Florida football: 5 things I want to see from the Gators at the Cocktail Party
Florida enters its game against Georgia on Saturday with a chance to put a program that’s spent most the decade searching for an identity smack in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation.
A Gators victory also would put Florida in a strong position to win the SEC East for the third time in four seasons and improve the program to 2-1 against the rising coaching star of Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
The stakes are equally high for Georgia.
Smart and the Dawgs are hoping to put the stench of blowout 36-16 loss at LSU two weeks ago behind them and reclaim their position as prohibitive favorites in the SEC East and Playoff contenders. A win over Florida and Dan Mullen would also firmly establish Georgia’s role in the pecking order of the SEC East, affirming the general preseason consensus that the Gators were, from both a personnel and cultural standpoint, well behind their divisional rivals to the north.
In other words, the stage is set for the world’s largest outdoor Cocktail Party since at least 2012, a season-defining contest for both programs.
Cocktail Parties are strange affairs.
Upsets are common. Take for example No. 11 Georgia upsetting No. 2 Florida in 2012 or unranked Florida’s upset of No. 4 Georgia in 2002.
Strange things can and will occur. Take for example an unranked Florida rushing for 418 yards against No. 11 Georgia and a Jeremy Pruitt defense in a 38-20 upset win in 2014.
Saturday’s game will likely contain momentum swings and at least one or two things that are entirely unexpected.
Here are five things Florida can do to overcome the traditional zaniness of the Cocktail Party and give themselves a chance to collect a crucial victory.
1. Run the Ball. Then Run the Ball some more
Much has been made of whether Florida’s run defense can hold up against Georgia’s power running game Saturday in Jacksonville. It’s a fair question and one that very well might decide the game.
Oddly, less discussion has focused on the opposite question: Whether the Bulldogs’ leaky run defense can slow a strong Florida running game led by two NFL caliber running backs in Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine and a vastly improved Gators offensive line.
It’s a matchup that favors Florida.
The Bulldogs are good at limiting explosive plays in the running game, as only 11.6% of all rushing attempts against Georgia this season have resulted in opponent runs of ten yards or more. The Bulldogs are less good at limiting “successful” running plays, ranking a below-average 84th in the country in S&P+ rushing defense and a mediocre 65th in rushing efficiency defense. What’s more, the Bulldogs have posted these very ordinary numbers against the run without facing many quality rushing offenses. Georgia has faced only two top-50 rushing offenses to date this season: Missouri (39th) and LSU (37th). Both Tigers had success on the ground against Georgia, with Mizzou tallying 172 yards rushing and nearly 5 yards-per-carry and LSU gashing the Dawgs to the tune of 275 yards rushing and 5.4 yards-per-carry.
Florida is probably the best rushing offense Georgia has faced, ranking 25th in rushing S&P+ offense and 16th nationally in rushing efficiency offense. Florida also features two backs in the top-5 in the SEC in yards after contact in Scarlett, who is second in the league in that category, and Perine, who ranks fifth.
Given this, the metrics suggest Florida can run the ball effectively against Georgia.
I also think that Florida must run the ball effectively to win.
Feleipe Franks can manage a victory in a Cocktail Party. He can’t win the game on his own. The Gators running game must simplify things for Franks and keep the Gators on schedule offensively, allowing Franks to take what the defense offers, especially in the intermediate and vertical passing game, where Franks has struggled with consistency.
2. Take some shots down the field on second down
Yes, we just cautioned against asking Franks to do too much in the passing game.
The numbers bear this out: Franks is 10th in the SEC in intermediate passing completion percentage (10-19 yards) and his accuracy numbers are decent but deceptive, thanks to a 33-for-37 accuracy mark on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Nevertheless, Georgia gives enough successful plays up defensively (65th in limiting successful plays) that Florida should have some favorable down and distance positions on second down.
The Bulldogs also struggle mightily at pressuring the quarterback — perhaps the largest difference between last year’s defense and this season’s edition in Athens. Georgia is 101st in sack rate nationally and have only 9 sacks on the season, a number that is worst in the SEC and third-worst in the Power 5, despite having played two of the nation’s worst offensive lines in Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Favorable down and distance plus protection and time should give Franks a chance to find any number of Florida’s playmakers down the field, including two matchup nightmares in Trevon Grimes and Tyrie Cleveland.
A big play or two would do wonders to limit Georgia’s effectiveness against the Gators run game.
3. Get after Jake Fromm early and often
While the Gators are limited at the 3-technique (interior linemen who lines up on a guard’s outside eye) and interior, they do possess some of the most electric pass-rushing talent in the country.
Defensive linemen Jabari Zuniga (5 sacks) and Jachai Polite (7.5 sacks) are matchup problems who can easily beat linemen one-on-one and who command help. It’s also hard to double-team them with tight ends because of the added presence of Cece Jefferson, whom most offenses have elected to double team in 2018.
As good as Georgia has been offensively, they’ve surrendered twelve sacks this season, and each of Fromm’s four interceptions on the year came after pressure.
Jachai Polite leads the nation in forced fumbles and his relentless motor has him flying up draft boards. A signature game at the Cocktail Party would propel him into first round discussions come the combine.
4. Don’t leave points on the field on special teams
Florida’s kicking game has been sensational.
Evan McPherson has stepped in seamlessly for the NFL-bound Eddy Piñeiro, connecting on 11-of-12 field goal attempts, and that kick, while called no-good against Kentucky, was clearly good.
McPherson needs to keep up the good form in Jacksonville, a venue that can be tough on kickers thanks to changing winds that swirl in off the St. John’s River.
Meanwhile, Tommy Townsend has been nothing short of spectacular. Townsend ranks 25th in America in net punting (40.8 per punt) and his booming kicks were central to Florida’s 27-19 victory over LSU earlier this month.
Townsend has even contributed in the running game, taking on a Vanderbilt linebacker on this fake punt, which helped flip the momentum of Florida’s game in Nashville two Saturdays ago.
The Gators won’t want to resort to fake punts to win Saturday, but strong games from their specialists would give them a chance. Most vitally, Florida can’t leave points on the field through missed field goals — or set Georgia up for easy points with bad punts.
5. Take the first big Georgia punch standing
Georgia is coming off a loss and while Kirby Smart has cautiously built the Gators up in the media, he’s also made it clear it clear to anyone who will listen that the Bulldogs feel they have something to prove against the Gators. Georgia is also just too physical and talented a football team to not come out inspired and ready to play.
Florida took a huge haymaker early in the LSU game, falling behind 7-0 before forcing a turnover and responding.
But that was at home. It will be tougher on a neutral field and even more difficult for the younger Gators, many of whom are playing the biggest game of their careers Saturday.
How Florida responds to Georgia’s first big punch could help set the tone for who leaves Jacksonville happy Saturday night.