Week 10 SEC Primer: Florida-Georgia Cocktail Party is as relevant as ever
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Georgia vs. Florida (+6.5)
For the second year in a row, the Cocktail Party is exactly what it’s supposed to be: The decisive game in the SEC East, an elimination game for the national championship, and unquestionably the biggest game in the country as college football hits the November stretch. (Fully half the top 10 is off this week, not including No. 4 Clemson, which has a functional bye vs. Wofford.) It’s a season-defining, make-or-break moment for both sides, which they haven’t been able to say as often as you might think.
As much success as the Gators and Bulldogs have enjoyed over the years, their best seasons have rarely overlapped. This year’s matchup will mark just the 3rd time since 2000 both teams have come in ranked in the top 10, which was also true last year, the first of what figures to be many meaningful meetings between Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen. But the 2018 edition was the first top 10 matchup in the rivalry since 2008, a decade-long span that featured just 1 game between teams ranked anywhere in the polls, in 2012. Prior to that, it hadn’t happened since 1999. Prior to that, you have to all the way back to 1984. On that basis alone, the Smart-Mullen era is shaping up as a high-water mark for the rivalry.
More specifically, Saturday is a defining moment for Jake Fromm. It wouldn’t be fair to describe potential 1st-round draft pick who boasts a 29-6 record as a starter as “embattled” — compared to this time last year, Fromm’s status at Georgia is more secure than ever. His legacy in Athens is another story. A repetitive one, too: Last year, he rebounded from one of this lowest points, a midseason flop at LSU that briefly reminded everyone Justin Fields was just sitting there, to eviscerate the Gators, putting the Bulldogs back on track for a potential Playoff bid and Fields on track for a transfer.
This year, Fromm is coming in off the worst 2-game stretch of his career against South Carolina and Kentucky; meanwhile, his former understudy is the face of arguably the best team in the nation. He has no control over that, but how Fromm responds over the coming weeks, with all of Georgia’s big goals still within reach, is going to play a major role in shaping whether he goes down as one of the all-time UGA greats or a not-quite-elite player who came up just short in the biggest games. Another reassuring turn against Florida won’t resolve that question, but it will keep it open for debate.
The stat: 1.6 yards per carry
That’s the average gain against Florida’s run defense this season when senior DEs Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga are on the field at the same time, according to ESPN Stats & Info. When one or both of them are out? That number leaps to 4.2 yards per carry.
Granted, that’s a relatively small sample size: Greenard and Zuniga haven’t been active at the same time in more than a month, with Zuniga missing the past 5 games and Greenard sitting out the past 2 due to ankle injuries. The numbers are also distorted in their favor by the season-opening sack fest against Miami, when the Gators abused the Hurricanes’ fledgling offensive line and quarterback for 10 sacks. (In college negative yardage on sacks go in the box score as rushing yards.) Against SEC opponents, they have 10 sacks in 5 games.
If the bookends are in fighting shape Saturday, though, as they’re expected to be, their return is an obvious boon to a front that hasn’t looked the same without them. That’s especially true for Greenard, the Louisville transfer who consistently leaped off the screen in the first 6 games — he was tabbed as a mid-season All-American by ESPN (1st team) and the Associated Press (2nd) — but has been sorely missed in the past 2. In his absence, LSU torched the Gators for 218 yards rushing on 9.1 per carry, including gains of 57, 39, and 33 yards, and South Carolina racked up 217 on 5.1 per carry despite losing starting RB Rico Dowdle on the first play.
Obviously, a defense that has been exploited for triple-digit totals by the likes of DeeJay Dallas (131 scrimmage yards), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (134), and Tavien Feaster (175) has major concerns about its ability to contain D’Andre Swift, who’s eclipsed 100 scrimmage yards in 6 of 7 games this season. (The only exception being a light afternoon vs. Murray State.) It’s hard to imagine Florida winning without Greenard and Zuniga’s explosiveness prevailing over the sheer mass of Georgia’s gargantuan, NFL-ready offensive tackles, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, en route to making Jake Fromm’s afternoon as difficult as possible. But pass-rushing opportunities will be largely dictated by how well they hold up against the run.
The big question: Can Florida’s offense generate big plays?
On paper, the Gators look relatively consistent. In their biggest games, though, the offense has been an enigma.
Against Auburn, Florida struggled to move the ball with any kind of consistency but hit paydirt on a couple of explosive plays — a 64-yard pass from Kyle Trask to Freddie Swain in the 1st quarter; an 88-yard run by Lamical Perine in the 4th — and converted a short field into a touchdown en route to a 24-13 win. That was reminiscent of the win over Miami, which featured one big play for a touchdown, another big play that set up a touchdown, a short-field TD following a turnover, and not much else.
Kadarius Toney takes it 66 yards to the 🏡 pic.twitter.com/bmx5x7wLzE
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) August 24, 2019
At LSU, it was the opposite: The Gators put together 4 extended, 75-yard TD marches to keep pace with the Tigers well into the 3rd quarter, before coming up just short of the end zone on another pair of 70-plus-yard drives in the 4th. Their consistency couldn’t overcome the fact that their biggest play in Baton Rouge gained just 28 yards.
Obviously, an attack capable of putting together long drives and breaking out from anywhere on the field is one with a lot of potential if it all clicks at once. There’s certainly no shortage of weapons at Trask’s disposal. Swain is the big-play threat, along with the electric Kadarius Toney, who’s expected to play Saturday for the first time since Week 2; tight end Kyle Pitts has emerged as a reliable mismatch against smaller corners and slower safeties alike, and the combination of veteran wideouts Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland, along with the up-and-coming Jacob Copeland, guarantees that the Gators will always be able to put as many viable options on the field as they need.
The rub is keeping Trask upright long enough to take advantage. He’s been sacked at least twice in all 5 of his starts, including 3 sacks at LSU and 4 in the Gators’ come-from-behind win at South Carolina. Georgia’s pass rush is a lot like Florida’s receiving corps: Not much in the way of star power, but deep in blue-chip talent that adds up to a formidable unit. Only one of the 11 UGA defenders credited with a sack this season has been in on more than 2 of them — OLB Azeez Ojulari, with 3.5 — but between Ojulari (14 QB hurries), DE Malik Herring (9 hurries), hyped freshman Nolan Smith (8), OLB Adam Anderson (7), DL Devonte Wyatt (7), LBs Quay Walker and Jermaine Johnson (6 apiece), and OLB Walter Grant (5), the Bulldogs will never run out of draftable rushers to plug into any given situation.
This is the kind of game that could come down to the kickers, and both teams have good ones: UGA’s Rodrigo Blankenship and UF’s Evan McPherson are a combined 20-for-23 on field goal attempts, including 9-for-11 on attempts beyond 40 yards. (Both misses, memorably, by Blankenship in Georgia’s double-OT loss to South Carolina.) In most other respects the lineups match up relatively evenly, too — possible even at quarterback, where Fromm may have the more impressive résumé but Trask has better numbers this season in terms of both pass efficiency and QBR.
If there’s a clear edge, it belongs to Georgia’s ground game: UGA’s offensive line is the largest in football, college or pro, and Swift is due for a breakout game that elevates him into the All-America/Heisman range. Florida has clearly struggled up front, to an extent that Greenard and Zuniga’s return might not be able to solve, especially if they’re playing at less than 100 percent. If the Bulldogs can line up and run right over them as effectively as LSU and South Carolina, it’s their game to lose. If the Gators succeed in putting the onus on Fromm’s arm, it’s anyone’s guess.
Georgia 27, Florida 23
Officially, this game will kick off at 3 p.m. CT on the SEC Network. Spiritually, it’s giving off some of the most powerful “11 a.m. on Jefferson Pilot” vibes in years.
Arkansas is on a 2-year, 16-game SEC losing streak. Mississippi State has dropped 4 consecutive for the first time since 2005, all of them by double digits, and at 3-5 is in serious danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2009 — Dan Mullen’s first season. The Bulldogs’ starting quarterback is a true freshman; the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback is inherently unknowable. The losing team is bound for last place in the SEC West standings. The losing head coach is in serious danger of being fired or exiled to Rutgers by the end of his 2nd year.
Two reasons to tune in, aside from morbid curiosity: (1) Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill, the SEC’s leading rusher and lone bright spot in the Bulldogs’ spiraling season; and (2) Arkansas RB Rakeem Boyd, who’s on pace for 1,000 yards and has a decent shot of becoming just the 2nd Last Chance U alum to be drafted. If you’re looking for a feel-good story in a feel-bad game, there you have it.
The Rebels will likely continue to rotate its freshman quarterbacks, Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee, an option Auburn no longer has: Backup Joey Gatewood left the team earlier this week after watching starter Bo Nix struggle throughout the Tigers’ 23-20 loss at LSU, a loud-and-clear signal that Gus Malzahn is fully committed to Nix for the foreseeable future.
That’s not a good omen if Nix continues to flail against the better defenses on the schedule. As far this weekend goes, Ole Miss is not one of them.
Auburn 37, Ole Miss 16
South Carolina’s 41-21 loss at Tennessee was a bad one in a lot of ways, not least of which because it left the Gamecocks’ chances of qualifying for a bowl game hanging by a thread. At 3-5, Carolina needs to take 3 of its last 4 to get to even, a gauntlet that includes a trip to Texas A&M, a certain thumping from Clemson, and a would-be pushover from the Sun Belt that has turned out to be an undefeated Top 25 team. If they can’t mark Vandy down as one of those wins, Will Muschamp might as well start putting out feelers for pending defensive coordinator vacancies on Sunday morning.
South Carolina 30, Vanderbilt 17
Every week I track projected final scores vs. the point spread across multiple outlets, and the range of predictions for this one is wider than any other game I’ve picked all year. Jeff Sagarin likes Tennessee by at least 2 touchdowns; Bill Connelly’s SP+ system sees the Vols winning by 9; Brian Fremeau says Vols by 2; and the betting site OddsShark likes UAB by 11. This is what happens when you lose to Georgia State.
The Blazers should be a respectable out: The defending Conference USA champs are 6-1, the past 5 of those wins coming by double digits, and ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense. Even by C-USA standards, though, their schedule has been atrocious, with the 6 wins coming at the expense of teams that are a combined 2-35 vs. opponents. (Read that again: 2-35! And both of those wins belong to the same team, UT-San Antonio, over 2 other teams, Rice and UTEP, that have yet to clock an FBS win.) Tennessee has been volatile, but whether they’ve actually turned a corner or not it’s safe to say the Vols aren’t Old Dominion.
Tennessee 26, UAB 20
As noted, the Roadrunners are among the dregs of the FBS, ranking 116th out of 130 teams in both total and scoring offense. That’s an improvement over last year, when they finished 130th and 129th, respectively, but as far as going to College Station is concerned it’s a blowout all the same.
Texas A&M 48, UTSA 6
Week 9 record 3-2 straight-up / 0-5 vs. spread (yikes)
Season record: 58-15 straight-up / 34-39 vs. spread