The Georgia football program is at a crossroads of sorts in Jacksonville, with the Bulldogs’ figurative arrow on the verge of a decidedly “Up” or “Down” turn.
This season’s edition of the annual border state grudge match, also known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” pits two top-10 teams in No. 7 Georgia (6-1, 4-1 SEC) and No. 9 Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC).
The 3:30 p.m. Saturday matchup at TIAA Bank Field will be nationally televised by CBS and features marquee buildup, with both the SEC Network and ESPN’s College GameDay set on hand.
Here are 5 things to watch:
The winner of Georgia-Florida will put itself in a good position to win the SEC East, though No. 12-ranked Kentucky (6-1, 4-1) owns the tiebreaker over Florida and hosts the Bulldogs on Nov. 3.
Kirby Smart said before the season that “pressure is a privilege,” but the Georgia head coach has directed his team to take a businesslike approach to the rivalry showdown with the Gators.
“The last SEC game is just as important as this SEC game, [and] the next SEC game is just as important as this one,” Smart said. “So we prepare for all the games the same, because if you’re not doing that then it’s kind of like, what are you saying to the players? So we are very consistent in our preparation and very consistent in our message that whoever we play – it doesn’t matter who we play – we’ve got to go play our best game.
“We feel like if we play our best game, then we’ll come out on top.”
Georgia’s quarterback situation has remained a hot button topic throughout the season, not surprisingly, escalating into a more controversial state following the Bulldogs’ 36-16 loss at LSU in their most recent outing.
Smart has not wavered in his approach, maintaining that the quarterback position remains fluid and dependent upon the game situation.
Sophomore Jake Fromm, 18-3 as a starter, had a “spirited” bye week and impressed Smart with his resiliency and leadership.
“He was super out there last week, spirited,” Smart said. “Jake’s not the kind of guy that backs down from competition.”
Freshman Justin Fields, who took just five snaps in the loss at LSU, continues to progress.
“He’s competing every day, doing a good job, throwing good balls. I mean, he’s developing,” Smart said. “He’s come a long way from the first of the season to now, to where he’s reading coverages, protections. He’s done a really good job of picking up things in this offense, and I think that says volumes about his work ethic to be where he is.”
Bye week priorities
Smart said Georgia emphasized tackling and pass protection during the bye week.
“You’ve got to be able to tackle and knock-back tackle, and create advantageous down-and-distance situations, and that will be the key to this game,” Smart said. “We have to get a little bigger when we tackle …. we get contact made and drag them down for another 2 or 3 yards gained and that brings up a third-and-3 instead of a third-and-7, and that’s important.”
The offensive line must also be on its toes. The Gators, much like the LSU team the Bulldogs just faced, are known to pressure quarterbacks.
“They have caused problems for everybody that they have played with their athleticism. They are hard to block. They stay active,” Smart said. “You can’t put two people on all of them, you have to try to block those guys and get hands on them. They do a good job of changing stunts, moving fronts, stemming things, and are really effective, especially on third down.”
Georgia tailback D’Andre Swift is over the sprained ankle that sidelined him during bye week practices, and nose guard Devonte Wyatt is back after missing the past two games with a lower body injury.
The Bulldogs, however, are still expected to be without two of their key cogs up front: offensive guard Ben Cleveland and defensive end David Marshall.
Cleveland, who started the first four games at right guard and was arguably Georgia’s best run blocker, has been out since suffering a broken fibula in his left leg in the Sept. 22 game at Missouri. Cleveland did, however, travel to the game.
Marshall, perhaps the Bulldogs’ most effective defender against the run, remains sidelined by the foot injury he suffered against Vanderbilt three weeks ago. He did not make the trip.
True freshman Cade Mays has stepped up and into Cleveland’s role at right guard, while Marshall’s absence has led to more snaps for starter Jonathan Ledbetter as well as Malik Herring and Notre Dame transfer Jay Hayes.
The Gators arrived in Jacksonville on a five-game win streak, their top-10 ranking a surprise to most who didn’t expect first-year head coach Dan Mullen to have so much success so quickly.
Mullen, who turned down the Tennessee head coaching job to return to Gainesville, where he once served as Tim Tebow’s offensive coordinator, said the key has been team chemistry.
“I like how we’ve come together as a team. I think that’s a really important thing for us and for the program,” Mullen said. “Our guys are learning how to go play the team game if you look at how we’ve won games, we haven’t won it with just defense, we haven’t won it with just offense, we’ve found several different ways to win games and we’ve done it as a full team, and that’s been a big plus that our guys have bought into that and are believing in that team concept.”
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