AN OPPOSING VIEW
ATHENS — Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Zach Abolverdi.
Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also co-hosts a daily Gators podcast as well as a radio show on ESPN Gainesville.
Before joining the AJC in December of 2015, he was at the Gainesville Sun for five years. Zach tells me he is a Heart Award winner and graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism in 2014. So he’s a grizzled vet, just like me.
Abolverdi is our guest this week for “An Opposing View.” Here’s his answers to the questions I sent his way:
1. Looking at Florida statistically, this looks like an all-world defense, even better than Bama, LSU and Auburn. Is it the real deal or is there some other freaky explanation for these dominating numbers?
Abolverdi: Despite losing six defensive starters to the NFL, the Gators haven’t experienced a drop off on that side of the ball. Surprisingly, this year’s unit may even be better than Florida’s 2015 defense. UF boasts the best cornerback tandem in the country, a pair of future NFL linebackers and some talented defensive linemen. The only knock on this unit is that it hasn’t faced many elite offenses, and that’s partly why the numbers have been so dominant. The Gators did give up 38 points against Tennessee, while Alabama’s defense allowed just 10 points vs. the Vols.
2. I saw that starting linebacker Jarrad Davis suffered some sort of leg injury against Missouri and left the game. What was the extent of that injury and will it affect his availability for the Georgia game? Any other defensive injuries?
Abolverdi: Davis suffered a sprained ankle against Missouri and spent the bye week in a boot. Florida coach Jim McElwain believes there’s a chance he could play Saturday, and Davis will try to go in practice this week. If he’s capable of playing, even if not at 100 percent, he’ll be on the field. As a Georgia native (Kingsland, Camden County High), this rivalry game means more to Davis than any other matchup on Florida’s schedule. If he’s unable to play, the Gators will start true freshman David Reese. Reese enrolled early at UF and has 14 tackles in six games played. So Reese would be ready if his number is called, but he doesn’t have Davis’ experience and leadership. The Gators expect to get back starting defensive end Jordan Sherit (knee) Saturday, but defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and defensive tackle Joey Ivie will likely miss the game with thumb injuries.
3. What’s the scoop on QB Luke Del Rio? Was the poor performance against Missouri just a result of being out the previous two games with a knee sprain or does it go deeper than that?
Abolverdi: Del Rio’s first game back was certainly a disappointment. He threw three interceptions and made some uncharacteristically poor decisions with the football. Del Rio also wasn’t fully recovered yet from his injury, but still healthy enough to return. The bye week has given him more time to let his knee heal and digest the performance he had against Missouri. After missing four weeks, there’s no doubt he was pressing to make up for lost time. Now that he’s had a chance to knock the rust off and get his feet wet, Del Rio should be more comfortable Saturday and play within the offense instead of trying to force throws.
4. Looking at the various matchups in this game, they all seem to favor the Gators quite a bit. Is there an area or an aspect of this Florida team on which the Georgia Bulldogs’ fans can place a little bit of hope in their team being able to exploit? Anything?
Abolverdi: If Davis can’t go and Ivie is sidelined, UGA could have some success attacking the middle of Florida’s defense with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If they’re able to run the ball, that will take pressure off quarterback Jacob Eason and give him a chance to make some plays in the passing game. The offensive line — specifically pass protection — is the weak spot for the Gators on offense, so Georgia needs to blitz throughout the game to try and disrupt Del Rio. He has not played well when under duress this season.
5. What would you say on a 1 to 10 scale is the Gators’ level of confidence that they’ll beat Georgia? If so, what would you say the odds are they’ll win the East again?
Abolverdi: I’d put it at an 8. Florida has beaten UGA pretty handily the past two years, and the Bulldogs are coming off a loss to Vanderbilt with a first-year head coach. That has to give the Gators confidence going into this game. The only concern for them is how the defense will hold up with those injuries and if Del Rio has learned from the mistakes he made against Missouri. While a win Saturday would maintain Florida’s lead in the division race, UF still has a couple difficult road tests in November at Arkansas and LSU.
Abolverdi’s prediction: Gators win 24-17.