Georgia much better on paper, but Bulldogs still giving Florida respect it deserves
On paper, it’s not even close. Georgia appears to be light years better than this Florida team and should win Saturday quite handily.
But this isn’t just another game in the SEC. This is “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” The Gators have owned this tilt the last generation or so. The Bulldogs have arrived in Jacksonville with the superior squad and still managed to lose on several occasions.
That being said, the disparity between UGA and UF seems to be wider than ever before in favor of the fellas from Athens. The Dawgs are 7-0, 4-0 in conference play and No. 3 in the latest polls. Florida, on the other hand, is 3-3, 3-2 in league battles — a cupcake matchup with Northern Colorado was canceled due to Hurricane Irma — and nowhere near the Top 25.
The Gators look to be outclassed on both offense and defense, plus their roster is thin due to injuries and suspensions.
Don’t disregard the boys from Gainesville, though. Dating back to 1990, which was former coach Steve Spurrier’s first year on the sideline, UF is 21-6 against its border-war rival. Current coach Jim McElwain is also 2-0 facing Georgia.
Much of the focus will be on the Bulldogs’ true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm. He’ll be the second signal caller in a row to start in this contest for UGA right out of high school. A year ago — it feels like so much longer considering what’s happened to him since — Jacob Eason was an ineffective 15-of-35 for 143 yards on the losing end of a 24-10 final score.
However, Fromm has been twice that passer this season that Eason was last season, so don’t expect any big-game jitters from him.
“Any time you have a true freshman starting, it’s challenging,” Dawgs coach Kirby Smart said Monday, according to the school’s official website for athletics. “I think this kid has grown. He’s gotten better each week. Hope that continues through the bye week.”
While Georgia is presently atop the East, Florida is the division’s two-time defending champion. With a win, the Bulldogs can eliminate the Gators from the race before Halloween, which would get them a step closer to the SEC Championship Game.
UF’s problems on offense are widespread — not just in 2017, but for the entirety of McElwain’s time at the helm. If this program has any chance of pulling a major upset, it’s going to take a monumental effort on the defensive side of the football. But after lots of defections to the NFL and a continually lengthening MASH unit, depth is a concern.
The neutral-site nature of the matchup is unique, too. Fromm is yet to experience the 50-50 crowd he’ll see at EverBank Field.
“I think what makes it challenging is the Florida defense that happens to be in Jacksonville,” Smart (below) said. “It’s not just the fact we’re playing in Jacksonville. It’s that we’re playing against a caliber of defense that has been really, over the last 10 years, one of the best defenses in the country. So you look at what they’ve done, the players they’ve had, style of defense they play, they’re attacking, they’re aggressive. (Defensive coordinator) Randy Shannon does a great job with them, so it’s always a challenge.”
On the orange-and-blue side of things, this has been a rivalry of streaks. Since the Spurrier era began, Florida has won seven in a row (1990-96), six in a row (1998-2003), two in a row (2005-06), three in a row (2008-10) and three in a row again (2014-present).
Conversely, UGA hasn’t won more than three straight since a six-year stretch from 1978-83. The Dawgs may lead overall 50-43-2, although the Gators have made up some tremendous ground — they were as many as 22 games behind as recently as 1989 and could pass Georgia for the all-time lead in the series if the trend continues.
Believe it or not, there won’t be a single player wearing a red-and-black uniform in Week 9 who knows what it feels like to win this one.
“I haven’t really thought about it until (Monday) night, when coach told us to stand up if you have beaten Florida and no one stood up,” said defensive tackle John Atkins. “The road to win in the East goes through Florida, so you have to be able to beat them. It’s a big rivalry. You don’t want to lose to a big rival.”
Not only did Eason have his issues throwing the ball facing UF this past season, but so did the tailback tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on the ground. The highly decorated duo was limited to just 22 yards on 12 carries.
“They had a great defense last year,” said center Lamont Gaillard. “Everybody knew that. We struggled, but it’s a different team now, so the focus is on this week.”
While Georgia is second in the conference in total defense and scoring defense, Florida is 10th in yards per game and 12th in points per game — and that’s with the secondary supplying an additional three TDs on INT returns. It’s easy to conclude that this is a mismatch in favor of Smart and Co., but don’t tell that to his players.
“They’re dangerous every year,” defensive back Aaron Davis said. “Florida’s a great team. That’s no one to sleep on. No one is thinking we’ve already passed them. We know they’re going to bring their game. They’re tough. They’re coached well over there. Regardless of their record, they send a lot of guys to the NFL every single year.”
The Bulldogs have every reason to express confidence, yet so far they haven’t fallen into the dangerous abyss of overconfidence.