GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As if Georgia’s flawless record wasn’t impressive enough, the Bulldogs’ only close win now looks like one of the best on any national contender’s resume.
Georgia won 20-19 at Notre Dame back in Week 2 before it was clear what either team was going to become.
Since then, the Bulldogs (7-0, 4-0 SEC) have been utterly dominant while winning their next five games by an average margin of 30.6 points. All the while, Notre Dame hasn’t lost again since and just put a 49-14 pummeling on USC this weekend.
The point being, No. 3 Georgia looks like as strong a national title contender as there is heading into its rivalry game with Florida this coming Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC), in contrast, are simply trying to hang on to their season after back-to-back narrow losses at home heading into the bye week.
They have the chance to totally pivot the narrative, though, if they can find a way to upset Georgia. Florida figures to be a heavy underdog despite winning the last three meetings with the Bulldogs.
If the Gators can find a way, though, their fleeting SEC East hopes remain alive and they set themselves up for a strong second half.
“It’s a really big game. Just like every game, but this one is really going to be a big game for us,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said.
Said safety Chauncey Gardner Jr.: “It’s always big. It’s Florida-Georgia. We just have to continue to keep playing football. We can’t think about the past, can’t think about what’s going to be there. We just have to take it play by play, step by step and do what we’ve got to do to win this game.”
So what exactly do the Gators need to do to win this game? Here are their five keys this week.
1. Find a way on the ground
Georgia has a great defense in general, ranking third nationally in allowing just 252.6 yards per game, and the Bulldogs are almost as effective against the pass as the run.
Florida, meanwhile, has a one-dimensional offense that relies on its two-headed rushing attack of freshman Malik Davis (506 rushing yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore Lamical Perine (272-6).
With Georgia giving up just 82.1 yards per game on the ground, it will be difficult for those rushers to find a rhythm, and yet that’s the only way this Florida team has a chance to win. Davis and Perine must find a way, and the offensive line has to have one of its best games.
Mississippi State wasn’t remotely competitive with Georgia, but it did rush for 177 yards, including 47 from quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Appalachian State, meanwhile, rushed for 136 yards, including 66 from quarterback Taylor Lamb.
Unfortunately for Florida’s hopes, those are the only examples of teams having any success on the ground against the Bulldogs. Notre Dame (55 rushing yards), Samford (22), Tennessee (62), Vanderbilt (64) and Missouri (59) all got shut down against Georgia. (The Fighting Irish somehow still rank sixth in the country in rushing at 317.9 yards per game, to put that defensive feat in perspective).
So the odds aren’t in the Gators’ favor. If Mississippi State and Appalachian State’s relative success on the ground against Georgia offers any clues, Florida might want to work in some designed runs for quarterback Feleipe Franks, assuming he again gets the start.
Franks’ biggest play in the loss to Texas A&M two weekends ago was a 79-yard scramble, and he has looked to be a capable rusher when plays break down. So it might be worth adding in the extra wrinkle of some designed QB runs.
But ultimately, this game is on the backs of Davis and Perine. It’s a tough task, but the Gators need them to deliver.
2. The opposite is just as important
Georgia’s preseason hype started building when running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel announced they were delaying their entry to the NFL and returning for another season in Athens.
Both have been huge factors this fall as expected, with Chubb rushing for 688 yards (6.4 per carry) and 8 touchdowns and Michel rushing for 492 yards (7.2 per carry) and 6 TDs.
Whether it was sophomore Jacob Eason or more recently freshman Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs have successfully taken pressure off the QB and rode that ground attack and their stifling defense for the most part.
Florida won’t be able to keep pace with Georgia if Georgia keeps pace with its season rushing stats. The Bulldogs are 10th nationally with 282.9 yards per game on the ground.
The Gators defense showed some very encouraging signs against the Aggies two weeks ago, shutting down Texas A&M’s talented rushing duo of Trayveon Williams (18 rushing yards) and Keith Ford (22). For that matter, Florida held LSU’s running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams to 2.9 yards per carry each the previous week.
Against the Tigers, it was the wide receiver jet sweeps that beat the Gators, and Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond had some success on the ground as well. But neither of those teams’ traditional rushing attacks could find much room to operate against Florida.
The Gators need to build off that with another strong performance this week.
Fromm isn’t a threat to run and the Georgia should show a traditional rushing attack. If Florida can slow it down, it just might have a chance.
3. Show some life from passing game
Florida has shown nothing to this point to think its passing attack can play a leading role in pulling off this upset.
But the Gators have to get more through the air than what they’ve been getting.
Assuming Franks gets the start again — coach Jim McElwain seems uninterested in trying another option — he has to look like a different quarterback than the one he’s been through the first six games.
Franks ranks last among SEC quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in terms of passing yards per game (133.3). In Florida’s back-to-back losses to LSU and Texas A&M, he averaged just 121.5 passing yards per game with 1 TD (on a shovel pass initially ruled a rushing touchdown) and 2 INTs.
Florida can’t beat good teams if that’s all he gives them.
If McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier insist on continuing to ride with Franks, they have to find a way to get more out of him.
They’ve already significantly simplified the offense with an abundance of screen passes and short, over-the-middle routes. Those are fine to an extent, but they can’t be the extent of the passing plan. Everyone has noticed that Franks’ field vision is a separate obstacle, and he has failed to notice open receivers. That’s something he must get better at, but the coaches also have to find a way to help him succeed.
If they remain committed to the young QB, then they must think there is more he can do than what he’s shown. Whatever they’ve tried to this point isn’t working. Hopefully the two weeks between games was enough to add in some new looks, some more plays Franks is comfortable with and within which he’s able to cycle through the progressions.
Florida doesn’t win this game without its best QB performance of the season.
4. Hope for health
McElwain will update the health of his team Monday, and the Gators have to hope that wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland (high-ankle sprain) and Kadarius Toney (separated shoulder) are ready to return.
Cleveland played a few snaps two weekends ago against Texas A&M after missing the previous game. The extra two weeks of rest may be enough to get him back to full speed, and if so, that would be a major boost to this offense.
Cleveland is the Gators’ only established downfield threat, and for all the fair criticism about Franks, the young QB does possess a cannon of an arm and good touch on his deep throws. Florida’s attempts to go downfield last game were unsuccessful, but Cleveland has consistently shown the ability to get open on deep posts while accounting for all of Florida’s long receptions so far (63, 50 and 49 yards).
That’s an element this Gators offense badly needs.
And Toney, meanwhile, is a game-changing threat every time he touches the ball. He seemed to get pigeon-holed into a wildcat specialist in his last game. If he plays this week, Florida must commit to using him as a receiver more and getting him the ball in open space where he can make something happen with his athleticism.
It’s not clear if Toney returning from his injury this quickly is realistic. McElwain will shed more light on that Monday. But it would sure be a huge help to this offense if he was active.
5. Make a statement
Speaking after that crushing loss to Texas A&M two weekends ago, Franks reiterated his confidence in this team and said “the leadership will really show” moving forward.
Meanwhile, McElwain said, “I believe in this team and will continue to do that.”
For all of Florida’s flaws, give the Gators credit for being resilient and showing consistent fight. They bounced back from a deflating season-opening loss to Michigan, rallied to wins in the fourth quarter against Tennessee and Kentucky and have managed not to let the cloud of nine suspensions be an excuse to this point.
They need to show again Saturday that they too still believe in themselves.
They face an uphill climb the rest of the way, starting with the toughest game on their schedule against these Bulldogs. A third-straight loss would leave the Gators needing to win three of their final four games to just get bowl eligible.
They don’t have much margin for error the rest of the way to prevent this season from going off the rails.
Whether Florida pulls off a stunner against Georgia or not, it needs to look competitive and give some encouraging signs to build upon down the stretch.
Obviously, a win over the Bulldogs would change everything. But short of that, the Gators need to realize that even if their goals are off the table, there is still a lot at stake the rest of the way as it relates to the big picture and the future of this program.