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Florida vs. Georgia: Bulldogs will test Gators’ revitalized defense

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Florida’s defense showed up against Missouri. Can it avoid vanishing in Jacksonville?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Gainesville Sun-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida defense was dead. After a frustrating first three games, even I — somebody who wrote a whole piece about how things weren’t as bad as it seems — had to admit this defense was very bad.

It looked as if the team was set for an Oklahoma-esque season, where an elite offense will have to single-handedly overcome an unbelievably porous defense. And though that approach has had moderate success in lesser leagues, including the Big 12, Oklahoma’s failings on the national stage and the flameouts of some offense-first teams in the SEC made it seem like being fatally flawed was Florida’s fate.

Dreams of a conference championship were in real danger, and after the defense’s worst performance yet against Texas A&M, hope was all but lost. To make matters worse, a COVID breakout threatened to further derail the train: Heading into the Missouri game, three starters in the secondary (Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis, and Donovan Stiner) were set to miss. It all should’ve added up to a very rough performance against the Tigers.

But something incredible happened instead: The defense showed up.

Maybe the loss was a wakeup call, Maybe the time off allowed the players and staff to dive into film. Maybe the forced rotation got the best out of the younger players. Whatever the case was, Florida’s defense played by far their best game against Mizzou.

A lot of credit has to go to Todd Grantham, who adjusted his philosophy and simplified the game plan. Against the Aggies, there were countless times when complicated blitzes were poorly executed, generating zero pressure and leaving massive holes on the back end. On Saturday, Grantham kept it simpler and asked his players to just line up and play, and they answered that call. The defensive line, which had struggled greatly at times, finally delivered, generating most of a pass rush that racked up three sacks and six quarterback pressures while the Tigers’ potent running game was held to just 40 yards on 23 attempts.

On the back end, the secondary also did a better job of keeping the game in front of it, and did an excellent job getting their hands on the football with six pass breakups. For the first time all season, the defense generated more big plays than it gave up. And so now there’s hope again in Gainesville.

But this defense needs to prove it’s here to stay, and this Saturday’s opponent is an excellent litmus test.

Georgia does not boast an elite offense. You could even argue these Bulldogs don’t currently have a good offense, given that it has scored 14 points in its last six quarters. It would be still be stupid to perceive it as anything but be a big challenge for the Gators defense, at least at 10 of the 11 positions on the field.

Despite the relatively mediocre performances of late, this might be the most talented offense Florida plays all season. While it’s not necessarily a surprise, given how well the Bulldogs recruit, the skill players are dynamic: Zamir White is a legit feature back with over 400 yards on the season, and he’s complimented by both the explosive James Cook (brother of Minnesota Viking and former Florida State Seminole Dalvin Cook) and Kendall Milton, each of whom is averaging better than five yards a carry on the year. In total, Georgia’s stable of backs have propelled the Dawgs to third-best rushing attack in the SEC.

While the elite backfield deserves plenty of credit, a lot of praise goes to the offensive line, who’ve been one of the best units in the conference. They’re an enormous unit, averaging 6’4” and 330 pounds across the front, and they’re very experienced with 145 appearances amongst the starters. The pass catchers are also incredibly formidable, with George Pickens and Kearis Jackson proving to be elite playmakers.

But, again: Six quarters, 14 points. Of late, this offense hasn’t played all that well, and much of that blame has been placed on quarterback Stetson Bennett IV.

It’d be unfair to call Bennett the worst quarterback in the SEC, but he’s definitely in the bottom tier. I will go as far as to say Stetson Bennett is the worst quarterback amongst any playoff contender in the country. He ranks dead last in the SEC in completion percentage at a measly 58.4 percent while being bang average in the conference in every other statistical category. Against Alabama, Bennett was horrible, throwing three costly interceptions and completing less than 50 percent of his passes. The diminutive quarterback showed in Tuscaloosa that he is not an elite player, or even a good one; he is an aggressively average player, and it is really holding back this Georgia team. The former walk-on is an okay game manager — asked to do very little against Kentucky, he completed nine of 13 passes for 131 yards ... and threw two picks — but that wasn’t enough to beat an elite Alabama, and it might not be enough to beat Florida.

With all this in mind, Florida matches up fairly well with Georgia. The run defense is coming off a strong game against Missouri, and I’d go as far as to say the run defense has been good overall this season with the notable exception of its collapse against Texas A&M, which bodes well for the Gators. If they can contain Georgia’s backs the way they contained Larry Roundtree III of Missouri, and force Bennett to beat them with his arm, the Gators will be sitting pretty.

We don’t know if Florida will be as good this Saturday on defense, especially if players are still missing with COVID (and the first half suspension of Zachary Carter), but this is the time to prove it. The Bulldogs don’t have an elite offense, and if the Gators can avoid making it look like they do, they’ll be firmly in the College Football Playoff picture.