Entering the weekend, the sense around the league was that the SEC East had devolved into a two-team race, with Georgia the favorite and only upstart and undefeated Kentucky, who will host the Bulldogs at Kroger Field on Nov. 3, standing between the Dawgs and a second consecutive trip to Atlanta.
Saturday, however, proved to be moving day in the SEC East.
Florida’s upset win over then-No. 5 LSU in the Swamp, coupled with Texas A&M’s thrilling overtime upset of previously unbeaten Kentucky, reshaped the narrative.
Yes, Georgia remains the prohibitive favorite.
Yes, Georgia’s trip to Lexington in November will still be must-see television.
But the East is no longer just a Georgia and Kentucky race.
Here are five reasons the Gators may now present Georgia’s most formidable challenge in the SEC East.
At a minimum, Saturday’s impressive Gators victory over an LSU team that entered the weekend with perhaps the best resume in America injects the always meaningful Cocktail Party with a dose of championship implications come the end of October.
The Gators will still need to handle their business in Nashville this weekend, and a precarious visit to Baton Rouge and a dangerous, wounded LSU team awaits the Bulldogs Saturday.
But if both teams win, they’ll arrive in Jacksonville potentially playing for control of the SEC East.
If Florida wins out, and Georgia wins out save a loss to Florida, Florida will play for the SEC Championship.
Weird to say that a month after Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time in my life, but it's true.
— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) October 7, 2018
Even if the Gators win in Jacksonville, they would still need a Georgia victory over Kentucky to advance to Atlanta. But Texas A&M’s blueprint for victory is strong film for Kirby Smart and Georgia, and even in Lexington, the Dawgs will likely be a favorite.
That makes for a special Cocktail Party.
Florida’s defensive front matches up well with Georgia
Georgia ranks 16th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 5.96 yards a rush. That said, one of the Dawgs’ bell cow backs, DeAndre Swift, averages a rather pedestrian 4.9 yards a carry, and only once this year has a Georgia tailback broken the 100-yard mark (Elijah Holyfield, vs. Middle Tennessee).
In other words, Georgia can run the ball effectively at times, especially late in games. What they haven’t shown they can do this season is run the ball whenever they want to.
That matters, because Florida will present the best front the Bulldogs have faced this season.
To date, Georgia has played only one defense (South Carolina) in the top 50 nationally in S&P+ defense or total defense. The Gamecocks rank 35th in S &P+ defense and 29th in total defense, respectively.
Florida is better, ranking 11th in S&P+ defense and 19th in total defense, despite facing three offenses in the S&P+ top 50 thus far on the young season.
With NFL talent across Florida’s front seven, the Gators match up well with a Georgia offensive line still finding itself through six games. The Gators rank third in the country in sacks as well and should be able to generate pressure on Jacob Fromm, whom the Bulldogs have struggled to protect at times.
The Bulldogs will rightly enter Jacksonville as favorites, but styles and matchups make fights, and Florida is equipped with a quality personnel set up front to present Jim Chaney’s Georgia offense with some unique challenges.
The Gators have been outstanding at creating turnovers
Florida isn’t as deep or as talented as Georgia from a personnel standpoint, but turnovers can be a great equalizer, and Florida has been outstanding at producing takeaways through the first half of the season.
The Gators rank second nationally in turnover margin at plus-11 and first overall in turnovers produced with 17. With the LSU game on the line, Florida forced Joe Burrow, who entered the game without an interception, into two critical turnovers, the first of which resulted in safety Brad Stewart’s touchdown which sent the Swamp into delirium.
The roar heard 'round Gainesvillepic.twitter.com/kdziMnRBxt
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) October 6, 2018
Fromm is a better quarterback than Burrow.
But as noted above, the Gators should be able to get pressure on Fromm, and that can force even an excellent quarterback into mistakes.
Florida has improved enough offensively and schematically to produce scoring drives
This might be a challenge for Kentucky, especially if Terry Wilson performs the way he did in College Station Saturday night, rendering Benny Snell and the Wildcats too one-dimensional to challenge Georgia.
The Gators aren’t lighting the world on fire offensively yet under Dan Mullen.
But after five seasons of finishing no higher than 88th in either S&P+ offense or total offense, Florida currently sits at 43rd in S&P+ offense and a deceptively low 92nd in total offense.
Roll your eyes at “deceptively low” if you want, but it’s worth noting that the Gators sit in the top 40 nationally in yards gained per play at 6.4 (Georgia is in the top 15 at an impressive 7.26).
That’s a marked improvement from last year, when the Gators ranked in the bottom 20 in America in yards per play. Buoyed by a talented group of perimeter playmakers and an improving power running game led by Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett, the Gators should be able to sustain a couple of scoring drives against Georgia and keep the game interesting.
Florida won’t be overwhelmed by the moment
As marvelous as Kentucky has been this year, the Georgia game will be the biggest of their lives. Even playing at home, sometimes the size of the moment can be overwhelming.
That’s probably not a concern in Gainesville.
For all the talk about Florida’s roster shortcomings and last year’s four-win season and broken culture, the Gators feature the fourth-most experienced football team in America according to returning players. Many of Florida’s upperclassmen have experienced two wins over Georgia and played for two SEC Championships.
They believe in Dan Mullen, have bought into his culture changes and have played big games in their careers.
This will be, in many ways, bigger than all but the SEC Championship games, but it’s unlikely too many of Florida’s players will be overwhelmed by the moment.
It will take a massive effort to upset a mighty Georgia team determined to get another crack at Alabama. But the Gators may be the best situated program to do that after last weekend’s games.