SEC Week 9 Primer: Georgia cruises into the Cocktail Party, where its real season begins
Breaking down the weekend’s SEC slate, all in one place.
Game of the Week: Florida vs. Georgia (–22.5)
Oh hey, a Georgia game actually worth watching if you’re not a diehard Georgia fan. It’s been a while. The Bulldogs haven’t faced a ranked or otherwise compelling opponent since vaporizing Oregon all the way back in Week 1, when the rest of the country saw pretty much all it needed to see from the defending champs in the season’s first 20 minutes.
If that’s the last time you tuned in, you haven’t missed much. There was the random scare at Missouri on Oct. 1, an upset bid that stands as Georgia’s only regular-season win by fewer than 17 points since last year’s season opener against Clemson. Otherwise, the Dogs have been on cruise control, burying their other 3 SEC opponents to date (South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt) by a combined 128 points. Unless you’re deeply committed to scouting the new starters on defense, there was nothing any of those games could have told you that you didn’t already know and the final scores didn’t confirm. They are who we thought they were, and they’re usually covering the spread in the process.
So as much as anything, the Cocktail Party is America’s chance to catch up with the nation’s No. 1 team as it ramps up for what should be a much more intriguing November. Just how long it will be worth watching, of course, depends largely on the other side. At 4-3, Florida is still groping toward an identity under 1st-year coach Billy Napier. The Gators are not ranked and are only as compelling as gifted-but-volatile QB Anthony Richardson‘s decision-making at any given moment. The 2021 meeting was close until the closing minutes of the 1st half, when Georgia turned 3 rapid-fire turnovers by Richardson (making his 1st career start) into 3 quick touchdowns, turning a 3-0 slugfest into a 24-0 romp at halftime.
A year later, Richardson comes in with the same high-risk, high-reward reputation, opposite a UGA defense that hasn’t seen any notable dropoff following a mass exodus from last year’s unit to the NFL. Few players present a wider range of possibilities. Is he talented enough to keep it interesting for 4 quarters? Hypothetically, sure. Should you bet on it? Buyer beware. At this point, he’s still just as likely to leave half the audience reaching for the remote before they’ve cracked their second beer. Tune in to find out!
The stat: 47.4%
That’s the 3rd-down stop rate for Florida’s defense this season, worst in the SEC and 130th out of 131 teams nationally. Five out of 6 FBS opponents have converted better than 50 percent of their opportunities — most recently, LSU, which was 8-of-12 on 3rd downs in a 45-35 win at The Swamp in Week 7. All 8 of the Tigers’ conversions in that game led to points, including 5 touchdowns on drives that involved a conversion on 3rd-and-6 or longer. Even on the Gators’ “stops,” LSU still gained enough on a couple of 3rd-and-long attempts to set up successful conversions on 4th-and-1; extending those 2 possessions was ultimately worth 10 points, the final margin of victory.
In a matchup where the tale of the tape decisively favors Georgia in almost every column, the gap between Florida’s 3rd-down D and the Bulldogs’ 3rd-down offense may be the widest. Getting the Dogs off the field on standard downs is hard enough. But they’ve been especially strong on 3rd down, converting an SEC-best 52.4 percent on the season. That’s a testament mainly to Stetson Bennett IV, who has converted 21 of 32 attempts (65.6 percent) on 3rd-and-9 or less.
Beyond that, however, it gets dicey: Bennett is just 3-of-13 on 3rd-and-10 or longer, reflecting his limitations as a downfield passer and the fact that he rarely finds himself in a position where it’s necessary to put them to the test. (Throwing the ball away or dumping it off short of the sticks is a lot easier when you’re almost always in the lead.) He isn’t as elusive under pressure as Hendon Hooker or Jayden Daniels, both of whom gave Florida fits as scramblers. If the Gators force Bennett into those situations on a semi-regular basis, the pass rush fueled by Gervon Dexter and former Bulldog Brenton Cox Jr. has a chance to make his life more difficult than it has been at any point this season. Given how rarely Georgia tends to find itself in must-throw situations, that’s an enormous “if.”
The big question: Can Florida run the ball?
The short answer against Georgia’s defense is always no. The Bulldogs are on track to finish in the top 4 nationally in rushing D for the 4th consecutive season. For once, though, it’s not an automatic no.
Florida’s ground game is undeniably its strength. The Gators have run for 200-plus yards in all 4 wins and lead the nation at 6.4 yards per carry (including negative yardage on sacks). They boast a legitimate 1-2 punch in Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson Jr. and true freshman Trevor Etienne, both of whom have made a good 1st impression in their 1st year in the SEC; Johnson leads the conference with 5 runs of 30-plus yards. The offensive line has been a plus, anchored by another ex-Cajun, RG O’Cyrus Torrence, a future pro and owner of the nation’s best individual run-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus. (Torrence sat out the LSU game due to a knee injury but will be back on Saturday.) And then there’s Richardson, who has been a relatively restrained runner due to the Gators’ sketchy depth at the position but who is capable of game-changing feats when he has the green light.
There goes Anthony Richardson ? pic.twitter.com/sBYydGztEg
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 16, 2022
Obviously, this is a “green light” game. Scrambles aside, Richardson didn’t have a single designed carry against LSU, and he was similarly limited against Kentucky (2) and Missouri (5). But he played a much bigger role in the season opener against Utah, racking up 104 yards and 3 TDs on 9 designed runs, and in the Week 4 loss at Tennessee, where he had 60 yards and 2 TDs on 13 designed runs. Not coincidentally, he has also been vastly more successful on play-action passes (12.9 yards per attempt) than on straight dropbacks (5.4 ypa). Every aspect of the offense that works starts with establishing the run, and in this one that means all hands on deck.
Georgia’s prowess against the run is not in doubt, except in the sense that opposing offenses are usually forced to abandon it fairly quickly. The faint cracks in the facade — 140 yards allowed vs. Oregon, 90 yards allowed to Kent State’s Marquez Cooper, a Mizzou walk-on breaking a 63-yarder right up the gut — are the kind that only register for a unit that sets the bar at dominance. (For some context on that Oregon number, in their other 6 games the Ducks have averaged 262 yards.) Florida’s rushing attack is the best the Bulldogs have faced since the opener, and Richardson arguably the single most dynamic weapon. UGA’s best run defender, DT Jalen Carter, remains questionable to play due to the knee injury that has sidelined him the past 2 games. A big gash or 2 might be in the cards. But a sustained enough push to keep the Gators in the game late would be the 1st real reminder that all those departed 1st-rounders are actually gone.
The key matchup: Georgia TE Brock Bowers vs. Florida DB Trey Dean III
Georgia’s offense is conservative by reputation, but it tends to get a lot more creative these days than it used to. The key ingredient is Bowers, a classic matchup nightmare whose skill set defies the “tight end” label. He’s a weapon from anywhere on the field: in the slot, where he lines up a majority of the time and functions as an all-purpose athlete on screens and speed sweeps, as well as a willing perimeter blocker; split wide, where he’s an elite jump-ball target in the red zone; or from a traditional inline/H-back role, where he does all of the traditional inline/H-back stuff and might also dust 1 or both of your safeties in the open field at any time.
BROCK BOWERS DOES IT AGAIN!!?
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 17, 2022
Defending a player like Bowers is never a 1-man job, and it won’t be on Saturday. If Florida has a player with the chops to draw the assignment at any given station, it’s Dean, a 5th-year senior who is the Gators’ most experienced defender and their most adaptable: At 6-3, 207, he has logged 500-plus career snaps as an outside corner (where he spent his true freshman campaign in 2018), a nickel/slot corner, a free safety and a box safety, his primary role this year. Inevitably for a guy who has been on the field that long, he has come in for his fair share of criticism along the way, both in coverage — he was responsible for the infamous bust that allowed Tennessee’s Bru McCoy to run wide open for a 70-yard gain earlier this season, among other lowlights — and as an inconsistent tackler. But Dean has made his share of plays, too, and his combination of size and versatility fits the mold for shadowing a big, mobile target. For better or worse, he’s due for a lot of screen time.
Close, meaningful games in this rivalry have become rare. When 1 side is up, the other tends to be down. Only 1 of the past 8 meetings in the Playoff era has been decided by single digits, in 2019; prior to that, the last 1-score game with both teams ranked was all the way back in 2012. And at no point in recent memory has the gap been as lopsided as it is right now, with Georgia atop the polls and Florida slogging through the initial stage of a full-on rebuild.
The Gators haven’t been put out to pasture just yet. They have a quality win over Utah, and all 3 of their losses — vs. Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU — were competitive games against ranked opponents. But in the face of a 3-touchdown spread, they are strictly in “moral victory” territory here. Georgia is playing for a championship; Florida is playing for a cover.
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Georgia 36 | • Florida 16
Kentucky has made a living out of dragging opposing offenses into back-alley fights, thereby preventing its own offense from getting caught in shootouts. Last year’s meeting against Tennessee was the exception: Hendon Hooker bombed the Wildcats early and often, throwing a 75-yard touchdown on the 1st play from scrimmage and finishing with 316 yards and 4 TDs on just 20 attempts (15.8 ypa). That forced his counterpart, Will Levis, to keep pace by throwing a career-high 49 times — close to twice his average as UK’s starter. The result: a wild night in which Kentucky racked up a 32-minute advantage in time of possession, ran 99 plays to Tennessee’s 47 and lost, 45-42. Although close, that game was played entirely on the Vols’ terms.
No other offense the past 2 seasons has come close to putting up those kinds of numbers against Kentucky, but if there’s any attack capable of doing it 2 years in a row, it’s the one we’ve already seen hang 38 on Florida, 40 on LSU and 52 on Alabama in its past 3 SEC games. This is the time of year that surprising teams sometimes wobble a bit, and the Wildcats are not prone to the kind of coverage busts that afflicted Florida against Tennessee or special teams gaffes that helped LSU and Alabama dig themselves into an early hole. The Vols, however, have only gotten better each week and have not given the slightest indication of running out of gas. Kentucky may be able to slow-roll the proceedings for a while, but to spring the upset, it needs Levis to look like the guy the pro scouts keep insisting he is opposite the nation’s highest-scoring offense.
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Tennessee 38 | • Kentucky 29
A crucial rebound game for Ole Miss, which despite last week’s flop in Baton Rouge is still just 1 LSU loss away from controlling its destiny in the West. As the point spread suggests, a trip to A&M remains a serious test — the Aggies’ offense is in shambles, but the defense is still playing hard, and every game outside of their trip to Mississippi State has gone down to the wire. They’ve remained solidly within the margin of a swing turnover or a big play by Devon Achane all season.
The good news for the Rebels is that as long as the game is close (it will be), the running game remains viable, which keeps their heavily RPO- and play-action-based passing game fresh, too. Jaxson Dart struggled at LSU after the Tigers began to pull away and he was forced to throw his way out of a deficit in the 2nd half. At this early stage in his career, he still needs the full playbook at his disposal.
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• Ole Miss 28 | Texas A&M 20
Auburn has won 6 straight against Arkansas, the longest active streak by any SEC West team that isn’t Alabama over a division opponent, although when you remember the state the Razorbacks were in for most of that run, it only makes appreciating the job Sam Pittman has done in Fayetteville that much easier. Sustaining that this year boils down to whether the Tigers stand a chance against the run: They rank dead last in the SEC in rushing defense after getting gashed by Penn State (245 yards), Georgia (292) and especially Ole Miss (448) their last time out. Arkansas, on the other hand, has run for 200-plus yards in every game and boasts the league’s leading rusher, Rocket Sanders. The walls are closing in on Bryan Harsin by the week.
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• Arkansas 31 | Auburn 27
Don’t look now, but are the Gamecocks … like, kinda good? If they’re not, you wouldn’t know it from their 5-2 record or newly minted Top 25 ranking (they debuted this week at No. 25), and the next couple of weeks aren’t likely to add any clarity. True, Carolina has had the immense fortune to get Kentucky on the 1 weekend Levis wasn’t in the lineup, followed by a banged-up Texas A&M offense in the throes of a season-long meltdown. But it made the most of those opportunities, and with Mizzou and Vanderbilt on deck it has a great chance to be 7-2 heading into a very winnable game at Florida. Who knows how high the Gamecocks could potentially climb? Their Nov. 19 reality check against Tennessee could be a collision of top-15 teams.
Or, they could be exposed this weekend by a Mizzou outfit that has had exactly the opposite luck. All 3 of the Tigers’ SEC losses (vs. Auburn, Georgia and Florida) were nailbiters they coulda/shoulda won, decided by a combined 14 points. The clock is ticking for Eli Drinkwitz, who’s 9-13 in SEC play in Year 3. This is one he desperately needs.
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• South Carolina 26 | Missouri 21
Week 8 Record: 3–2 straight-up | 2–2 vs. spread
Season Record: 52–10 straight-up | 29–30 vs. spread