Georgia and Florida renew their annual rivalry in Jacksonville, Fla. on Saturday afternoon with significant SEC and College Football Playoff implications. Both teams enter Week 9 with just one loss, so a victory in this matchup would keep playoff hopes alive, as well as a spot in the SEC Championship Game. While Kentucky is still squarely in the mix to win the East, the winner of this showdown between the Gators and Bulldogs is likely in the driver’s seat to win the division. This is the first matchup in this rivalry where both teams are ranked in the top 10 since 2008.
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are coming off a much-needed bye week. In Georgia’s last game on Oct. 13 versus LSU, the Bulldogs were dominated in a 36-16 defeat. Smart’s team was outgained 475 to 322, surrendered four turnovers and allowed the Tigers to average 5.4 yards per rush. After playing for the national championship last season, Georgia started the season 6-0 by winning each of its games by at least 14 points. The loss to LSU showcased Smart’s reloading effort might be a little steeper than some envisioned in the preseason, especially up front on defense. However, if the Bulldogs win out, a trip to the CFB Playoff should be in order. But that’s tough task with matchups against Florida, Kentucky and Auburn left in the regular season, along with a potential showdown versus Alabama in the SEC Championship.
New Florida coach Dan Mullen was one of the offseason’s top hires and has made an instant impact in his first year on the job. The Gators have showed marked improvement from last season’s 4-7 record, sitting at 6-1 through seven contests in 2018. Mullen’s team lost to Kentucky in Week 2 but picked up wins at Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and LSU in SEC play. If Florida is able to win on Saturday, an 11-1 finish in the regular season isn’t out of the question, as this team is likely to be favored in upcoming matchups against Missouri, South Carolina, Idaho and Florida State.
Georgia holds a 51-43-1 series edge over Florida. The Bulldogs won 42-7 last season but have lost three out of the last four meetings to the Gators. The last four matchups between these two teams have been decided by 14 or more points.
Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Georgia -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida’s Rushing Attack Against Georgia’s Run Defense
Georgia lost a handful of key contributors from its standout 2017 defense, and coach Kirby Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker are still searching for the right pieces to get this unit back to the top of the SEC seven games into the season. While the run defense isn’t among the worst in the conference, the Bulldogs have been more vulnerable here than they were last season. Georgia gave up 275 rushing yards in the loss to LSU, which dropped this unit to eighth in the SEC. For the season, the Bulldogs are allowing 136.3 rushing yards a game and 4.2 yards a carry. Additionally, three out of the last four SEC opponents have averaged 4.65 yards or higher per carry. Smart’s defense clearly misses standout linebacker Roquan Smith and tackle John Atkins to anchor the middle of the field against the run. Correcting the concerns up front is a priority for Smart, but injuries have taken a toll on this group. David Marshall and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle are not expected to play, so the depth will be limited up front.
After struggling to stop LSU in the loss on Oct. 13, Georgia is going to have its hands full against Florida. The Gators rank seventh in the SEC in rushing, averaging 197.3 yards per game. However, this offense averages 5.1 yards per carry and has rushed for 200 or more yards in four out of its last five games, including a 292-yard performance against Vanderbilt and 215 versus LSU in that span. Mullen uses a trio of running backs to spread the wealth in carries, as Jordan Scarlett (381), Lamical Perine (376) and Dameon Pierce (295) will all see action on Saturday. Quarterback Feleipe Franks won’t see a ton of carries, but he did manage 42 yards on six carries versus LSU. His mobility is an x-factor to watch.
Did the bye week allow Smart to fix some of the defensive issues ailing Georgia’s defense? Or will Florida’s offense find some of the same running lanes that LSU utilized in its win?
2. Can Georgia Establish the Run?
In the loss against LSU, Georgia’s rushing attack managed only 113 yards on 30 carries. The Bulldogs had some early success against the Tigers but seemed to go away from the run too early. The 113 yards was the lowest mark of the season for Georgia’s rushing attack, as this unit accumulated at least 185 or more yards in the previous six contests. Despite losing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to the NFL, Georgia’s backfield is stocked with options. Elijah Holyfield paces the offense with 488 yards, with D’Andre Swift checking in with 362 yards. Both players have scored four times. Brian Herrien and James Cook round out the top options in the backfield for Smart.
Florida’s defense was gashed for 303 rushing yards against Kentucky in Week 2 but has not allowed its last four opponents to eclipse more than 180 yards in a game. The strength of the line is off the edge with Jachai Polite, Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga. However, Georgia is likely to test the interior of this line on running plays. The Bulldogs’ offensive line is one of the best in the nation, and the bye week should help standout left tackle Andrew Thomas get closer to 100 percent after dealing with an ankle injury suffered against South Carolina.
Georgia’s offense struggled to get on track and piece together drives in the loss to LSU. Several factors contributed to that sluggish performance, but the Bulldogs have to get their ground game going (and to be more productive than it was in the loss) in order to win on Saturday. Will Georgia’s ground attack find running room? Or will Florida’s defense continue to stuff the run like it has in recent weeks?
3. The Quarterbacks
It’s no secret what both offenses want to do. With Florida and Georgia wanting to establish the run on Saturday, this game could come down to which quarterback is able to make the most plays through the air or avoid the big mistake.
Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks has made considerable progress under Mullen’s watch. The sophomore has raised his completion percentage from 54.6 in 2017 to 56.6 percent this fall. Additionally, Franks has tossed 15 touchdowns to just five picks and has increased his yards per attempt from 6.3 to 7.7. The sophomore won’t be asked to throw 40 times for the Gators to win but will need to be accurate with the short-to-intermediate throws to keep Georgia’s defense from keying too much against the run. Also, a couple of plays with his legs would be a good bonus for Mullen’s offense.
On the other sideline, Georgia enters Saturday with an interesting scenario setting up at quarterback. Jake Fromm completed only 16 of 34 throws for 209 yards and one touchdown to two interceptions in the loss to LSU. The 47.1 completion percentage was Fromm’s lowest of the season. Just like Florida, the Bulldogs want to get their ground game going to alleviate some of the pressure on Fromm. But if he struggles, how fast will Smart turn to true freshman Justin Fields? The former five-star prospect brings more mobility to the offense and seems primed for more playing time as the season goes along.
Can Franks continue his steady play under center and deliver a mistake-free game? Or will Fromm bounce back against a tough Florida secondary?
As mentioned above, the stakes are high for this matchup. The winner of this game is likely the favorite to win the SEC East and will stay alive for a spot to the CFB Playoff. The loser of this matchup isn’t out of the division title picture, but it certainly gets tougher with two losses. Both teams are solid on defense but have showed a little vulnerability against the run. Which team wins the battle up front on Saturday? Also, will Fromm rebound from his performance against LSU? Or will Franks outplay the Georgia duo under center? Expect a close game. The guess here is the Bulldogs’ edge in the passing game and playmakers at receiver is the difference late in the fourth quarter.