5 reasons Florida wins the Cocktail Party
For the 3rd consecutive season, Florida and Georgia will meet as top-10 teams in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). The stakes are the same as they have been the past 2 years: firm control of the SEC East, a likely spot in the SEC Championship Game and a path to the College Football Playoff. More of the same, right?
On paper, that seems right.
In reality, this won’t just be a surreal Cocktail Party off the field, with COVID-19 limiting capacity and the bulk of the Cocktail Parties confined to people’s homes. It will be a different kind of Cocktail Party because the game feels like a tipping point for both programs.
Earlier this week in my piece on key matchups, I wrote that the bulk of the pressure is on Florida, and in particular, Dan Mullen. Florida hasn’t beaten Georgia in 3 years, and Mullen hasn’t beaten a team with Kirby Smart on the coaching staff since he was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, a run of frustration that includes 3 head-to-head matchups as head coaches. Plus, for all of Mullen’s proselytizing that “7 points” is all that separates his program from Georgia a season ago, the reality is that Kirby Smart and the Dawgs have controlled the past 2 games. Florida had less talent and played hard in both, but Georgia made every play they needed to win. Now, Mullen has closed the talent gap, and he arrives in Jacksonville with what will be an All-SEC senior quarterback and one of the most explosive offenses in the country (4th in S&P+ offense, 3rd in success rate, 6th in yards per play). If not now, when?
That’s not to say there isn’t pressure on Georgia, too.
It’s odd to think of a team with a top-5 ranking and the SEC’s best defense as entering a big game clouded with uncertainty. But as Florida fans know all too well, it all starts at quarterback.
Is Stetson Bennett IV Georgia’s best option? Can he conjure the magic he dialed up against Auburn or early in the game against Alabama, or will we get the version that has struggled since the 2nd half of the Alabama game? No one knows the answer, but regardless, Florida’s advantage at quarterback is substantial for the first time since the Tim Tebow era and, because of Matt Stafford, perhaps since Chris Leak.
Complicating matters, Georgia’s vaunted defense arrives in Jacksonville banged up and missing the program’s best player, Richard LeCounte III. It’s great to see LeCounte out of the hospital and recovering from the motorcycle scare he suffered last weekend. That matters most. His absence, along with a laundry list of other absences and players fighting through injuries, will be felt Saturday. Does Georgia still have enough juice to slow the vaunted Florida offense? Smart knows how to scheme Mullen up. He also hasn’t faced a Mullen offense this explosive since the Tebow days.
But Georgia doesn’t just feel pressure because the team has questions and concerns.
Smart feels it because he knows what a thorn in his side a rising Florida can be to his aspirations to build a Saban-like dynasty in Athens.
Thanks to Smart’s recruiting machine, the Bulldogs rank No. 1 in the nation in the current 247Sports Talent Composite, which combines the recruiting rankings of every player on each roster. Florida ranked 13th when Mullen arrived, a testament to Mullen’s own roster-building capability. But the Dawgs still have almost 20 more blue-chippers on their roster, and talent and depth win championships.
Is this Florida’s time to offset those disadvantages?
If it is, here are 5 reasons the Gators will win.
This time, there will be no Jake Fromm Cocktail Party heroics
Smart is basically 1 win away from becoming the first SEC coach since Steve Spurrier to capture 4 consecutive division titles.
The glass-half-full view is that Smart is making the best of a very difficult situation for Georgia that started when expected starter and media and fan-base Heisman candidate Jamie Newman opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. D’Wan Mathis didn’t look ready after starting against Arkansas, JT Daniels might be good enough but probably isn’t healthy enough to play yet, and blue chip freshman Carson Beck hasn’t really been considered close to ready. Starting a former walk-on who works hard and Smart trusts makes some sense.
The thing is, Georgia’s quarterback situation is also of Smart’s own making.
Smart’s infatuation with Jake Fromm ultimately resulted in Justin Fields’ transfer to Ohio State and Jacob Eason’s departure to Washington, depriving the program of two 5-stars who, at a minimum, profile as better NFL-type talents than Fromm ever did. Those choices forced Smart to go get Newman this offseason, and when Newman opted out, Smart was left with what he had: Mathis, an injured Daniels, and the hardworking Bennett.
Here’s the thing about Fromm, though. He was a monster in the Cocktail Party, especially the past 2 seasons, when he helped Georgia convert 20 of 32 first downs while throwing for an average of 260 yards per contest and tossing 5 touchdowns. Last year, Florida’s defense did an outstanding job against D’Andre Swift and the Georgia run game, limiting the Dawgs to a season-low 2.9 yards per carry. It didn’t matter: Fromm made every play as Georgia went 12-for-18 on 3rd down and stormed out to a 16-3 lead they’d never relinquish.
That last anecdote is important, because the Georgia run game was much better last season than it has been this year. Part of that is due to Fromm. This season, Georgia ranks only 50th nationally in rushing success rate (though they did finish at an elite 62 percent number vs. Kentucky last week) and only 60th in yards per rush attempt (4.2), a number that is more than a half-yard worse than Florida’s (4.8), for example.
That raises the question: If Florida gangs up to stop the Georgia run, can Bennett make them pay? He probably will make a play here and there. But not enough of them.
Kyle Pitts. Enough said.
Georgia did a nice job defending Kyle Pitts last season. The Florida tight end had a productive 1st half, collecting 78 yards on 4 receptions, but went without a reception in the 2nd half.
A big reason? LeCounte, Georgia’s All-American single high safety, whom the Bulldogs deployed as help on Pitts throughout the 2nd half, trusting their corners to win a fair share of 1-on-1 battles against the Gators receivers.
Smart conceded this week that Pitts will be challenging to defend, both due to LeCounte’s absence and the way Florida has schemed ways to prevent double teams this season. As the graphic below demonstrates, Mullen does an excellent job moving Pitts around, placing pressure on various parts of the field and forcing recognition by the defense.
Passes to Florida's Kyle Pitts this year.
Line him up everywhere, throw to him everywhere. Love it.
(Red = comp, blue = INC, yellow = TD) pic.twitter.com/Rphu8W7tSy
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 4, 2020
Georgia will certainly limit Pitts to some extent. But the big tight end is a better player this season, and he’ll make a play or two that may potentially be the difference.
The Gators will do enough to slow the Georgia run game
Georgia is coming off their best running performance of 2020. The Dawgs racked up 215 yards rushing against Kentucky, despite a limited passing game that hit only 2 passes of 15 yards or more. Georgia’s 62 percent success rate against Kentucky is all the more impressive given the Cats have brilliant linebackers and were playing 7 and 8 in the box most of the afternoon.
Georgia’s run game hasn’t yet reached the “impose its will” status we’ve seen in years past under Smart, but it is improving. That said, as noted above, the Dawgs run game ranks around the middle of college football in both yards per attempt and success rate on the season. It’s a good run game, not a great one.
Florida’s run defense has surrendered 100 yards or more to both South Carolina’s Kevin Harris and Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller this season, and the Gators rank only 42nd nationally in rushing defense . But Florida’s best run-stopping safety, Donovan Stiner, should return this week, and their best run-leverage defensive tackle, Kyree Campbell, returned last week. Campbell’s return helped a shorthanded defense stuff a strong Missouri run game a week ago, limiting the Tigers to a paltry 40 yards. On the season, the Gators rank 38th in yards allowed per rush attempt, but Todd Grantham was encouraged by how his run defense looked with Campbell back, and Florida’s defense may be turning the corner at the optimal time.
They’ll do just enough to make Bennett beat them, which is Florida’s best pathway to winning.
Kyle Trask will have his Cocktail Party moment
If this game is close, trust Kyle Trask to make the plays needed to win.
This week, I’ve written about the ways Trask has improved his game in 2020, notably working on his arm strength and footwork in pressured or closing pockets. The most accurate and effective short route passer (1-10 yards) in college football, Trask can also spread the field vertically, as he is 2nd in the SEC in accuracy on throws of 16 yards or more and leads the SEC in accuracy on throws of more than 20 yards, per SEC Stat Cat. Despite the label, Trask is hardly a “dink and dunk” quarterback.
Georgia will be the best defense he has played, but the Dawgs are banged up and playing without one of their best defensive linemen and their best player in the secondary. Last year, Smart confused Trask with unusually exotic blitzes and disguised coverages, forcing Trask, making only his 6th college start, into some puzzling decisions and not allowing him to get comfortable.
That will be harder against the improved Trask, who is more experienced and enters the game ranked 4th nationally in pass efficiency (minimum 3 games). Playing a game that could cement his legacy as a Florida legend, Trask will, like Fromm and Aaron Murray before him, prove the value of having an All-SEC-caliber quarterback in this game.
Mullen is due (?)
This is the hottest take I’m offering, but if Florida is to win Saturday, it will be because Mullen doesn’t overthink things and trusts his offense, his players and the process.
Smart has had Mullen’s number, even accounting for the fact that you can’t put a ton of stock in repeated Alabama victories over the outmanned Mississippi State Bulldogs. Smart is 3-0 vs. Mullen as a head coach, and the 2 prior top-10 meetings have been controlled by Georgia.
Smart understands this rivalry in a way no Georgia coach has since Vince Dooley. He knows that every path to Georgia’s program goals runs through Jacksonville, and having lost to Florida 3 times as a player, he shares the contempt Spurrier had for his opponent in this game. In life, we often deliver our best when we are most passionate and focused, and that’s an apt description of Smart in the Cocktail Party.
Mullen is a Meyer protege, so he understands the value of rivalry games, too. But he has yet to win this game, and last season, Florida looked a bit overcoached, with multiple substitution penalties and complex coverage breakdowns and wristband-gate offered as a half-hearted explanation afterward.
Florida needs to avoid the urge to search for some silver bullet. They need to trust their personnel and system instead.
Expect Mullen, playing with a senior quarterback and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses, to understand that Saturday. If he doesn’t, he risks becoming a John Cooper to Lloyd Carr or Jim Harbaugh to Meyer type — a very good coach with a very good program, but one that is just south of a national power.