Las Vegas may see Georgia as a two-touchdown favorite over Florida, but most UGA fans are a bit more cautious in approaching this year’s installment of the annual hate-match in Jacksonville, as the Dogs go for four in a row.
Sure, most think Mark Richt’s 6-1 Dogs ought to beat embattled Will Muschamp’s struggling 3-3 Gators.
But with the continuing absence of Todd Gurley and the unlikely presence of Sony Michel and Keith Marshall making Georgia thin in the backfield, Florida’s defense being one of the better ones the Dogs will face this season, and Muschamp’s switch in quarterbacks leaving Jeremy Pruitt’s improved but still evolving defenders wondering what to expect, it wouldn’t be surprising for this game to be closer than advertised.
As one longtime UGA fan told me: “I’m not counting on an easy win in Jacksonville. We always find a way to make this game a stressfest.”
Such is the nature of rivalry games, particularly this one.
Still, Georgia looks to have the edge in most categories coming into the battle for the Okefenokee Oar kicking off at 3:39 p.m. Saturday.
The Florida offense has been pretty ineffective so far, thus the switch in starting QBs, with Treon Harris replacing Jeff Driskel. The freshman is a better passer than Driskel and is more of a threat to make plays with his feet, though he’s very green. On his radio show this week, Richt pegged Harris as “a challenge for us.” But keep in mind this is a freshman, Georgia has a pretty formidable pass rush and Muschamp has been openly critical of the protection offered by the Gators’ offensive line. You can expect Pruitt to be throwing all kinds of stunts and disguised blitzes at Harris.
On the other side of the ball, the Gators do indeed present more of a challenge, ranking third in the SEC and 12th nationally in total defense. They’re pretty stout against the run and no doubt will do like everyone else and stack the box against Georgia’s running game, which is still chugging along thanks to the more than capable Nick Chubb. However, Florida didn’t do much to slow down the two best running attacks they’ve seen so far: Alabama and LSU.
Still, the Gators hope to force Hutson Mason into passing situations, and they do have a shut-down corner in Vernon Hargreaves, but the rest of their secondary is a little suspect and has given up some long passes this season. Plus, Florida hasn’t been very good defending third down.
Basically, if Mike Bobo and Mason are able to mix in some downfield passing with the pounding running game, as they did at Arkansas, Florida’s defense is likely looking at a long day.
If, however, the Gators are able to contain the Georgia running game, this might be when Mason finally has to step up and win one himself. It’d be a good time for Malcolm Mitchell to finally make his presence felt in a big way. In order for Mason to function effectively, though, Georgia’s offensive line needs to handle Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, a definite NFL prospect.
The key to the game, in the view of several folks I talked to this week, will be whether Florida can flip the field on the Dogs with its strong punting game and somehow win the turnover battle. That’s a tall order for this bunch of Gators. So far this season, Georgia leads the nation in turnover ratio at plus-13 and Florida has turned the ball over 16 times, though a dozen of those were committed by the now-benched Driskel.
Where Georgia has to be careful this week is in keeping its composure after another stressful week involving the Gurley affair. Georgia-Florida games are naturally chippy, and the Gators, who have their backs to the wall, won’t just be keying on Chubb schematically, they’ll be messing with him and trying to get some sort of response that might get him kicked out of the game. They’ve tried it in the past with Gurley and you can bet they’ll take that tack with Chubb. It’s their m.o. under “Boom.”
The best thing the Dogs can do is come out fast and jump on the Gators early like they did against the Razorbacks. Throw in a couple of early takeaways and this Florida team’s fragile psyche is likely to crack like an alligator egg.
Meanwhile, in case you missed it earlier this week thanks to all the Gurley hubub, you can check out my all-time favorite plays from the Georgia-Florida series here.
Go Dogs! Beat Florida!
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg