3 things Florida will do better than Georgia in 2018
GAINESVILLE — For roughly two years during Jim McElwain’s tenure, Florida was able to claim SEC East superiority. On Nov. 4, 2017, Georgia clinched the division and punched its ticket to Atlanta with a 24-10 win over South Carolina.
While Georgia’s sudden dominance might have felt like an overnight phenomenon, it was actually a slow-developing culmination of signing superior talent. Even while Missouri and Florida were winning division titles, UGA was amassing the talent to become a national competitor and a true rival to Alabama.
While Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee all stumbled and sputtered through coaching changes, Georgia signed blue-chipper after blue-chipper. Of all the coaching changes in the SEC East, Georgia’s transition from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart proved to be the smoothest. After less than two months on the job, Smart signed the No. 6 recruiting class according to 247Sports Composite, ranking higher than Florida (No. 12) and Tennessee (No. 14). The last time UF signed a recruiting class ranked higher than UGA, Will Muschamp was head coach of the Gators (February 2013).
So it’s understandable why Georgia is again the favorite to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs appear to be SEC East’s most talented squad top to bottom for 2018 and likely for years to come. Arguably even more important is the fact that unlike the rest of the East, UGA actually held its own against mighty Alabama. In recent years, Florida and Tennessee have been run out of the building. In January’s national championship game, Georgia took the Crimson Tide to overtime (and actually led much of the game).
The Dawgs are the rightful favorite, but that doesn’t mean Gator Nation should abandon all hope for the annual showdown in Jacksonville. Here are three things Florida will do better than Georgia this season:
1. Defend against the pass
In 2017, Georgia had the better passing defense, allowing fewer passing yards per game (168.9 passing yards per game to 195.4 yards per game), but Florida had more passes defended (statistical combination of pass breakups and interceptions) per game.
The Gators finished with more interceptions (14) in 11 games than UGA managed in its 15-game season (11). While both lost one of their top defensive backs (Florida’s Duke Dawson and Georgia’s Dominick Sanders), UF appears to return more playmakers in the secondary for 2018.
Florida returns three of the SEC’s top 20 defenders in passes defended per game: Marco Wilson (0.91), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (0.82) and CJ Henderson (0.75). In passes defended per game, Georgia’s top three returning defensive backs check in at No. 17 (Deandre Baker, 0.80) and T-No. 42 (J.R. Reed, 0.47; Tyrique McGhee, 0.47).
The Gators like to call themselves DBU and it’s hard to argue against that with Wilson and Henderson anchoring the secondary at the two cornerback spots. Henderson tied Dawson, who went No. 56 overall in this year’s NFL Draft, with a team-leading 4 interceptions, earning him Freshman All-SEC recognition. The lack of an interception might have led to Wilson’s snub from the freshman team despite his 10 pass breakups, but Pro Football Focus recognized him as one of the conference’s top freshman defenders.
Top graded SEC freshmen defensive players this season:
1. Andraez Williams, CB, LSU – 86.9
2. Marco Wilson, CB, Florida – 81.3
3. Grant Delpit, S, LSU – 78.9
4. Erroll Thompson, LB, Miss State – 78.6
5. Kobie Whiteside, DT, Missouri – 77.3
— Vinnie Ronca (@PFF_Vinnie) December 14, 2017
2. Sack the quarterback
Neither team was near the top of the SEC in sacks per game last season. Georgia checked in at No. 9 with 2.27 while Florida was No. 11 with 2.09. There’s one big reason to expect Florida’s numbers will be better in 2018: Todd Grantham.
UF’s new defensive coordinator represents a sharp contrast from former coordinator Randy Shannon. While Shannon wanted to see the front four handle the pass rush on its own and was reluctant to blitz, Grantham is aggressive and uses a 3-4 with outside linebackers assisting the pass rush. Last season, Mississippi State’s defense, coached by Grantham, was No. 4 in the SEC in sacks per game with 2.77. MSU also had the SEC’s individual sack leader, DL Montez Sweat, who recorded 10.5 sacks. In 2016, before Grantham, the Bulldogs averaged only 1.92 sacks per game.
Two Florida pass-rushers to watch in Grantham’s defense will be Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga. Listed at 6-1, 242 pounds, Jefferson never could quite find the right spot for his size on a four-man front. Jefferson has established himself as a pass-rusher (8.5 career sacks) and Grantham will certainly find a way to use him. In 2016, Zuniga, then a redshirt freshman, emerged as Florida’s sack leader with five on the season. He added another four sacks last season. At 6-3, 246 pounds, Zuniga looks ideal to be a stand-up edge rusher instead of being forced to put his hand in the dirt at defensive end. Both Jefferson and Zuniga have the opportunity to help their draft stock by showing NFL teams they can play in both a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense.
3. Run the ball
On the surface, this one might not seem believable. Georgia has a history of producing NFL running backs, while Florida’s most recent successful pro running back is Mike Gillislee. This isn’t about history, however, it’s about the 2018 roster.
Make no mistake, any SEC team (including UF) would love to have D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, Brian Herrien and Zamir White. Swift averaged an eye-popping 7.63 yards per carry as a freshman. A 5-star recruit, White was ranked the No. 1 running back in the 2018 recruiting class. But one ball-carrier tips the ground game in Florida’s favor: Jordan Scarlett.
On carries and yards alone, Scarlett’s career stats don’t jump off the page (213 carries, 1,070 yards, 7 TD). A deeper dive into his 2016 season, however, helps show his potential to be one of the conference’s premiere running backs. Pro Football Focus found that Scarlett forced the most missed tackles (50) by running backs with fewer than 200 carries that year. Scarlett also managed to stay up through first contact on 40.8 percent of his rushes, which ranked third that season among running backs returning for 2017 (Scarlett’s 2017 campaign was scrapped due to a season-long suspension for credit card fraud). PFF also calculated an average of 3.75 yards for Scarlett after contact, second-best among returning draft-eligible SEC running backs entering the 2017 season.
Powering through defenders should come even easier for Scarlett in 2018, as he appears to be in the best shape of his life.
Grind together shine together #🤙🏽God pic.twitter.com/TbHwRL9aOe
— Jordan Scarlett (@ScarlettFever25) May 8, 2018
In just two months of working out under Florida’s new strength coach Nick Savage, Scarlett added 11 pounds of bulk while dropping 2.4 percent of body fat.
— Jordan Scarlett (@ScarlettFever25) March 18, 2018
Similar to UGA, Florida’s backfield is also expected to be an ensemble cast. In addition to Scarlett, Florida has veteran contributor Lamical Perine, rising sophomore speedster Adarius Lemons and 4-star signees Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement. That list doesn’t even include the standout running back from 2017, Malik Davis.
Davis is somewhat of a wildcard for 2018 after having his freshman season shortened due to a knee injury. It’s unknown when he’ll be back at full speed, but when he does return, the Gators gain a running back who recorded 90 yards or more in five of seven games as a freshman. Davis displayed a unique combination of speed, elusiveness and vision that helped Florida fans forget about Scarlett’s absence. This year, Scarlett and a healthy Davis could make for one of the most potent backfields in the SEC.
Most objective observers would take Swift, Holyfield, Herrien and White over Davis, Perine, Lemons, Pierce and Clement, but as stated above, Scarlett tips the battle of the backfields in Florida’s favor.