Final thoughts (and a prediction) on the 2020 edition of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
I’m supposed to be an unbiased journalist.
We’re taught “no cheering in the press box.” I always do my best to adhere to that. But I’ve just got to come out and say it.
I love the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party and I don’t care who knows it.
I’ve never had a rooting interest in this game, yet even when I was growing up in the Midwest, I found myself always wanting to watch it. It’s usually well-coached, it has elite NFL prospects and it’s petty. That’s what I’m here for.
For the 3rd consecutive year, it’s a matchup of top-10 teams to decide the SEC East. That’s what rivalries should be. And yeah, I’d like it to be home-and-home, but that’s part of what makes the yearly intrigue. It’s Georgia fans complaining that it’s a road game. These teams might have the 2 most combative fanbases on social media, too. Nobody will go back in forth in the middle of June like Florida and Georgia fans.
But on Saturday, they’ll finally get to face off again. Here are my final thoughts ahead of the 2020 showdown:
1. The Richard LeCounte loss is significant, even for Georgia
I hate starting out with a bummer, but let’s get this out there. LeCounte is arguably the Dawgs’ toughest player to replace. What he does at the safety position is so much more than prevent home-run plays. Kirby Smart puts LeCounte in spots where he can disrupt the backfield and turn any quarterback mistake into a game-changing play. His instincts are second to none.
Not having LeCounte against a passing attack like Florida’s is a brutal blow. In the “who will prevent Kadarius Toney from hitting the home-run play” discussion, a healthy LeCounte would’ve been vital. He’s the leader of that defense. Yes, it’s a defense loaded with depth, but LeCounte’s 2020 return was so huge for a reason.
This is the first time that Georgia will be without him in 3 years. The only good news for Georgia is that it’s not a mid-game injury where Smart has to adjust on the fly. He had an entire week to make the necessary adjustments.
Those are some awfully big shoes to full.
2. Did Todd Grantham figure out his defense vs. Mizzou? Or will it be more “Third and Grantham” struggles in Jacksonville?
I can’t get 20-for-32 out of my head. That’s Georgia’s 3rd-down conversion rate against Florida the last 2 years. Every Gators fan knows that “Third and Grantham” has been more a punchline than a rallying cry in Jacksonville. Even without Jake Fromm, it’s still something that will be on the minds of many of the Florida faithful.
Heading into the Mizzou game, Florida ranked No. 99 of 101 FBS teams in 3rd-down defense. Sure, the defense looked ready to roll against Mizzou, which was positive. But how will the Gators stack up against a team that can control the line of scrimmage like Georgia?
Grantham said that he simplified the blitzes, which seemed like an obvious move for a team that was playing without 8 defensive backs, 3 of whom were starters. Last year, Grantham didn’t blitz enough against Georgia. And when the Gators did send pressure, it was picked up.
Whatever the case, Grantham would obviously like to limit the throwing windows for the 5-11 Stetson Bennett IV. How Florida attacks will be a popular topic of conversation throughout this game, especially on those key 3rd-down plays. It simply has to be better than it was the last 2 years.
How Grantham adjusts could determine his future in Gainesville.
3. Yes, this Florida offense is different
I know there are some Georgia fans who will roll their eyes at that, and I get it. They’ve heard that before. Florida hasn’t hit 25 points against UGA in 5 years. If that doesn’t happen this year, though, I’ll be shocked.
The Gators have 3 skill players who look like All-Americans in the first 4 games. In addition to the aforementioned Toney, who looks like a video game in 2020, the Kyle Trask-to-Kyle Pitts connection is one of the best in college football. They have developed a rapport that’s scary for any defense. It makes Pitts a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. It’ll be interesting to see if Georgia moves Tyrique Stevenson on to Pitts, or if he has more duties at safety without LeCounte.
Georgia hasn’t had to account for a Florida offense this good in the post-Tim Tebow era. Even under Dan Mullen, the Gators averaged 25 points vs. SEC competition in 2018, and then that number went up to 30.3 points per game last year. Through 4 games, Florida is averaging 42 points. Nobody has really figured out how to stop the Gators, despite the fact that they faced some of the conference’s better defensive minds in Mike Elko, Will Muschamp and Ryan Walters.
Obviously, Smart’s pedigree is the best of those names. He’s had all sorts of success against Florida, which has had 1 touchdown of 30-plus yards against Georgia during the Smart era. In case you forgot, it was this dime:
Say what you want about Feleipe Franks, he had a lot of horrible throws last year without question.
But this throw right here was one of the best in all of college football last year. Franks threw a dime to Freddie Swain and Florida captured the lead against the Georgia Bulldogs pic.twitter.com/Ku2pbVGBw0
— TM (@CFBLive247) July 22, 2019
You need to make spectacular plays to beat this Georgia defense. Fortunately for Florida, it appears to finally have that.
4. I don’t know what shakes out at QB, but this feels like a big Zamir White game for Georgia
What’s the best way to make sure an elite offense doesn’t get rolling? Keep it off the field. Crazy thought, I know.
With all the attention on what Georgia will do at quarterback, let’s not forget about White. The Georgia tailback is coming off a game in which he had career-highs in carries (26) and rushing yards (136). With Kenny McIntosh banged up and James Cook helping out in the passing game, it’d be stunning if Todd Monken didn’t have a heavy workload planned for White.
And while Florida totally stuffed Mizzou’s ground game, it won’t be lost on Georgia that the Gators allowed an average of 164 rushing yards before their 3-week hiatus. That sounds like a better bet than turning to Bennett to throw the ball 30-40 times like he was asked to do against Alabama.
Even if Georgia falls behind 2 scores, trusting the run seems obvious. Georgia doesn’t want a shootout. That’s Florida’s game.
White has the ability to wear down that a defense, and he can limit those Florida possessions.
5. Those UGA injuries have me scratching my head
I wanted to see these teams at full strength. The Florida offense vs. the Georgia defense is a tremendous matchup at full strength, and it probably still will be exceptional even with the Dawgs banged up.
LeCounte is in a class of his own in terms of impact, but so is Jordan Davis. The star nose tackle was reportedly set to miss multiple weeks with an elbow injury, but Smart is hoping to get something out of him Saturday. That’s monumental for a Florida team that has had its fair share of issues running the ball vs. Georgia in recent memory.
Also noteworthy is the loss of defensive tackle Julian Rochester, who tore his ACL in the Kentucky win last weekend. On top of that, Georgia has stud middle linebacker Monty Rice still battling an ankle injury (he didn’t start and he had limited reps vs. Kentucky). His replacement, Quay Walker, is expected to be a go after getting his neck banged up on a tackle last weekend. And LeCounte’s fellow starting safety, Lewis Cine, is expected to play after suffering a sprained ankle against Kentucky.
Again, that’s just the defensive side of the ball. That’s not mentioning the fact that George Pickens, Matt Landers and Kenny McIntosh missed the Kentucky game while veteran offensive lineman Ben Cleveland has played limited snaps because of nagging lower-body injuries all year. Who knows what to expect from Pickens and Landers. UGA has struggled to get any consistent production from the non-Kearis Jackson options at receiver.
Will injuries be an excuse if Georgia loses? For some, perhaps, but with how well Smart has recruited, this looks like the ultimate test of his program’s depth.
6. How will we talk about the losing head coach after this?
You could’ve probably applied that question to each of the last 2 years of this rivalry and come up with an intriguing answer. After all, it’s the same sort of stakes in terms of the division race and Playoff hopes. But things feel a little different this year.
If Smart loses this game, it looks like there’s a power shift in the division after 3 years of Georgia domination. It’ll be fair to question if Smart wasted the best defense that he had in Athens so far. It certainly has the most talent and potential. Smart obviously isn’t getting fired if he loses this and he likely won’t take any hits on the recruiting trail, but those Mark Richt comps will come out in full force. That’s reality for the Year 5 coach, fair or not.
And if Mullen loses this game, it’s fair to start wondering if this is a Jim Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer situation. Mullen couldn’t have really asked for a much better setup this year. He has a dynamic offense, and he finally has the more experienced offensive line. It’s Georgia that has the quarterback/offensive identity questions. The timing of Georgia’s defense being banged up suggests that Mullen has a prime opportunity, and if he wastes it, Florida fans will wonder if he’ll ever be able to get over that Georgia hump after 3 losses to UGA to start his tenure.
Yet at the same time, both coaches should be in positions to field extremely competitive, Playoff-caliber teams moving forward. That’s perhaps just the sign of a good rivalry. It feels like there are long-term implications galore.
7. My prediction: Florida 35, Georgia 31
This is my 4th season making predictions, and I’ve never picked against Georgia in this game. As my luck would have it, the Dawgs have always done their part to not make me look like a total idiot (the rest of my picks take care of that).
But the time has come. Rather, Florida’s time has come.
Yes, I’m calling for the Gators to finally get past the Jacksonville hurdle and get to Atlanta.
I know, I know. Since 2017, Kirby Smart has yet to lose a second regular-season game. He’s now 14-0 in those games, which is quite the feat considering all of them were needed to keep SEC/Playoff hopes alive. The difference is that in those 14 games, UGA never faced an offense this explosive.
As great as the Georgia defense is, I wonder about the pressure that’ll once again be on that group against an elite offense. I saw how that played out in the SEC Championship when LSU took the life out of that pro-Georgia crowd. I saw how that played out in the Alabama game when UGA got into a shootout and quickly ran out of bullets.
Since the start of 2019, those were the only 2 offenses Georgia faced who averaged 40 points per game. What are the Gators averaging so far? Exactly 42 points, and that’s in 5 games against SEC competition. I can’t bank on Georgia containing Florida for 60 minutes, especially now with these injuries. The Gators will finally have the offensive day that they’ve been desperate for against the Dawgs.
Mullen gets his marquee victory, and for the first time in 4 years, the Gators leave Jacksonville happy.