The race to win the SEC East comes into focus as Florida and Georgia meet in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville this Saturday. This matchup was circled as one of college football’s must-see games this offseason, and despite losses by both teams, the stakes haven’t changed. Both Florida and Georgia remain in the mix to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff, and the winner of this game likely takes the SEC East.
Georgia opened its season by rallying to beat Arkansas 37-10 in the opener, followed by wins over Auburn (27-6) and Tennessee (44-21). The Bulldogs led at halftime in their showdown against Alabama but were unable to hang on in Tuscaloosa, dropping a 41-24 decision to the Crimson Tide. Coach Kirby Smart’s team rebounded last Saturday by beating Kentucky 14-3. Georgia’s offense entered 2020 under the spotlight and remains in that position five games into the season. The Bulldogs have hopes of winning the SEC and to contend for a playoff trip, but this unit hasn’t performed at a level to reach either of those goals in 2020. On the other side of the ball, Georgia’s defense is deep, talented, and arguably the best in the nation.
Florida entered 2020 with one goal in mind: Win the SEC East. The Gators are trending up under Dan Mullen’s watch but still have ground to cover in order to consistently catch Georgia in the East. However, with the personnel returning, along with the Bulldogs’ offensive question marks, the door was open for Mullen’s team to breakthrough. So far, the Gators have lived up to that standard, earning victories by 14 or more points against Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Missouri. A loss at Texas A&M (41-38) was a setback, but a win over Georgia in Jacksonville would go a long way towards clinching the division title.
Georgia holds a 53-43-2 series edge over Florida. The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings against the Gators. However, the series is split at three victories apiece over the last six matchups.
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -3
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia’s offense is in the spotlight once again. In the showdown against Alabama, this unit generated 414 yards (5.9 per play) but did not score on five second-half possessions. And in last week’s win over Kentucky, the Bulldogs averaged 6.1 yards per snap after the ground game pounded the defense for 215 yards. However, is that production good enough to beat Florida? For the season, Georgia is averaging 29.2 points a game and 5.5 yards per snap.
For Georgia to win on Saturday, the offense needs steady production out of quarterback Stetson Bennett, but the ground game has to control the line of scrimmage. Zamir White (402 yards) is the team’s lead back, but Kendall Milton (165), James Cook (122), and Kenny McIntosh (92) will contribute. White is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, but the rushing attack could use more pop with no back owning a run longer than 24 yards. The return of tackle Kyree Campbell provided a boost to Florida’s run defense last week. The Gators held Missouri to just 40 yards over 23 carries, which bumped the defense to sixth in the conference (133 ypg allowed). Campbell’s emergence could be huge for this matchup, but the defense will be without end Zachary Carter for a half due to a suspension. Stopping the run and getting Bennett into obvious passing downs would be a win for this unit.
As expected, Bennett will be under the microscope again on Saturday. The former walk-on emerged as Georgia’s top signal-caller after the offense struggled early against Arkansas. Bennett has passed for 1,089 yards and seven touchdowns to five picks and connected on 58.4 percent of his throws this fall. The junior doesn’t need to win this game on his own, but he will have to avoid the interceptions and mistakes that slowed the offense in the second half against Alabama. A good chunk of Bennett’s completions come over the middle of the field, and similar to the Crimson Tide, Florida will aim to clog the throwing lanes and create opportunities for batted passes.
Getting George Pickens back in the lineup would be a huge boost for the Georgia passing game. Bennett didn’t have Pickens available in last week’s win over Kentucky, and his status is unsettled for this Saturday. If healthy and able to play, Pickens would provide a huge boost to the offense. Even if Pickens returns to the lineup, Kearis Jackson (24 catches), Jermaine Burton (nine), and running back James Cook (10) need to make plays against Florida’s secondary. The Gators were shorthanded in the secondary against Missouri due to injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, and it’s uncertain whether or not Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis, or Donovan Stiner will be able to play. Florida isn’t hurting for talent in the secondary, but this group hasn’t quite played up to its potential (eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense).
When Florida Has the Ball
The Gators have a major edge at quarterback. Kyle Trask enters Saturday’s game ranked among the best in college football with 1,341 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. He’s passed for at least four scores in every game and has completed 68.3 percent of his throws in 2020. Trask only has two completions of more than 40 yards but ranks third among SEC quarterbacks with 21 connections of 20-plus yards. In last year’s game, Trask connected on 21 of 33 throws for 257 yards and two scores but left plenty of room to improve, especially in dealing with Georgia’s pass rush.
Mullen has recruited and developed a handful of talented playmakers that will test a Georgia defense that’s loaded with talent, speed, and depth at all three levels. Tight end Kyle Pitts is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds. The Pennsylvania native has 22 catches for 355 yards and seven scores through four matchups. The Bulldogs will try to slow Pitts, but Kadarius Toney (22 catches), Trevon Grimes (11), Jacob Copeland (six), Trent Whittemore (five), and Justin Shorter (seven) will test the overall depth of this secondary. Georgia ranks first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, providing a clear strength versus strength battle on Saturday.
Considering the weapons Florida will bring to Jacksonville, Georgia’s defensive front and ability to generate pressure are crucial. The Bulldogs don’t have to get sacks in order to win, as havoc or quarterback pressures could be enough. Smart’s defense is allowing just 4.5 yards per play, leads the SEC in fewest points allowed, and ranks first in sacks generated (17). Edge rushers like Azeez Ojulari (4.5 sacks) and Adam Anderson (2.5) will be tasked to create disruption at the line of scrimmage and not allow Trask to sit in the pocket and fire mid-range throws to his receivers. That pressure is even more important considering the defense is expected to be without safety (and likely All-American) Richard LeCounte due to injuries suffered in an auto accident last Saturday.
The injury report also is notable up front for Georgia. Standout tackle Jordan Davis is questionable, and end Julian Rochester is not expected to play. While the Bulldogs have depth, their presence will be missed. Davis helps anchor the point of the attack at nose guard, while Rochester was listed behind Devonte Wyatt in the rotation in the trenches. Linebackers Monty Rice and Quay Walker are also dealing with ailments. Florida will put this game on the right arm of Trask, but Georgia’s injuries in the front could allow for more running room from Dameon Pierce (169 yards), Malik Davis (79), and Nay’Quan Wright. Additionally, all three players will play a role in catching passes out of the backfield.
Georgia has won three in a row in this series, but the Gators have closed the gap from a 35-point loss in 2017 to 19 in ’18 and just seven last fall. The Bulldogs are better positioned for the long haul, but Florida has the pieces to win this game and the East Division. It’s no secret the strengths of these two teams are clear. Georgia’s defense — even shorthanded due to injuries — is arguably the best in college football. The Gators have a high-powered offense with one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and a deep collection of skill players. While the matchup of Georgia’s defense against Florida’s offense is crucial, this game could come down to two units that enter with question marks — the defense for the Gators or the Bulldogs offense. The guess here is Trask makes a couple of plays in the second half, while Florida’s defense delivers a late stop to leave Jacksonville with a victory.
Prediction: Florida 27, Georgia 24
Podcast: Week 10 Preview and Predictions