A storied rivalry enters another new era Saturday in Jacksonville.
A year after Florida’s Jim McElwain made his coaching debut in the longstanding series, Georgia coach Kirby Smart will do the same as the No. 14 Gators (5-1, 3-1 SEC) and Bulldogs (4-3, 2-3) tangle in the 93rd meeting between the teams.
Georgia has a 49-42-2 all-time lead, but Florida has won the last two showdowns by lopsided margins of 38-20 and 27-3.
McElwain and Smart, meanwhile, are former colleagues. They spent four years together as the offensive and defensive coordinators at Alabama from 2008-11. They are friends, know each other’s styles and tendencies.
Ultimately, it will come down to the players on the field, though.
Both teams have first-year starting quarterbacks looking to prove something. Florida is holding out hope that star senior linebacker Jarrad Davis can make a quick return from an ankle injury and play Saturday.
Here’s a thorough breakdown of how the teams match up with each other:
Florida: Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio has one of the more compelling storylines this week as he returns to Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, where he spent time growing up watching his father Jack Del Rio coach the NFL’s Jaguars. The more important storyline for Florida, meanwhile, is that Del Rio needs to bounce back from a sloppy performance against Missouri, when he completed just 18-of-38 passes for 236 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. For the season he has 998 passing yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in four games.
Georgia: Florida coach Jim McElwain called Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jacob Eason “the future of the SEC” this week. Rated a 5-star prospect and the No. 2 overall pro-style quarterback in his recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite, Eason has had his ups and downs as a rookie. Overall, he’s completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 1,366 yards, 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. That includes a pair of 300-yard passing games (308 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT against Missouri and 346 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT against Vanderbilt). But he also got totally stifled earlier this month by South Carolina, completing just 5-of-17 passes for 29 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT in that game. The potential is definitely there, but Eason isn’t yet a finished product.
Florida: Sophomore Jordan Scarlett (12 carries for 101 yards and a TD) and true freshman Lamical Perine (11-106) each rushed for more than 100 yards against Missouri in Florida’s last game. Ideally, the Gators would prefer to lean on their ground attack like that to take the pressure off Del Rio. When they’ve been at their best this fall, that has been the formula. Scarlett has 375 rushing yards and 5 TDs overall in 67 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. Perine has 300 yards and 1 TD in 48 totes for an average of 6.2 yards per carry. The Gators announced Friday that junior running back Mark Thompson (57-262-2) will not make the trip due to disciplinary reasons, meaning those two should see an even larger share of the workload. Overall, though, Florida ranks a modest 58th nationally in averaging 181.8 rushing yards per game.
Georgia: Junior Nick Chubb hasn’t had the season many expected, rushing for 586 yards and 5 TDs on 116 attempts. Those are fine numbers, but not the head-turning stats he put up as a freshman in 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns before tearing several ligaments in his knee during his sophomore season. His return to action this fall started strong with 222 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in the opener against North Carolina, but he’s been held to 63 yards or fewer in four of the last five games. He was limited by an ankle injury for part of that stretch, but he managed only 40 yards on 16 carries against Vanderbilt in his last game. Fellow junior Sony Michel (73-358-1) and freshman Brian Herrien (52-341-3) also factor into the Bulldogs’ rushing attack. Georgia ranks 46th nationally with 195.6 rushing yards per game.
Florida: The most encouraging development for Florida over the last couple games has been the emergence of true freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland. Considered one of the prizes of the Gators’ last recruiting class, Cleveland was slowed at the start by a hamstring injury, but broke out against Missouri two weekends ago with 3 catches or 79 yards and his first collegiate touchdown. Adding Cleveland to the mix with sophomore standout Antonio Callaway (23 catches for 399 yards and 2 TDs) and junior slot receiver Brandon Powell (23-206-2) gives the Gators a nice collection of weapons in the passing game. Meanwhile, junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby, who leads the team with 25 receptions, is questionable this week with what McElwain termed as a “bad fracture of his finger.” Redshirt-sophomore tight end C’yontai Lewis has been used mostly for blocking purposes thus far, though he’s been very effective in that role.
Georgia: Isaiah McKenzie, a 5-foot-8 junior, has been Georgia’s top target this fall with 30 catches for 415 yards and 5 touchdowns. He had 122 receiving yards twice, against North Carolina and Missouri, though he hasn’t topped 56 yards the last four games. Sophomore Terry Godwin (16-215-0) and freshman tight end Isaac Nauta (15-198-2) are Eason’s other popular targets.
Florida: The right side of Florida’s offensive line has looked good with the emergence of freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor (6-foot-5, 340) pairing next to sophomore right guard Tyler Jordan (6-4, 309) and steady redshirt junior center Cameron Dillard (6-4, 313). The left side has been less consistent with junior left tackle David Sharpe (6-6, 357) and sophomore left guard Martez Ivey (6-5, 305). The main issue for the group last time out was not in protection or run blocking, though, but rather penalties. Florida was flagged for eight false starts, including six by linemen (with three coming from Sharpe). That was a point of emphasis during the bye week. Overall, Florida has given up just six sacks this fall, which has been a marked improvement from 2015.
Georgia: The Bulldogs have been healthy up front, starting the same offensive line for all seven games. It’s a veteran group with graduate left tackle Tyler Catalina (6-6, 314), a transfer from Rhode Island; junior left guard Isaiah Wynn (6-2, 285), a two-year starter; senior center Brandon Kublanow (6-3, 293), who has made 33 straight starts; redshirt sophomore right guard Lamont Gaillard (6-2, 301); and senior right tackle Greg Pyke (6-6, 325), a three-year starter. The unit has given up 17 sacks, though, which has them ranked 83rd nationally in that category.
Florida: The Gators are expecting to have senior nose tackle Joey Ivie back in action after he missed two games with a thumb injury. Meanwhile, redshirt-junior defensive end Jordan Sherit is expected to be more limited after missing two games following a knee scope, and redshirt senior end Bryan Cox Jr. is questionable with a hand injury. With those three starters missing time, Florida has found some depth up front. Redshirt freshman end Jabari Zuniga is having a breakout season with a team-best 5 sacks, sophomore CeCe Jefferson (3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries) has played both inside and outside and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Taven Bryan is coming off his best game of the season. Meanwhile, redshirt junior tackle Caleb Brantley has also been playing through a hand injury and remains a plus defensive playmaker.
Georgia: The Bulldogs play a 3-4 defense with sophomore defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks), junior nose tackle John Atkins and a collection of young defensive ends setting things up front for the team’s playmaking collection of linebackers.
Florida: Again, the big question remains if and how much Davis can play Saturday. He’s the leader of a Florida defense that ranks second nationally in yards allowed (252.5 per game) and points allowed (12.0 per game). The senior from Kingsland, Georgia, has a team-high 48 tackles while making an impact in just about every way. If he can’t go or is limited, promising true freshman David Reese would fill in alongside redshirt junior Alex Anzalone (40 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 4 QB hurries, 2.5 sacks).
Georgia: The Bulldogs have some talent at this position. Sophomore middle linebacker Natrez Patrick leads the team with 42 tackles and has 4.5 TFLs and 4 quarterback pressures. Juniors Davin Bellamy (2.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures) and Lorenzo Carter (4 sacks, 9 quarterback pressures) have done a good job getting into the offensive backfield this fall. Georgia ranks 21st nationally in total defense and is holding opponents to an average of 339.7 yards per game.
Florida: Junior cornerbacks Jalen Tabor (4 interceptions in 5 games played) and Quincy Wilson (3 INTs) come into the game with 7 combined picks and two defensive touchdowns this fall. They have the potential to turn this into a nightmarish afternoon for Georgia’s freshman quarterback is he’s not careful. Redshirt senior safety Marcus Maye, meanwhile, is as steady as they come with 35 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, an interception and a sack. The Gators have given up just 132.8 passing yards per game and only Tennessee (319 passing yards) has even thrown for 150 against this defense.
Georgia: The Bulldogs rank 70th against the pass, giving up 228.6 yards per game through the air. Junior cornerback Malkom Parrish has 1 interception and 8 pass break-ups while sophomore corner Juwan Briscoe has 2 picks and 2 pass break-ups. Junior safeties Aaron Davis and Dominick Sanders and graduate nickel Maurice Smith each have an interception as well. Smith, of course, had the highly-publicized transfer from Alabama before this season.
Florida: Redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend ranks third nationally in averaging 47.5 yards per punt and redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro is 9-of-12 on field goals this season, including 2-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. Meanwhile, Callaway had a return touchdown off an onside kick from Missouri. But the Gators’ return game has been underwhelming overall.
Georgia: The Bulldogs switched kickers during the season and redshirt freshman Rodrigo Blankenship has been steady since taking over the job, going 4-of-5 on his field goal attempts. Freshman punter Marshall Long is averaging 39.3 yards per attempt. Senior Reggie Davis is Georgia’s main kick returner, averaging 23.3 yards per return, but Godwin had a 43-yard touchdown return against South Carolina in his only attempt.
Once Smart has time to build his program, the Bulldogs and Gators could find themselves again competing for SEC East titles on a regular basis. But as it stands now, Florida simply has a stronger team this fall and a lot more to play for at this point.
The Gators are in control of the SEC East if they can win out while Georgia has already taken three conference losses. And there simply aren’t any clear advantages for the Bulldogs in this matchup.
Rivalry games can be unpredictable, but this is one Florida should win.
Expect the defense to again set the tone for the Gators, albeit in a tough matchup with Georgia passing and rushing attacks that each pack plenty of potential. Look for Del Rio to bounce back in his second start since returning from his knee injury.
Something along the lines of Florida 26, Georgia 16 seems reasonable.