fall, and completed over 65 percent of his throws for just the sixth time in his career. The total effort was good for 576 yards of total offense, a mark not reached by the Gators for much of the decade, and helped push Florida’s average over 400 yards per game this fall.

That’s a substantial improvement from last year’s Gators, who posted just 336 yards per game and bottomed out with two sub-250 yard efforts — including a 249-yard showing against Georgia.

But those Dawgs had a better defense than these do, if not dramatically so. Georgia is just 24th in Defensive S&P+ this fall after finishing 2017 in 11th; that ranking has plenty to do with Georgia getting run over by LSU, which mustered 6.5 yards per carry in Baton Rouge, but Georgia’s been susceptible through the air, too, as Missouri showed when Drew Lock got a fair few big plays against a strong secondary.

Florida is likely to begin by trying to run and reduce Franks’s responsibilities as much as possible, and it could well have success with that strategy. But Franks has rarely been in a game this big, and did not look up to the task of this particular one a year ago, throwing for a miserable 30 yards and a pick on 19 attempts.

Edge: Georgia

When Georgia has the ball

Yet while Georgia’s strength is offense — the Bulldogs are No. 6 in Offensive S&P+ — it might be those snaps that trouble the Dawgs most, especially if they fall behind schedule or behind Florida on the scoreboard.

Those would be the situations in which Jake Fromm is forced to pass, and he’s not at his best when doing so. Georgia’s significantly less effective on Passing Downs — longer downs and distances — than Standard Downs, and Fromm reacts poorly to the pressure that Georgia does have a tendency (77th in Sack Rate, and 115th in Sack Rate on Passing Downs) to let up. Fromm had two picks and took three sacks against LSU, and Georgia fell to 1-2 when he throws two picks in his career — with the lone win coming over Appalachian State in last year’s season opener.

Florida is also much better against the pass (21st in Defensive S&P+) than the run (56th), giving Georgia all the reason in the world to try to establish D’Andre Swift (5.1 YPC) and Eljiah Holyfield (7.5 YPC) before resorting to Fromm throwing repeatedly. The Bulldogs got away from that against LSU, despite those potent backs combining for 128 yards on 19 carries, and so the Tigers built a lead that forced Fromm to throw.

Count on Georgia coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to be a little more patient against Florida, barring an unforeseen fusillade from the Gators.

Slight edge: Georgia

When both teams are kicking

Florida’s kicking games are nearly peerless, with Evan McPherson still yet to miss a field goal that didn’t get hit so well that it crossed the crossbar beyond the tops of the goalposts and confuse the referees and Tommy Townsend adding a successful fake punt against Vanderbilt to his very good season of taking over for older brother Johnny. Florida’s return and coverage teams leave slightly more to be desired, with Freddie Swain popping his first big return in a month against Vanderbilt and then having a second erased by a pair of penalties, but Swain remains dangerous in theory and practice, and Kadarius Toney is a home-run threat on kickoffs, even if he has made some baffling decisions.

Georgia is unlikely to give Toney a chance to hurt it on kicks, with Rodrigo Blankenship (also 10-for-12 on field goals) allowing just four returns on kickoffs this year, but may be set up to be burned by Swain on a punt. Punter Jake Camarda’s averaging just under 42 yards a boot, and has allowed just two returns all year, but he also had an awful day against LSU, averaging just 35.5 yards per kick and thrice failing to meet that average.

Slight edge: Florida

On momentum and motivation

I — controversially to some — do not fully believe in momentum as a concept in sports. I think playing well generally has far more to do with physical talent and capacity or execution of a scheme than confidence or some other unquantifiable element of a player’s psyche.

That said: I think Florida has focused and practiced better under Mullen than it did under McElwain, and I think Florida’s players come into this game fully believing that they ought to play well against a very good Georgia team and have a chance to win as a result.

I also think Georgia is likely to rebound from its baffling loss to LSU by going back to basics and trying to run the ball effectively first, second, and third, and that the Bulldogs will do as much as they can to limit Fromm’s involvement in the game. And I think that makes the question of the game “Can Florida stop or slow Georgia’s running game?”

My hope is yes. My belief is that it’s going to be very difficult for Florida to do that, given its personnel and Georgia’s, and that the Gators are unlikely to be able to win this one except by stopping the run and pressuring Fromm.

So color me more hopeful than faithful for now.