Florida football: 5 things that concern me about Georgia
It’s finally here.
Florida’s bye week.
OK, I’m not talking about that, but the Gators, who played Week 0 and as such were required by rule to have a bye Week 1, are the last SEC team to have a traditional bye week. It couldn’t come at a better time for the Gators, who are a M*A*S*H unit on defense, with 3 starting linemen and a starting linebacker nursing injuries, including the dominant bookend defensive ends Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard. The Gators will use the bye to get healthy and turn the entirety of the program’s focus to Georgia, which looms on the first Saturday in November.
This will be the Largest World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (see what I did there?) since at least 2012, and the first one pitting two top 10 teams since 2008. The winner takes the inside track to Atlanta; the loser likely secures the inside track to the Citrus Bowl. With all due respect to Mickey Mouse, elite SEC programs put “Atlanta” on their whiteboard of goals at the beginning of the season. They don’t put “Orlando in January.”
It’s a huge game for both programs.
Kirby Smart continues to recruit like a man possessed. He has built one of the deepest, most talented rosters in college football and has nearly peerless administrative support to make Georgia a national championship program again for the first time in nearly 40 years. Smart has made some curious in-game decisions the past couple of seasons and lost some puzzling games in his tenure, but he knows as long as he retains his grip on the Cocktail Party, Georgia will have an inside path to Atlanta and with it, an excellent shot at the College Football Playoff and championships
The Gators appear ascendant under Dan Mullen, who continues to out-scheme and out-coach most every opponent in front of him. But the Gators know they can’t compete in the upper echelon of college football consistently until they vanquish the rival Bulldogs.
Something has to give in 2 weeks.
Here are 5 things that should concern the Gators about Georgia, the beasts of the East.
D’Andre Swift and that talented, big Georgia offensive line
Swift is Georgia’s best football player and the one guy they have offensively who can win a game by himself — and he runs behind one of the SEC’s deepest, most talented offensive lines that pound-for-pound is the 2nd-biggest in college football (Wisconsin).
While Georgia’s pass game has been pedestrian, Swift has been sensational this season, averaging 6.8 yards a carry in the run game and ranking 4th on Georgia in receptions (13) and 5th in receiving yards (148) in the passing game.
He has to be accounted for every down, which guarantees Georgia gets 1-on-1 matchups somewhere else on every play.
Swift will face a Florida team with health issues on the defensive line that have impacted the Gators’ ability to stop the run.
The Gators started the year with an excellent run defense, ranking in the top 10 nationally in stuff rate (number of “unsuccessful” running plays given down and distance) and top 15 in rushing defense and yards allowed per carry after the Auburn game.
Then Greenard got hurt, Florida lost its best guy containing the edge, and the wheels have fallen off.
In Florida’s past 2 games, at LSU and at South Carolina, Florida’s defense has given up 423 yards rushing on only 65 carries. That’s an average of 6.5 yards per carry, an atrocious number that is a big problem for a defense about to face D’Andre Swift, the best running back in America.
It hasn’t been an easy October for Jake Fromm.
He played the worst game of his storied career against South Carolina, tossing 3 interceptions in Georgia’s stunning 20-17 loss between the Hedges. A week later, Georgia outlasted a Kentucky team playing a wide receiver at quarterback 21-0, but Fromm threw for only 35 yards in the game, averaging a staggeringly low 2.9 yards per completion. Blame that on the rain.
I wrote in this space before the season that Georgia’s personnel losses on the perimeter were easily the largest question mark on Smart’s football team. The dismissal of J.J. Holloman made an already significant question more serious, as Georgia now had to replace its top 5 players in terms of passing game production.
Freshman George Pickens has been as advertised and more, but beyond him, Georgia doesn’t have anyone that frightens you in the passing game, with senior Lawrence Cager, a role player at Miami before transferring, Georgia’s No. 2 option.
Those personnel deficiencies have put extra pressure on Fromm to be perfect. He has had to make throws into extremely tight windows because receivers aren’t gaining as much separation. It’s a tough ask.
It’s also one you can trust Fromm to be ready for as the stakes continue to rise. Fromm has dominated the Cocktail Party, with a 2-0 record as a starter and an MVP caliber performance last season, when he passed for 240 yards and 3 TDs. Of course, Charlie Woerner is the only receiver or tight end on Georgia’s roster who caught a pass against Florida last season, but that won’t phase Fromm.
He has won an SEC Championship, a Rose Bowl, 2 East division titles and 2 Cocktail Parties for a reason.
He’ll play his best football in Jacksonville, and Fromm’s best football is scary.
Georgia’s elite run defense will make Florida very one-dimensional
Georgia’s run defense is tremendous and has continued to be excellent despite the pressure of playing knowing that their offense has struggled to consistently move the football.
Georgia remains the only team in the FBS to have not allowed a rushing touchdown this season, but perhaps more impressive are the overall numbers.
That dominance is a key reason Georgia weathered its 1st-half offensive woes against Kentucky last week and a big reason Georgia even had a chance to win the South Carolina game, as the Gamecocks simply couldn’t move the ball despite winning the field position and turnover battle most the game.
Florida’s offensive line and run game have improved this month, but Georgia’s run defense will pose similar challenges to what the Gators faced against Auburn when they were largely shut down on the ground save 1 long — and game-clinching — run by Lamical Perine.
Kirby Smart will cook up something to confuse Kyle Trask
As noted, Georgia’s run defense is elite and while improving, the Gators still struggle to establish the line of scrimmage and run the football consistently. Thus far, one of the nation’s best groups of wide receivers and tight ends, along with Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, have overcome Florida’s run-game deficiencies.
That could change against Georgia.
Smart loves the chance to mix up coverages, drop 6 or 7 and then dial up exotic blitzes on 3rd down. With 2 weeks to prepare, he should have something cooked up for Dan Mullen’s offense and quarterback Kyle Trask.
What’s more, Trask struggled with his first healthy dose of Cover 2 defense last week in Columbia against the Gamecocks. Georgia confused and rattled Feleipe Franks with those concepts last season, and you can bet they’ll try to replicate that success in the Cocktail Party.
Georgia believes it will win
Smart has had a terrific start to his tenure as Georgia’s head coach, one folks in Athens believe could last decades.
He’s won an SEC Championship, a Rose Bowl and come 2 plays from winning Georgia’s first national championship since 1980.
But Georgia has seen coaches off to incredible starts before.
In fact, pitted against Mark Richt through 49 games, Smart’s record is slightly less impressive, with Richt 40-9 and Smart 38-11. Both had won the SEC East twice and the SEC Championship once at that point, both had recruited at elite levels (all top 10 classes for Richt and Smart) and both had elevated Georgia back into consistent national championship discussions (Georgia only missed a chance to play for a title in 2002 because there wasn’t a 4-team Playoff). Smart has lost to unranked opponents more, but otherwise, the numbers are fairly similar.
The biggest difference, to me, is simple.
Smart is 2-1 in the Cocktail Party and Richt, through 4 seasons, was 1-3.
Georgia was long a championship contender in the SEC because for decades, they dominated the game in Jacksonville. As soon as they started losing this game consistently, whether under Goff, Donnan or to a lesser extent, Richt — Georgia found championship opportunities hard to come by.
As a Georgia alum, this is something Smart understands. This game matters more to him, in the same way it mattered more to Florida’s Steve Spurrier.
Georgia might have struggled in October, but the Dawgs will arrive in Jacksonville expecting to win and prepared to play their best. Given Georgia’s edge in talent, that might be enough.