Depending on where you look, the Florida Gators go into the game against Georgia as an underdog somewhere between 13.5 to 14.5 points.
This isn’t an accident. Yes, a break here or there and this Florida team is 5-1 and highly ranked coming into this game. But a couple of breaks in the other direction and the team is staring at a 1-5 disaster. To be honest, given all the close games, a 3-3 record seems about right.
Georgia, on the other hand, has been really impressive. The Bulldogs have destroyed all of its opponents save for one. Their only close game was against a Notre Dame team that continues to impress, a 20-19 win on the road in South Bend where true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm was making his first start.
There is no doubt this is going to be an uphill battle for Florida. But Florida is a proud team, and is likely playing for its coach after the beating he’s taken the past three weeks from the two close losses and DeathThreatgate.
There is a path to victory for the Gators, but it’s going to take a near perfect effort and probably a little bit of luck.
2017 thus far
Georgia has been better than Florida in all phases this season, so much so that the 13.5- point betting line is probably a little bit low.
By point differential against FBS opponents, Georgia has been 13.2 points per game better on offense and 11.0 points per game better on defense. The 24.2 points per game separation makes the Bulldogs — by far — the best team Florida has played in 2017. The next closest is Michigan at 12.2 points per game — also played at a neutral site — and Florida looked completely outclassed in that game.
Georgia has earned its scoring totals. The Bulldogs rank 13th and 14th in yards per pass and yards per pass on offense, respectively. They’re even better on defense, ranking 13th against the run and No. 2 against the pass.
Florida has also earned its scoring totals. The Gators rank 47th in yards per rush and 60th in yards per pass on offense. The Gators defense ranks 35th in yards per rush allowed and 75th in yards per pass allowed.
This looks like a significant mismatch for the Gators.
Georgia offense vs. Florida defense
Running back Nick Chubb averaged 7.4 yards per rush in his first two years at Georgia. He took a major step back in 2016 coming back from a severe knee injury and only averaged 5.0 yards per rush. This year, Chubb is back and averaging 6.4 yards per rush. Sony Michel, Chubb’s backup, has been even more explosive, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. The two former 5-star recruits have rushed for nearly 1,200 yards this season and are a major reason why Georgia is where it is.
The one wart for those running backs though, is that they don’t catch the ball out of the backfield. Chubb and Michel have combined for 3 receptions for 12 yards this year. Additionally, tight end Isaac Nauta – who caught 29 passes in 2016 – has only caught 6 thus far in 2017. The main targets for Fromm have been wide receivers Javon Wims (19 catches) and Terry Godwin (16 catches).
This is significant because Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has been forced to adjust from what he likes to do because opponents have been targeting the tight end (Kentucky) or running backs (Tennessee) in the passing game and isolating his linebackers.
This has forced Shannon to play much more single-high safety than he has in the past. He has combined that by going to more nickel looks, bringing an extra defensive back onto the field. This makes it imperative that the defensive line wins the battles up front, because it is an invitation to run the ball. Florida was able to win up front against Texas A&M, and it was a big part of why A&M quarterback Kellen Mond struggled through the air so much.
The Gators’ front four is explosive, even with the loss of defensive end Jordan Sherrit. I like measuring the explosiveness of a defense by looking at the ratio of tackles for loss to total tackles. The Gators sit at 10.3 percent, and have hovered around that number all year. Defenses like Tennessee and Kentucky are around 7 percent, so the Gators’ front is getting the job done.
I expect that Shannon will use the single-high safety look more sparingly on Saturday. The reason is that the safety plays center field and the wide receivers are left 1-on-1 on the outside. But the wide receivers are where Fromm has targeted thus far. Playing his typical cover-2 scheme more often will force Fromm to fit the ball into tight spaces. There likely will be a few chances for Florida to get an interception, particularly if the Gators can get pressure with the front four.
Florida did show an interesting look against LSU before switching to the single-high safety looks, and that was to get more speed on the field at linebacker by bringing in Donovan Stiner. Stiner was recruited as a safety, and so it would make sense that he has better cover skills than a traditional linebacker.
Those cover skills will be critical if Shannon decides to play more cover-2. This is because the way for Georgia to beat the cover-2 is to isolate Nauta on a linebacker down the seam. This becomes an easier throw if the offense can get the running game going and the linebackers get drawn forward by play-action passes.
The key to this matchup will be whether Fromm can find Nauta over the middle and whether the Florida defensive line can slow down Chubb and Michel without having to blitz. If Florida can stop the run and force Fromm to make tough throws, the Gators will be able to hold Georgia under 30 points.
Florida offense vs. Georgia defense
In my SEC East preview to start the season, I noted that the projected starters on Georgia’s defensive line were all highly recruited, but hadn’t fulfilled that potential yet. I cited the same explosiveness statistic from above (TFL/Total tackles) at 8.7 percent for the returning starters.
The 2017 defense has been a little bit more effective than that, as the explosiveness ratio is up to 9.6 percent. But the Bulldogs only have 10 sacks thus far, and so most of those tackles for loss are coming in the running game.
That could be an issue for Florida, since the running game with Malik Davis and Lamical Perine has been the only consistent weapon for the offense. However, that likely does mean that quarterback Feleipe Franks should have some time to throw the ball.
Franks actually was playing halfway decent against Texas A&M until he threw an interception in the end zone. The disturbing part is that Franks’ highlight tapes from high school show him making the exact same mistake. He locks on to his first read and abandons the pocket immediately when it isn’t open.
He did that consistently against Texas A&M. On the play below, you can see A&M linebacker Tyrel Dodson (25) sprinting out towards Brandon Powell (4) because that’s where Franks’ eyes are.
Had Franks switched to his second read, he would have seen Josh Hammond (10) come open across the middle. Instead, Franks tries to run out of the pocket, and runs right into a sack.
A&M knew this was an issue. They played the same single-high safety look that Florida did in the game and played man-to-man on the outside. The linebackers were then just instructed to watch Franks’ eyes. This play was supposed to be a quick slant to Powell. The offensive line knows it shouldn’t have to hold its blocks for very long because it is a short drop.
Franks shouldn’t take any drop here really. Instead, he should just stand and wait for Powell to come open. Instead, he takes a drop and hops, which gives Dodson (25) time to get in the way. If Franks throws this ball, it quite possibly is a pick-6. But that’s only because he was late with the throw and didn’t look off the linebacker.
The problem is that those things aren’t going to change. Slants and crossing routes are a good way to beat 1-on-1 coverage, but not if the linebackers are spying the quarterback’s eyes. So how should Florida attack?
There are two ways it can go. The first is to run fly routes on the outside. Those guys are 1-on-1, and the safety has responsibility for the middle of the field. Just hoist it up there and let the receiver go get it. This is where Florida needs Tyrie Cleveland to return and be fully healthy. He’s the vertical threat that can take the defense out of this single-high look.
The other way to attack is to occupy the linebackers with the running game. But that only helps the passing game if the quarterback is part of the running game.
While this looked like a broken play, I think the big run for Franks was a designed QB draw. This is a really good call in this situation because Franks doesn’t do well with pressure, and the opposition knows that. The blocking scheme on this play was suboptimal — it’s a good idea to at least fake blocking the defensive end — but once Franks broke the tackle, A&M was in man-to-man coverage and the field was wide open.
Franks isn’t good enough throwing the ball to protect himself from getting hit. If he just drops back and locks on to one receiver, Georgia only has to defend one guy. If the Gators can incorporate him into the running game, it will force the Bulldogs to defend two things at once. That is the difference between a predictable offense and one that can start to convert third downs.
Georgia has a history of laying eggs in big games — particularly in this game — none moreso than the 2014 meeting famous for Florida quarterback Treon Harris only attempting 6 passes. Upon initial inspection, these teams look similar to those. Georgia came into that game highly ranked and 6-1 while Florida came in 3-3 on its last fumes for Will Muschamp with a struggling offense.
But Florida’s offense was actually 60th in points per game, compared to 92nd this year. The defenses were also much closer, with Florida ranking 27th and Georgia 16th. Overall, the point spread between the two teams for 2014 was only 12.9 points. Georgia was clearly the better team – and the team I would have picked going in – but it’s also useful to remember that the Bulldogs had Hutson Mason at quarterback.
Mason wasn’t terrible, but he was a 3-star prospect. Fromm has significantly more pedigree, along with a major road win at Notre Dame. Fromm has also put up a QB rating of 170.3 thus far, which is the kind of rating that is on-par with QBs who command the best offenses in the country.
Fromm isn’t asked to do a ton in the offense, but he’s doing what he’s asked to do very well. And with the running of Chubb and Michel, that’s been enough to make the offense move.
Neither team runs a ton of plays (69.7 per game for Georgia vs. 65.3 for Florida). The key difference is that Georgia is converting 48.9 percent of its third downs while Florida is only converting 33.3 percent.
That probably means Florida is in trouble. Franks just doesn’t have the ability to convert third-and-long, while Fromm has shown the ability to do so. And Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has just not shown that he knows how to utilize a running QB, which is going to be necessary to keep Georgia off balance.
I have my doubts that Georgia’s offense is as good as its underlying numbers. True freshmen QBs always play worse on the road, and Fromm is no exception. But Florida’s offense is really bad, and to expect it to be anything other than what it is at this point just doesn’t make any sense.
Georgia wins, 27-17.