JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Every college football analyst on the planet — or seemingly so, at least — weighed on Georgia’s quarterback situation on Friday on the outer grounds of TIAA Bank Field. And so did Marcus Spears.
But Spears, who was a star defensive lineman at LSU, is more intrigued about the quarterback and offensive situation on the other sideline in the 86th renewal of the Georgia-Florida rivalry in Jacksonville. He’s interested to see what Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs’ defense do against the Gators’ offense and its reborn quarterback, Feleipe Franks.
Asked what he thought were some of the biggest keys to the outcome of Saturday’s game between the Top 10 teams, Spears led with this one:
“Feleipe figuring out this Georgia defense,” Spears said. “Because Kirby is about to throw the kitchen sink at him. … How Feleipe responds to Georgia’s defense is big.”
It was sort of refreshing really. Almost everybody seems to be laser-focused on Georgia’s quarterback play in Saturday’s game. Specifically, the interest is in how the Bulldogs might deploy freshman Justin Fields after starter Jake Fromm played arguably the poorest game of his career in the 36-16 loss at LSU.
Spears is, of course, an LSU alum and was a great defender himself. So he knew and heard a lot about what the Tigers did to thwart Georgia’s offense in that game. Florida’s defense, under the direction of Todd Grantham, is very similar to Dave Aranda’s. So Spears expects to see the Gators use a lot of the same concepts against Fromm and the Bulldogs.
But Spears has also been a long time observer — and admirer — of Georgia’s Smart, both as head coach for the Bulldogs and as defensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide. And he pointed out that the Gators might want to be on alert for Georgia to unleash some defensive aggression on Saturday.
“You guys know me; I shoot straight. This (Florida) offense is not prolific,” Spears said in an interview inside the Jacksonville Fire Museum, just across Gator Bowl Boulevard from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium. “They do a tremendous job playing complementary football, from defense to offense, making turnovers in plus-territory. Dan Mullen has been doing a tremendous job calling plays and getting these guys in the right situation they need to be in, and Feleipe looks worlds better than he looked in recent years. …. But a good team, like Georgia, you go down 21-3 to them and it can go downhill fast.”
Spears is referring to the Gators falling behind to Vanderbilt 21-3 in the first half of their last game. Florida rallied and came back to win 37-27.
Vanderbilt is a team the Bulldogs led 41-6 until the final two seconds. If Florida falls behind similarly against Georgia on Saturday, “they ain’t coming back.” Spears said.
That’s what happened in Georgia’s 42-7 win over Florida last year. The Bulldogs shot ahead 21-0 in the first 7:28 and never looked back.
Meanwhile, Spears sees much more potential in Georgia’s young defensive unit than what it showed in Baton Rouge. In fact, he was one of several analysts interviewed on Friday who were pointed in the criticism of the game plan the Bulldogs carried into Tiger Stadium in that game two weeks ago.
That brings us back to Fromm, primarily. And to Smart as well.
The key, Spears says, is Georgia learning from its mistakes.
“I think after losses, you self-evaluate,” Spears said. “The good teams get better after they suffer a loss. I think that’s what you’re seeing from Florida.”
The Gators lost at home to Kentucky 27-16 in Week 2 but have won five in a row since.
Spears believes the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs are capable of a similar run. He pointed to Georgia’s response to last year’s road loss to Auburn.
“You look at Kirby Smart’s history and you would say to yourself, Auburn wasn’t able to do the same thing against them in the SEC Championship,” Spears said. “So they do a lot of self-evaluation, self-scouting. I’m sure they’ll be dialed in and I’m sure will have some things dialed up that (the Gators) haven’t seen yet to this point.
“I don’t in anyway expect Georgia to play as bad as they played in Baton Rouge. And I don’t expect Florida to play as bad as they played in the first half against Vanderbilt either.”
All of which means Spears expects a well-played and highly-competitive game between Georgia and Florida on Saturday. He hasn’t seen enough of those in his limited experience of coming to the banks of the St. Johns River.
“I’m looking forward to it, man,” said Spears, who saw his Tigers lose to Florida just three weeks ago. “We’ve kind of been starved for this situation, with two top 10 teams in Georgia and Florida. “So I’m excited, excited to see how Georgia responds after the LSU loss and the bye, and to see if Florida can keep this train rolling, man.”
Oh, and that Georgia quarterback thing, Spears offered his opinion on that as well.
“I’ve been around this game too long to sail the ship on Jake Fromm,” Spears said. “He’s done a lot of really good things at Georgia, like go to a national championship game and give them an opportunity to win it last year. But I do think you sprinkle in some of Justin Fields just as a change-up for your offense.
“But I always come back to the lane: Is Justin Fields’ reps taking away from Jake Fromm. If it does that and you plan on him being your starter, then that’s creating a problem for your offense. If there is a plan for Justin Fields to come in a certain amount of plays or in certain situations and Fromm knows about it, then I think it can work well for the team. We know what he adds. He adds an element with his legs a lot of guys in the country can’t. So it’ll be interesting to see how they play it.”
So now everybody on the GameDay and SEC Nation sets have weighed in. Fromm and Fields will weigh in after kickoff at 3:39 p.m. on Saturday.