Florida football: 5 reasons why the Gators will win the Cocktail Party
After two weeks of talking, it’s finally here.
Even in a rivalry with a history as grand as this one, this edition of the Cocktail Party feels bigger.
Georgia vs. Florida, with the winner firmly in the College Football Playoff conversation and in strong position to be the SEC East’s representative in Atlanta.
A Georgia team that earnestly believes it hasn’t yet played its best ball this season against a Gators program that weeks ago reclaimed the vaunted Swamp with a deafening, attention-getting victory over the same LSU team that wiped Georgia out a week later.
Kirby Smart vs. Dan Mullen in what could be just the first round of an annual struggle between the two young coaches for dominance in the SEC East, as their programs claw and scratch for the limited space on college football’s mountaintop.
It doesn’t get much better than that in this sport.
After a week of breaking down the ways Florida can attack Georgia and the ways the Gators are vulnerable against their oldest rival, the analysis and talking gives way to football Saturday when toe meets leather just after 3:30 p.m.
Here are five reasons the Gators will leave Jacksonville with their seventh victory on the season and fourth win over Georgia in the last five years.
1. Florida will be able to run effectively
As good as Georgia has been at limiting explosive plays most of the season, they have struggled to slow opposing run games.
The Dawgs rank a below-average 84th in the country in S&P+ rushing defense and a mediocre 65th in rushing efficiency defense. Florida is probably the best rushing offense that Georgia has faced, ranking 25th nationally in S&P+ rushing offense and 16th in rushing efficiency offense. Florida also features two of the top five backs in the SEC in yards after contact in Jordan Scarlett (second) and Lamical Perine (fifth).
Mullen is also excellent at designing run plays that make linebackers stay home and make reads and plays in the second level. This dive/option concept against LSU is a great example, where the Gators punish overpursuit by LSU’s outside linebacker.
Georgia struggled against these plays against LSU, with linebackers Natrez Patrick, Monty Rice and Juwan Taylor struggling with overpursuit and tackling angles.
Florida should be able to design some plays and exploit Georgia’s defense in the run game, much the way LSU did to the tune of 275 yards and more than 5 yards per carry.
2. Florida’s offensive line will protect Feleipe Franks
Georgia ranks last in the SEC and third worst in the Power 5 in sacks and 101st nationally in sack rate. The Dawgs have only 9 sacks on the season despite playing with a lead often and despite facing two of the SEC’s worst offensive line units in Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Florida’s offensive line started slowly this season, but the re-emergence of guard Brett Heggie has been a revelation for the Gators, who have been dominant on the ground and protected Franks quite well during the team’s four-game winning streak. Florida limited Mississippi State’s dominant front to 1 sack and blanked the same LSU front that whipped Georgia for 60 minutes two weeks ago. All told, the Gators have allowed only 1.2 sacks per game, which ranks 20th best in the country, and only 2 sacks since the return of Heggie, who has given the unit needed athleticism.
This is a favorable matchup for Florida, and if Franks has a clean pocket, he has shown he can make good decisions with the football and give Florida a chance to make impact plays in the passing game.
3. Florida’s pass rush will force a big turnover
As a team, Georgia’s defense does a great job of keeping things in front of them, but it has not yet shown a propensity to consistently make big plays. Yes, the Bulldogs have a tip drill pick-six against South Carolina and a blown-call fumble return vs. Mizzou, but collectively, Georgia has only 28 tackles for loss in seven games, 9 sacks and 9 forced turnovers.
Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite alone have nearly matched those numbers, producing 6 turnovers to go with 24.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks.
Each of Jake Fromm’s 4 interceptions this season have come on quarterback pressures, and Georgia’s line struggled mightily against the best front it faced to date at LSU.
Expect Georgia to play better Saturday, but Florida has the best pass rush the Bulldogs will see all season, and the Gators will make a big play and, likely, force a critical turnover.
4. Florida is DBU
The Gators enter the game ranked sixth nationally in pass defense, and while Fromm is without question the most talented passer Florida will have played to date, it’s worth noting that Florida has also ranked sixth nationally in opponent completion percentage this season.
Some of that success is due to the elite Florida pass rush, but as noted, the Gators rank 10th in sack rate and should be able to exploit a UGA line that has struggled to protect Fromm at times this season.
More critically, as talented as the likes of Mecole Hardman, Riley Ridley and Terry Godwin are, the Bulldogs have struggled to hit downfield throws this season in the absence of Javon Wims.
7 games into the post-Javon Wims era at Georgia, and Jake Fromm still has more than twice as many deep completions to Wims as any other receiver he's played with pic.twitter.com/dzrqqiMJRr
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 18, 2018
Florida’s combination of pressure and great safety play from midseason All-American Brad Stewart and jack-of-all-trades Chauncey Gardner-Johnson should help the Gators keep Georgia from exploiting them in the vertical passing game.
Limit big plays Saturday, and Florida will feel good about its chances.
5. No one thinks Florida will win, but upsets happen at the Cocktail Party
Georgia is a touchdown favorite, and by and large the national and regional media have predicted Georgia to win.
Paul Finebaum wrote off the Gators on his show this week, saying he didn’t give the Gators much of a chance. Longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution scribe Mark Bradley, who has seen his share of Cocktail Parties, gave the Gators short shrift this week, calling for a comfortable Dawgs win. At ESPN, Heather Dinich labeled the Dawgs the second-best one-loss team in America this week, noting that a victory in Jacksonville was a reasonable expectation. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic has picked against Florida multiple times this year and stayed the course Saturday, writing that he thinks Florida loses by multiple scores. Barrett Sallee at CBS likes Georgia to cover; Bill Connelly at SB Nation and College Football Study Hall also thinks Georgia handles its business. The entirety of the USA Today college football staff picked Georgia; only one of Sports Illustrated’s eight panelists picked the Gators.
Nobody thinks the Gators are going to win. Nobody thinks Florida is for real.
That has been a good thing in this game, whether it was Georgia’s win over No. 2 Florida in 2012 or Florida’s out-of-nowhere 38-20 win over the No. 11 Dawgs in 2014.
It may be why Florida flips the script Saturday as well.