PLANNING FOR THE OPPONENT
ATHENS – Amazing what a difference a couple of plays can make. That’s what the Georgia Bulldogs have been telling themselves for the past couple of weeks.
If not for a Hail Mary play by Tennessee in the final four seconds of their Oct. 1 meeting in Sanford Stadium and botched fourth-and-one call with 1:59 left against Vanderbilt, Georgia could be riding high into this week’s tilt against No. 14 Florida with a 6-1 record and a similar ranking. As it is, though, the Bulldogs will limp down to Jacksonville at 4-3 overall and 2-3 in the conference with all kinds of questions in tow.
Of course, all the angst would vanish in a snap if Georgia were to pull off the upset. After all, this is the first time since 1989 that an unranked Bulldogs’ team met a ranked Florida squad in the annual neutral-site game affectionately known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” And wouldn’t you know it? The Bulldogs won that one, 17-10.
Of course, UGA hasn’t won a whole lot of them since then. A fellow by the name of Steve Spurrier showed up to coach the Gators in 1990 and they’ve won 20 of 26 since then. Georgia’s a more respectable 5-9 in the series since the man the Bulldogs came to call “the Evil Genius” departed following the 2001 season.
In fact, UGA had a three-game winning streak going from 2011-13 under former coach Mark Richt. But the Bulldogs thoroughly blew it the last two years, especially last season. That was the game that ultimately resulted in Richt’s demise. He decided to make a radical, surprise move and start third-string quarterback Faton Bauta against the Gators. It blew up in Richt’s face as Bauta threw four interceptions and the Bulldogs committed devastating special teams mistakes on the way to an unhinging 27-3 loss.
But that was then and this is now, and Florida enters Saturday’s game as a touchdown favorite and with an opportunity to improve its chances of repeating as SEC East champions. Here’s some of the things Georgia will have to do if it is to detour the Gators from Atlanta:
FIX SPECIAL TEAMS
More than any other area, this has been Georgia’s undoing in 2016. In fact, special teams mistakes ultimately led to the Bulldogs’ upset loss at the hands of Vanderbilt last week, giving up a 95-yard kickoff return and stepping out of bounds on the 3 on one of their own returns.
Last year, a special team’s gaffe by Reggie Davis on the last play of the first quarter opened the flood gates to the Gators. Davis muffed a punt return he inexplicably tried to catch inside the 5-yard line and Florida’s Nick Washington recovered it in the end zone for an easy score.
Georgia doesn’t necessarily need to do anything spectacular on special teams to give itself a chance against the Gators this year, just nothing disastrous. And that goes especially for kick coverage. That’s especially true on kick coverage. Florida’s second in the league on kickoff returns with a 26.7-yard average and has a TD return to its credit.
ESTABLISH AN OFFENSIVE IDENTITY
Establishing any type of offensive production very tall order against this bunch. The Gators feature the No. 1 overall defense in the SEC and are ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense (252.5 ypg) and scoring allowed (12.0 ppg). But Georgia has to stake an offensive claim in this game, whether it be via the run or the pass.
The Bulldogs’ goal every week is to achieve balance, but they’ve only come close to that one time – against Tennessee – and have been either pass or run dominant in the other six games they’ve played. In any case, it doesn’t need to be one-dimensional against an elite defense such as Florida’s.
That’s going to be very difficult to achieve as the Gators are likely to take a page out of others’ playbook and sell out to stop Georgia’s run. They’d much rather put the game on the arm of freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, especially with a secondary that is considered the best in college football. The Gators feature a pair of corners in Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor who both project as NFL first-round picks, and safety Marcus Maye is an All-American. That’s why Florida has recorded a league-best 10 interceptions.
There’s a glimmer of hope for Georgia running the ball. The Gators allow just 119.7 yards per game, but leading tackler Jarrad Davis, a linebacker from Kingsland, is coming off an ankle injury, and Florida may be without two defensive linemen due to injuries.
If Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel can find some room to run, everything else should work.
PRESSURE THE PASSER
Florida is much better on offense than it has been the last couple of years, and a lot of that has to do with the presence of quarterback Luke Del Rio. Kirby Smart knows the redshirt sophomore well because Del Rio started his career at Alabama before transferring first to Oregon State, then to Gainesville.
The son of longtime NFL coach Jack Del Rio, Del Rio has settled down the Gators’ offense from the standpoint of getting them into the right plays and protections and distributing the ball to the correct playmakers. But he suffered a knee injury and missed two games before making his return against Missouri on Oct. 15. Though the Gators won 4014, Del Rio’s performance left a lot to be desired. He threw 20 incompletions and three interceptions to one touchdown. With his knee still bothering him, most of Del Rio’s issues came under heavy pressure from the Missouri defensive front.
Georgia has done a better job “affecting the quarterback,” as Smart likes to say, in recent weeks. The Bulldogs have moved up to fifth in the league in quarterback sacks (11) and now have 47 pressures and 31 tackles for loss. If sack leader Lorenzo Carter (4.0) and fellow outside linebacker Davin Bellamy (2.5) can find a way around or through the Gators’ massive offensive line, they, too, could induce Del Rio into making some mistakes.