The SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta is likely on the line this Saturday when Georgia and Florida meet in Jacksonville for their annual rivalry matchup. While a month remains in the 2015 season, a quick look at the SEC East standings shows why this game is critical to earn a trip to Atlanta. The Bulldogs are 3-2 in conference action and should be favored in upcoming games against Kentucky and Auburn. The Gators are in better shape in SEC play, sporting a 4-1 record with remaining matchups against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. While an upset can’t be ruled out in November, all signs suggest the winner of this game on Saturday will win the SEC East.
Both teams are coming off bye weeks, and the off date came an ideal time for both programs. Georgia is still recovering from the loss of star running back Nick Chubb after a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee and is searching for more consistency at quarterback. Florida is also dealing with some quarterback news, as starter Will Grier was suspended prior to the Oct. 17 loss at LSU. Treon Harris is experienced and capable of leading this offense, but the bye allowed the sophomore to work a full complement of snaps with the No. 1 unit.
Georgia leads the overall series 49-41-2 over Florida. The Gators won last year’s matchup in surprising fashion (38-20), but the Bulldogs are 3-1 in the last four games in this series.
Georgia vs. Florida (Jacksonville)
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Florida -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
Even though Georgia’s Greyson Lambert (16) has double the amount of career starts than Florida’s Treon Harris (eight), the edge at this position goes to the Gators. Harris was pressed into the starting role after Grier was suspended prior to the game against LSU and threw for 271 yards and two scores against the Tigers. The sophomore’s mobility is also a huge asset with Florida struggling to find consistency from its offensive line. Lambert edged Brice Ramsey in the fall for the starting job in Athens and has started all seven games. So far this season, Lambert has passed for 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns. However, his performance in SEC play leaves room for improvement. Lambert is averaging 197.8 passing yards in SEC games and struggled in matchups against Alabama, Vanderbilt and Missouri. Will Lambert be the only Georgia quarterback to take snaps on Saturday? There’s some intrigue in practice this week, as Ramsey or Faton Bauta gained momentum to see an increased role on Saturday. Could Bauta take the first snap against the Gators? It's a possibility. While both teams need production and timely passes out of their quarterbacks, limiting mistakes and preventing turnovers will be the top priority. Which team gets the most out of their signal-caller this week?
2. Establishing the Run
Even without Nick Chubb leading the way, Georgia has an advantage in talent at running back and on the offensive line against the Gators. Can the Bulldogs use it to their advantage? Georgia ranks second in the SEC by averaging 215.6 rushing yards per game this season, while Florida ranks 13th at 126.7 per contest. The Bulldogs’ offensive line has allowed only eight sacks, compared to 20 to the Gators. However, a similar storyline – Georgia’s running backs and offensive line were the advantage – played out last year in favor of Florida. The Gators gashed Jeremy Pruitt’s defense for 418 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a whopping 6.97 yards per carry. Have the Bulldogs found the right answers to slow down Florida’s offense? While Chubb is out, Georgia’s backfield still has plenty of options. Sony Michel (508 yards) is the No. 1 option, but Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas will see carries. Florida’s defense ranks fifth in the SEC against the run, limiting opponents to just 116.6 yards per game. The battle in the trenches – and the ability to establish the run – is going to play a huge role in the outcome of this rivalry matchup.
3. Turnover Margin and Field Goals
Four out of the last five matchups in this series have been decided by one score. And all signs suggest another close game on Saturday, as the good folks in Vegas list this matchup slightly in favor of Florida (+2.5). With a close game anticipated, the small aspects of every game are going to add up in the win (or loss) column. There’s a lot of luck and good fortune involved with turnovers, but it’s noteworthy Florida has a plus-nine ratio this season, while Georgia is plus-one. Additionally, the Gators have lost just five turnovers in seven games this season. And with any close game, keep an eye on special teams. Florida kicker Austin Hardin may not be 100 percent, and coach Jim McElwain hosted tryouts for placekicking options during the bye week. On the other sideline, Georgia’s Marshall Morgan has connected on 9 of 13 attempts this year.
Points should be at a premium this Saturday. Both teams have question marks on offense at the quarterback position and concerns remain about the supporting casts, especially at Georgia after the loss of running back Nick Chubb. Can Florida replicate the rushing success it had last season against the Bulldogs? The guess here is yards and points on the ground will be tougher for the Gators to come by this season. Even though the rushing attack may not be as productive, Florida can win this game with its defense, mistake-free play by Harris under center and limiting turnovers. With Georgia missing its best player (Chubb) and uncertainty about how well Lambert/Bauta/Ramsey will perform against the Gators’ secondary, a slight lean goes to McElwain’s team. Florida takes a huge step forward in winning the SEC East by earning its second consecutive victory over Georgia.