GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida Gators have a daunting task ahead of them on Saturday, a neutral-site game against the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs.
But despite the fact that the Bulldogs are 7-0, a College Football Playoff contender and a more than two-touchdown favorite, the Gators are confident they have the opportunity to go into Jacksonville on Saturday and pull off the upset.
“It’s just football,” Florida sophomore Chauncey Gardner said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just going to go out there … and do what we have to do. We’re not focused on anything else.”
If Florida wants to pull off the upset, it will need these players to have some of the best games of their careers on Saturday.
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Running back Malik Davis
It seems odd to say that Florida’s most productive offensive player needs to be one of the players to step up on Saturday, but if the Gators have any chance of beating Georgia, Malik Davis needs to be at his best.
The reason? Two of Florida’s last three wins against Georgia came when the Gators’ running game gashed the Bulldogs.
In 2014 — when the unranked Gators upset the 8th-ranked Dawgs — Florida rumbled for 418 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones each had more than 190 yards on the ground and 2 touchdowns.
In 2015, the Gators tallied a season-high 258 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns against Georgia. Taylor had 121 of those yards and both touchdowns in the 27-3 rout.
Davis, despite being a freshman, is the guy who can handle the load and has shown flashes how being an elite back this season.
He leads SEC freshmen with 84.33 yards per game and is also averaging 6.75 yards per carry.
He — along with Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson — face a tough test against a Georgia defense ranked No. 4 nationally in stopping the run (82.14 yards/game), but Florida will need to continue pounding the rock if it wants to gain any sort of momentum on offense.
That starts with Davis.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks
Again, this one seems obvious. Feleipe Franks has yet to live up to the hype six games into the season. He passed for more than 200 yards in a game once this year — and only eclipsed that total because of the last-second 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland against Tennessee. His 133.3 passing yards per game ranks 99th nationally and 13th in the SEC.
With Georgia having such a stingy run defense, the Gators are going to need to find some semblance of a passing game to keep the Bulldogs honest.
Even then, it might be hard for the Gators to keep pace with Georgia.
Any wide receiver
On that note, Florida needs a wide receiver not named Tyrie Cleveland or Kadarius Toney — neither of whom is guaranteed to play — to step up.
Anyone. It doesn’t matter who.
It could be Josh Hammond or Brandon Powell. It could be Freddie Swain or Dre Massey.
Someone needs to find a way to get open. Otherwise, Florida will become one-dimensional against a team known for stuffing the run.
Without Cleveland the last two weeks, Florida has put up just 243 passing yards, with only 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The touchdown was a 6-yard shovel pass.
Defensive back Chauncey Gardner
Chauncey Gardner came with the heat on Monday, firing off comment after comment about the Gators’ mindset heading into this weekend.
He took shots at Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, saying his pass efficiency is as high as it is because “anybody can throw a slant.” He said the Gators are going to apply consistent pressure on defense to test Georgia early. And at the end of the day, Gardner said the Gators will be ready.
“This game feels like a championship game to us,” Gardner said. “If they’re the best team, so be it, but they have to play Saturday.”
Now, he needs to back up the talk.
Injuries sidelined Marcell Harris (Achilles tendon) before the season started and Nick Washington (shoulder) three weeks ago, making Gardner one of two veteran presences in the Gators’ secondary along with senior Duke Dawson.
After struggling with his tackling form early in the season, Gardner has made strides the past two weeks and now is second on the team with 37 tackles — including 17 in the past two games.
And with the Gators going against a balanced offense, Gardner will be tasked with both defending the one-two punch of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as well as helping defend receiver Terry Godwin up top.
His trash talk could serve as extra motivation to live up to expectations.
Defensive tackle Taven Bryan
Taven Bryan had his best game of the season against Texas A&M, setting career-best marks in tackles (7) and sacks (1.5) against the Aggies.
Florida will need a repeat performance from the defensive tackle on Saturday as they go against one of the top running back duos in the country.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have combined to rush for 1,180 yards and 14 touchdowns over seven games this season.
The Gators need the defensive line to be on top of its game this weekend.
And while the defensive end combination of CeCe Jefferson, Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga should be able to hold its own, Florida’s needs an added presence in the middle to win at the line of scrimmage.
Bryan, a redshirt junior, had a lot of preseason hype about his work ethic and this being his year to step up.
The flash came last week. Now, he needs to do it again.
Punter Johnny Townsend
The Gators need to win the field position battle on Saturday. For Florida, that means Johnny Townsend and the punting unit needs to do what it normally does —pin the Bulldogs deep.
Townsend is second nationally, averaging 48.53 yards per punt, with 14 of his 34 punts pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line.
If Florida can force Georgia to face a long field every time the offense is out, it gives the Bulldogs offense the extra challenge of extending drives in order to put points on the board.
In the last three games of the series, Georgia only started 8 of its 39 drives past its own 30-yard line. Of the Bulldogs’ six scoring drives in those games, three came on those eight drives with shorter field position.