JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There are so many examples of highly favored Georgia teams losing in the Florida series it’s impossible to recount them all here in this space. That’s why so many Bulldogs’ fans have the heebie-jeebies ahead of the big game on Saturday.
The reality is, there are just as many upsets on both side of the ledger. For every game the Bulldogs have lost as a big favorite, the Gators have done the same. For every 2002, when No. 5 Georgia collapsed to an unranked Florida team, there’s been a 1985, when the No. 1-ranked Gators fell 24-3.
And here’s another tidbit: There also have been far more times that the favored team has come through. This year looks like one of those times.
But that’s really not the point. Fortunately for both sides, players simply don’t think the way fans do. In most cases, they haven’t been investing money or emotions into these teams and this series for years and decades on end. For them, it’s simply a weekly and yearly competitive exercise.
Georgia defensive back Aaron Davis, an eloquent-speaking senior, does a good job of putting it all in perspective.
“It’s hard to take past events and bring them over to this year,” he said, knowing that the Bulldogs have lost the last three games in the series, and 21 of the last 27. “You have different players, different teams, different coaches every year. Obviously, [Florida has] been doing something right based on the past record. But each game is its own.
“I like to think of it like a coin flip. Just because you get 21 heads in a row doesn’t mean the next one has to be tails.”
It doesn’t appear there’s a lot to be left to chance in the matchup this year. The Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) arrive at the World’s Largest Cocktail Party undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the nation. They’ve won their four SEC games by an average of 31.2 points and have logged a pair of Top 25 victories, 31-3 over Mississippi State and 20-19 over now No. 9-ranked Notre Dame.
Conversely, the Gators (3-3, 3-2) are mired in a nightmare of a season. It started off with nine of their players – including their top two offensive playmakers – getting swept up in an alleged credit-card fraud that has them all indefinitely suspended. And Florida fans like to boast that they’re three points from being undefeated in conference play, but they’re equally close to being 1-4 with Houdini-like wins over Tennessee and Kentucky that required last-second scores.
There only two common opponents so far have been Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Florida beat both teams at home in Gainesville by a combined score of 64-44. The Bulldogs won their two against them on the road 86-14.
But as history has shown, none of that matters once the ball is kicked off in this annual neutral-site clash. Emotions run especially high in this series, both on the sidelines and up in the stands. For that reason, momentous swings are common, as are lopsided final scores.
This year, Georgia has a decided edge on offense, defense and special teams, plus in the motivation column. With SEC championship and College Football Playoff ramifications hanging in the balance, the Bulldogs have much to gain.
Then again, it could be argued they have much more to lose.
“I just don’t think that you worry about that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I mean, it ultimately comes down to how we play. The number one thing we are concerned with is what is going to allow us to play our best football game, what is going to allow us to be more sound in execution, what’s going to allow us to protect the ball, attack the ball better defensively and offensively. It’s not about what the favorite is, what the line is. I mean, it’s going to boil down to how we play.”
Here’s what it will come down to:
Running and stopping the run
Those two are always pillars of winning in the SEC, but it’s especially applicable when it comes to this game and this series. If you want to look for reasons the Gators have won the last three, look no further than the rushing stats.
Florida has outgained Georgia on the ground – 776 yards to 231 yards the last three seasons. The Bulldogs have rushed for just 8 first downs during that span. Last year, Nick Chubb led Georgia with 20 yards. As a team, they managed only 21.
Every indication is that the Bulldogs should dominate in this area on Saturday. Georgia is averaging 113 more yards a game on the ground and giving up 61 fewer yards per game. Meanwhile, Georgia is getting back from injury some key players on defense, including defensive tackle Trent Thompson and linebacker Reggie Carter.
Jake Fromm’s repertoire
According to Florida safety Chauncey Gardner, the Gators don’t have much to worry about facing Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. All he can do in the passing game is throw a slant, according to Gardner.
Of course, neither Gardner nor the Bulldogs believe that is true. All you have to do is watch some game tape of what Fromm has been doing this season to know Georgia’s offense and passing game have not been slimmed down to accommodate for the freshman quarterback.
If anything, the Bulldogs have seen their offensive repertoire expand under Fromm’s guidance. Georgia is utilizing more formations, personnel groupings and motion in his seven-game tenure as the Bulldogs quarterback. Plus, they’re checking in and out of plays at the line of scrimmage more often than they did a year ago.
“We’re doing what we do,” Smart said earlier this week. “We’re doing what we think works. It’s not a judgment decision based on what [Fromm] can handle or what they can handle. Your offense is limited by the person on the offense that can handle the least. That’s not Jake Fromm. It’s the people around him. We don’t put limitations on him. We put in what we think can work, what we can execute.”
It has been going all right. Georgia is second in the SEC in scoring at 37.6 points per game. That’s 13.1 points and nine places higher than a year ago. And while the Bulldogs are indeed last in the SEC in passing offense (171.4 ypg), they’re completing 60 percent of their passes. And thanks to a strong running game, Fromm’s yards-per-attempt average of 9.5 yards is No. 5 in the nation.
“I’ll take a completed slant all day,” senior tailback Sony Michel said with a laugh. “Jake’s fine.”
Long ball lurking?
It’s just a coincidence that Feleipe Franks’ game-winning touchdown pass with no time remaining against Tennessee happened to be the same number of yards of two long touchdowns that Georgia gave up against Missouri. Emanuel Hall beat the Bulldogs deep twice on 63-yard passes in their last game. Franks hit Tyrie Cleveland on a 63-yard streak to beat the Vols 26-20 in September.
And that’s the book on Franks: He can beat you deep. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound redshirt freshman arrived at Florida with that reputation – live arm, dynamic play-making ability – along with a 5-star recruiting rating by a couple of services.
However, Franks and Florida’s quarterbacks have struggled with other aspects of the game. That’s part of the reason the Gators are 12th among SEC teams in scoring (23.7 ppg) and rank for the third year in a row in the 100s nationally in total offense.
Cleveland, by the way, is questionable for the game Saturday with a high-ankle sprain. However, indications late in the week were that he might be able to play. And the leading receiver in the 2016 game, Antonio Calloway, is among the nine suspended players who have sat out all season for Florida.
Nevertheless, Smart called the Gators’ wide receiver corps the best UGA has faced this season. Keeping those guys in front of and underneath Georgia’s safeties will be a major priority on Saturday.
Special teams and turnovers matter much
There is a feeling within Georgia’s camp that the Bulldogs can get more out of their special teams. And that’s saying something, because UGA has been the dominant team in that area in virtually every game this season.
Smart pointed out this week that he’d like to see his returners make an impact, and they’ve been tantalizingly close to doing that. Mecole Hardman, in particular, seems to have been an ankle or shoelace grab away from “spitting one out” all season. As it is, Georgia has been fairly mediocre on that front.
But there has been nothing mediocre about the Georgia kicking game. Rodrigo Blankenship is putting up an argument for unseating Auburn’s Daniel Carlson as an all-conference player; has has made 10 of his 11 field-goal attempts and recorded 37 touchbacks on kickoffs. The same case for all-SEC status can be made for first-year punter Cameron Nizialek.
Conversely, Florida has been fairly pedestrian all the way around, though it is the only team in the league without a kickoff return all season. The Gators seem to be missing their typically explosive returns game.
As for turnovers, both teams will look to improve in that area, which always has a pivotal effect on this game. The Gators are the only SEC team to not have a fumble recovery all season, which has contributed to a minus-3 turnover margin. Georgia has had a lot of takeaways (10) but almost as many giveaways (9). The winner of this game most often comes out on top of that ledger.