Who’s the beast of the east? Gators-‘Dawgs all set for rivalry showdown in Jacksonville
This weekend, the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs head to Jacksonville for the 98th edition of The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party—(Can I still refer to it as that?) I think we’d all agree that 2020 has been the strangest year in just about all of our lives. But one thing still remains clear—this game is likely the ultimate deciding factor in the eastern division, and that hasn’t changed. The East is on the line—and fittingly the east will be won on the line.
UGA is coming to Jacksonville to run the football—that’s what they do. And Florida has to know that, but can it stop it or even man up to slow it down?
Georgia QB Stetson Bennett was operating this offense efficiently over his first 3 and a half games after taking over the job. But since those halftime adjustments were made by Nick Saban in the Alabama game, it’s been a game and a half of struggles now for Bennett and this UGA offense. Since that solid first half in Tuscaloosa, Bennett has completed less than half of his passes with zero TD’s, along with throwing four picks and fumbling twice (although Georgia recovered). Georgia only needs serviceable play from this position with its skilled backfield, punishing offensive line, and capable set of pass catchers, to go along with its elite defense, but lately, the ‘Dawgs haven’t even been getting that.
The UGA run game started slowly this season despite featuring one of the conference’s premier backs in Zamir White. It doesn’t just stop there—James Cook, Kenny McIntosh, and Kennedy Milton all possess unique abilities to add to this backfield. The Bulldogs are a legit four-deep at the position with supreme talent, and it looked to me that they just weren’t going to their backs consistently enough in an effort to develop a passing game early on this season. As the passing game has taken a dramatic step back, the run game has asserted itself once again in this UGA offense. White is coming off of his first 100-yard game against Kentucky, clearly looking his sharpest yet this season, and at the wrong time for the Gators. It’s extremely doubtful that Florida can manage to shut down this rushing attack enough to not make it a factor in the game, but if it can just hold serve and keep it in check then the UF defense has the Bulldogs where it wants them. Todd Grantham’s defensive game plan needs to focus on forcing Bennett to throw as much as possible, and if it can find ways to pressure him then he will almost surely make some errors that will go the Gators way. He’s a turnover prone QB, and Florida has the personnel to match-up well with UGA’s wideouts, but it’s going to need to settle down and stay disciplined on its assignments on running plays with these great backs first. This Georgia offensive line is as physical and daunting of a challenge that Florida has to deal with this season, and its preparedness, physical nature, and level of execution in the trenches will be the difference of if Florida can end the misery of its border rivals long and relentless choke hold.
Georgia is one of those teams, like Michigan and a few others, who we’re just waiting to see it turn the corner and prevail in a big game scenario. UGA had Alabama on the ropes twice under Smart, and each time those games slipped away in the second half. Then last season, Georgia, once again forecasted to make a deep playoff run, was destroyed by LSU when it had its chance to make that happen. And this season, a second half clinic from Saban’s Crimson Tide was too much for ‘Dawgs to overcome. Now, there was the one College Football Playoff win against Oklahoma in 2017, but who doesn’t beat the Sooners in a championship situation? Other than that, these ‘Dawgs have seriously underperformed in the biggest of games under Smart’s direction.
However, that’s all withstanding the exception that is when the Bulldogs meet the rival Gators. Under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Florida called the shots in this series—winning an absurd 16 times over 18 meetings between the greatest two coaches in UF history. But since, UGA has won six of the last nine including the last three. For whatever reason, Georgia performing pathetically against its rival to the south doesn’t happen anymore—with really UGA playing its best games over the last two seasons against UF. So, for Florida, and maybe its time is indeed now, but it’s something that’s only imaginable at this point following two Cocktail Party strikeouts since Mullen’s arrived.
A fantastic storyline swirling around this game is this is easily one of the nation’s top offenses matching up against possibly the nation’s premier defense, and just how that might play out when they face off this weekend. While the UF offensive line has made valiant strides in its protection and run blocking, Georgia’s defensive line has the advantage in my opinion, although it will be without two pieces. Pass rusher Julian Rochester along with nose tackle Jordan Davis are likely out of Saturday’s game with injuries. Rochester is certainly out with a torn ACL, while Davis is expected to be out with an elbow injury. Davis has been the anchor up front for this Georgia defense for three seasons now, and the absence of the 6-6, 320-pounder from the middle won’t go unnoticed. Georgia will also be without All-American safety Richard LeCounte, who was injured in a car accident last weekend. LeCounte is a playmaker in this Bulldog secondary in both defending the run and pass, and he’s had major impacts against Florida each of the last two seasons. So, Florida has definitely caught some breaks as it prepares for the ‘Dawgs, and it must take advantage of a mildly shorthanded ‘Dawgs team if it can. Of course, Florida will be without starting defensive end Zachary Carter for the first half of the game due to his involvement with the fighting incident that took place in Gainesville last weekend.
With Davis out, Florida needs to ride its running game when it has the ball. Now, I’m not saying that UF needs to run more than pass, but it needs to keep the defense honest. Georgia is going to work the clock and try to ride the possessions out to shorten the game, and so Florida needs to follow a similar formula and keep its offense on the field. Besides, Florida is second in the conference in rushes per attempt at nearly five yards a pop, yet it places ninth in the league in rushing because it doesn’t feed its backs enough. If Florida successfully runs the football on Saturday, to go along with its explosive air raid, then you gotta like Gators chances of scoring a bunch of points.
Last season, Florida entered this game in a similar position—with a deadly passing game clicking on all cylinders. And Georgia’s defense’s physicality and activeness disrupted that, at least for a half, and before the Gators could find their groove and get to charging, the fourth quarter had ended with Florida riding momentum. Florida cannot afford to pick itself up off the mat like that again this year, and maybe that’s a learning experience for this team. I know this UF defense stood up last week, but I can’t place much confidence in that happening again with the strong offensive line that Georgia has. Florida’s offense needs to try to get to 30 points, and I think that would probably be enough to outscore the ‘Dawgs no matter the circumstance. I expect Florida to have some success against this UGA defense, but it’s going to need to protect Trask and hold onto the football at all costs in order to solidify this win. A nice balance of runs, quick strike plays to Florida’s skilled perimeter athletes, and to make moves down the field when the opportunities are there are keys to this game offensively—along with the ever-important statistic of winning the turnover battle. Dan Mullen has to continue to find creative ways to get Kadarius Toney the football in space where he’ll be a nightmare for the UGA defense to account for.
You have to rewind time to 2005 to find the last time that the winner of this rivalry meeting watched the loser play for the SEC Championship. And there’s a pretty good chance that won’t happen this year either. If Florida wants to compete for a conference and eventually a national title, this is the game it has to win. We’ve waited all year for this one, really two years after last year’s loss, and you don’t need any major jargon to get you riled up for this one. Neither do the Gators, as you know they’ve had this one circled on the calendar since last season. And while I don’t expect Georgia to ever go down easily, Florida has their division rivals right where it wants them. Florida can probably find a way to win even without playing its best game on Saturday, but it’s a good idea to score some points early and find a lead, and from there, the pressure will build on this dysfunctional UGA offense to find its way back in the game. In the weird year that’s been 2020, the pathway is open for the Gators to assert themselves as the A-Pex predator of the eastern division. But, until it can find a way to take down the nasty, barking ‘Dawgs that have clearly marked their territory over the entire eastern landscape of this conference, that’s not happening. It’s put up or shut up time for Mullen and the Gators in this rivalry, so please finish up and get off the pot!