The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party between Georgia and Florida is always one of the must-see rivalry matchups in the SEC every year, and as usual, the stakes are high when these two teams meet on Saturday in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs are 7-0 and, provided they take care of business against the Gators, a No. 1 ranking in the first CFB Playoff rankings could be in order. The storyline is a little different on the other side for new coach Billy Napier. Florida enters Saturday's game at 4-3, and in addition to overall improvement from week to week, the new staff wouldn't mind playing spoiler to one of its biggest rivals.
Georgia is finding out it's never easy going back-to-back as a national champion. The Bulldogs had to replace a hefty amount of talent off a team that won it all last season, but the pieces are still there for coach Kirby Smart's team to repeat. After crushing Oregon 49-3 in the opener and later beating South Carolina 48-7 in Week 3, Georgia's season has featured some ups and downs as Smart continues to mold the talent on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs got a tough fight from Kent State (39-22) and nearly lost at Missouri (26-22). Back-to-back dominant wins over Auburn (42-10) and Vanderbilt (55-0) have eased some of the concerns in Athens, but this team is still a work in progress going into the final stretch of the season. Of course, the roster could be falling into place at the right time. After Saturday's game versus Florida, the Bulldogs play Tennessee and hit the road for matchups versus Mississippi State and Kentucky.
A work in progress might also be the best way to describe Florida going into the showdown in Jacksonville. Napier inherited a team with major work to do on both sides of the ball, and through seven games, it's clear this staff has made some progress but some areas or concerns can only be solved through recruiting. The Gators opened '22 with an upset of Utah (29-26) but started 0-2 in SEC play after losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. Following a 24-17 win over Missouri, Napier's squad lost 45-35 to LSU in Gainesville. With a roster in transition and a new staff, getting to a bowl is the No. 1 priority. Winnable games against Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt remain, so that goal should be attainable.
Georgia holds a 53-44-2 series edge over Florida. The Bulldogs have won four out of the last five against the Gators.
Florida vs. No. 1 Georgia
When Florida Has the Ball
It's simple, but Florida's hopes of pulling off the upset rest with quarterback Anthony Richardson. In Top 25 showdowns against Utah and Tennessee, the sophomore shined with clutch performances. Richardson threw for 168 yards and ran for 106 in the 29-26 victory over the Utes and later totaled 515 yards and four scores against the Volunteers. So far, when Florida has needed Richardson to carry the offense in a high-profile matchup, he's delivered on the ground and through the air.
However, Georgia will present the toughest test Richardson has faced this year. The Bulldogs are holding teams to 4.4 yards per play and 9.1 points a game and rank first in the SEC in rush defense. No opponent has scored more than 22 points or totaled more than 313 yards against this unit so far this fall. Additionally, Georgia has allowed only five plays of 40-plus yards.
Florida's offense skews to the run (nearly 56 percent of the time), but establishing the ground game is a hefty challenge against the Bulldogs' front. Only one team (Oregon, 140) eclipsed 110 rushing yards against this unit. Running backs Montrell Johnson Jr. (425 yds.) and Trevor Etienne (334) should handle the bulk of the carries and are tasked with finding room against a stout UGA front.
If Richardson, Etienne, and Johnson can't get going on the ground, can Florida's offense find ways to move the ball? The Gators rank 87th nationally in passing success rate, and Richardson ranks 11th in the SEC in quarterback rating. Justin Shorter (18 rec.), Ricky Pearsall (16), and Xzavier Henderson (27) have been the main targets for Richardson on the outside. However, winning one-on-one battles has been a challenge for this group. And the going won't be any easier against a Georgia secondary ranked first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Can Napier get creative to piece together drives? And can Florida find a way to hit a few big plays for scores? Georgia is likely to aim to stop the Gators' ground game and keep Richardson in the pocket. If that's the plan, Richardson will have to take to the air and consistently execute on passing downs for Florida to have a shot.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia's offense enters Saturday's showdown averaging 41.7 points per game and 7.3 yards per snap. Despite those numbers, the Bulldogs aren't completely satisfied with this group. Although this unit has thrived on efficiency, big plays have been hard to find. After generating 17 of 40-plus last year, Georgia has just three through seven contests. Considering the overall efficiency of the Bulldogs (No. 1 nationally in success rate), it's hard to get too worried about this group under coordinator Todd Monken. However, the schedule difficulty ramps up with Tennessee, Mississippi State (road), and Kentucky (road) after the matchup against Florida. If Georgia has another gear, now is the time to find it.
Although the big plays aren't there, it's hard to find a weakness for the Bulldogs. A bit more consistency is needed up front and in the run game, but the offense is still churning out 5.6 yards per carry. Four rushers — Daijun Edwards, Kendall Milton, Kenny McIntosh, and Branson Robinson — have received playing time. If all are healthy, each of the four should shoulder some of the workload on Saturday. Stopping the run has been an issue for Florida, ranking 13th in the SEC in rush defense and giving up 4.5 yards per carry in '22. On average, the Gators are generating around six tackles for a loss in SEC games, which could be crucial on Saturday. Missouri had some success (nine TFLs) by being aggressive around the line of scrimmage to slow the Bulldogs a little in their early October meeting.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett's rating and yards per attempt have declined slightly from 2021, but the senior is still among the SEC's best under center. Bennett passed for 2,033 yards and seven touchdowns to only one pick through Georgia's first seven games. Florida's secondary ranks 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has been a bit vulnerable to big plays (six of 40-plus).
As mentioned above, generating more big plays is a priority for this unit the rest of the way. More production from the downfield passing game would help Georgia achieve that goal, and even with a few injuries in the receiving corps, this group doesn't lack talent or pieces to threaten a vulnerable Gators' secondary. Tight end Brock Bowers (26 catches) is the best weapon for Bennett, with Ladd McConkey (29), Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (13), and Dominick Blaylock (10) up next. Fellow tight end Darnell Washington (16) is another matchup nightmare for the Gators.
The numbers aren't pretty for Florida's defense in 2022. New coordinator Patrick Toney is working to improve a unit that ranks 11th in the SEC in points allowed, 12th in yards per play, 13th against the run, and last in third-down defense. With issues against the run and the pass, the Gators may not be able to get consistent stops. Instead, Toney will have to focus on not allowing Georgia to produce big plays and hoping his unit can get timely stops on third down or in the red zone.
With both teams having two weeks to get ready and the rivalry game impact, both teams will get each other's best shot. However, Georgia simply has too much on both sides of the ball and will pull away late. The Bulldogs could struggle to generate big plays, but their offensive efficiency is eventually going to win out. Whether it's on the ground or through the air, Smart's team will get on track when it has the ball, and the defense will prevent Richardson from leading Florida to a potential upset. Perhaps the Gators keep it close early, but once Georgia takes the lead, the 'Dawgs control the rest of the way and leave Jacksonville with a dominant win.