The stakes are high for the annual showdown between Florida and Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville on Saturday. The winner of this game would be the frontrunner to win the SEC East and stay alive for a trip to the CFB Playoff. Both teams already have one loss, so a defeat on Saturday would end hopes of a playoff bid.
Florida enters Saturday’s game off a much-needed bye week. The Gators started the season with a win over Miami in Week 0, and after an off date on Aug. 31, coach Dan Mullen’s team played for seven consecutive weeks. During that stretch, Florida knocked off Kentucky, Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina in SEC play but fell 42-28 in Baton Rouge against LSU. With the Gators expected to be favored in upcoming matchups against Vanderbilt, Missouri and Florida State, Saturday’s matchup in Jacksonville is arguably the biggest hurdle to an 11-1 regular season record and trip to the SEC Championship Game.
The timing of the bye week was also good news for Georgia. The Bulldogs slogged their way to a 21-0 win over Kentucky in awful weather conditions on Oct. 19. That game came a week after Georgia fell 20-17 to South Carolina in overtime. The Bulldogs’ offense struggled in both of those contests, and the off date was a good time for this unit to regroup with a playoff trip still within reach.
Georgia holds a 52-43-2 series edge over Florida. The Bulldogs have won five out of the last eight meetings in this series, including back-to-back games (2017-18).
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -6.5
When Florida Has the Ball
Despite a revamped offensive line and an injury to starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, Florida enters Saturday’s game averaging 32.5 points a game and 6.3 yards a play. This unit is also averaging 30.6 points in SEC contests and has 19 plays of 30 yards or more. The Gators recorded 457 yards in a loss at LSU and accumulated 398 against Auburn. However, the going won’t get any easier for this group on Saturday against Georgia’s defense, which leads the SEC in fewest points allowed a contest (10.6 ppg).
Quarterback Kyle Trask has ensured the offense didn’t miss a beat after the injury to Franks. The junior has passed for 1,391 yards and 14 touchdowns to just four picks this year. He’s supported by one of the SEC’s deepest receiving corps that will also feature the return of all-purpose playmaker Kadarius Toney after a six-game absence due to injury. Tight Kyle Pitts (35 catches) is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, while Freddie Swain (21), Van Jefferson (27) and Trevon Grimes (21) have each notched over 20 catches this year.
Due to the turnover up front, the Gators have struggled to establish a consistent rushing attack this season. However, the offense has reeled off four runs of 40 yards or more (tied for second in the SEC) and has rushed for at least 146 yards in three out of the last four games. Additionally, the 5.13 per-carry average versus South Carolina was the highest of the season against SEC teams for Mullen’s group. Lamical Perine (460 yards) will receive the bulk of the carries, with Dameon Pierce (248) and backup quarterback Emory Jones also factoring into the ground game. While Perine has been able to hit on a few big runs, and Florida seems to be making progress in the trenches, Georgia won’t be an easy team to run against. The Bulldogs rank first in the SEC against the run and are holding teams to just 3.02 yards a carry and 85.7 yards a game on the ground.
With a ground game that’s a work in progress against one of the SEC’s top defenses, Florida once again needs a big game from Trask to win in Jacksonville. The Gators got a couple of big plays in the win over Auburn but relied more on efficiency and drive-to-drive consistency against LSU. Georgia entered 2019 looking to create more takeaways and sacks but have mustered only 16 sacks and nine turnovers through seven games. With the Bulldogs capable of stuffing the run, this matchup is likely to come down to how well Trask executes on passing downs. Can Georgia get to the quarterback in this scenario? Or will Florida give Trask just enough protection to hit on a few big plays downfield?
When Georgia Has the Ball
As mentioned previously, Georgia’s offense sputtered in a loss to South Carolina and in a rain-soaked win over Kentucky. Did the off date allow Smart and coordinator James Coley to come up with a plan to fix some of the problem areas for this unit? Coley replaced Jim Chaney (departed for Tennessee) as the program’s offensive coordinator this offseason and is off to an uneven start in Athens. Against a top defense, this is a good opportunity for Georgia to show the offense is on the right track.
On paper, there’s a lot to like about Georgia’s offense. Statistically, the Bulldogs are averaging 36 points a game and 7.0 yards a snap. Additionally, this unit leads the SEC in rush offense, and quarterback Jake Fromm is completing 70.7 percent of his throws. However, a deeper look at the stats shows areas of concern. Georgia isn’t hitting on enough big plays (seven of 40 yards or more this year), and Fromm has completed just 37 of 63 throws for 330 yards and three interceptions over his last two games. Freshman George Pickens (23 receptions) continues to emerge as the season progresses, and senior Lawrence Cager is expected to return after missing the Week 8 matchup against Kentucky. Coley has to do a better job of getting the ball to playmakers in space and allow Fromm to find big-play opportunities on the outside. Florida’s secondary won’t make life easy for Fromm, as this unit has not allowed an opponent to exceed more than 300 passing yards in a contest. Cornerbacks Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are one of the nation’s best pairings on the outside, with safety Shawn Davis leading the team with three interceptions.
Georgia’s passing attack has its share of concerns heading to Jacksonville, but that’s not the case on the ground. The Bulldogs have one of the deepest backfields and arguably the best offensive line in college football, which helps this group average 6.1 yards per rush. D’Andre Swift (752 yards) leads the SEC in rushing yards per game (107.4), with Brian Herrien (311), Zamir White (45) and James Cook (109) also contributing. While this group is the strength of the offense, Georgia will be running against a Florida defensive front that should benefit from the off date. Ends Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga missed significant snaps in October due to injury but are set to play on Saturday. The return of Greenard and Zuniga is a boost to a defense allowing only 124.1 yards a game and just 3.8 a carry this season. Both players excel at getting to the quarterback but also play a key cog versus the run.
It’s no secret what Florida will try to do on Saturday: Stop the run and force Fromm and his receivers to win. After back-to-back sluggish performances, can Fromm get back on track?
The winner of this game will take a big step forward in the quest to win the SEC East this year. Georgia has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 78-24 but a closer game should be expected this year. South Carolina’s defensive gameplan to stop the run and force the Bulldogs to win through the air can be successfully replicated by Florida. Can Georgia get a few more big plays out of the passing game and mix in some tempo to keep the Gators off balance? When Florida has the ball, a few big plays are needed, along with another efficient performance from Trask. The Bulldogs have the better roster right now, and the guess here is the balance on offense is the difference in a tight game.