Week 7 SEC Primer: Georgia is the same team it was in 2019. Is that still good enough to beat Florida?
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Florida vs. Georgia (-3.5)
Continued relevance in the SEC and national landscape, per the usual. The Cocktail Party has served as the de facto SEC East championship game each of the past 2 years and, with both teams coming in with 1 loss already, looms as the make-or-break game in the division once again. The winner advances with a clear path to the SEC Championship Game and accompanying shot at the Playoff; the loser is diverted onto a path to the Citrus Bowl.
For Georgia, that’s just life in Playoff-or-bust mode. For Florida, it’s the next rung in the ongoing climb under Dan Mullen. Despite the loss at Texas A&M, Mullen’s Gators remain on track for a potential breakthrough in Year 3 if they can snap the skid against UGA. As the narrow point spread suggests, this looks like their best chance in the series since 2016, in Kirby Smart‘s first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach. An “upset” would continue the upward trajectory on Mullen’s watch and immediately elevate Florida into the national discussion down the home stretch for the first time in the Playoff era.
If it’s going to happen anytime soon, the window is arguably as wide open for the Gators to make their move on Saturday as it’s likely to get. Georgia’s offense, its Achilles’ heel in 2019, has made no discernible progress over the first half of 2020 and is coming off its most uninspired outing of the season; at the same time, Florida’s offense has leveled up into one of the most productive units in the country behind senior QB Kyle Trask, who continues to solidify his status as the steadiest UF passer since Tim Tebow.
The Bulldogs’ extensive injury list includes their captain and defensive MVP, senior DB Richard LeCounte III, who won’t play after being injured in a motorcycle crash following last week’s win at Kentucky; starting NT Jordan Davis, who Smart hopes can play with an elbow injury; and dynamic WR George Pickens, a likely game-time decision after missing last week. Barring another late-breaking covid cluster — the school says it has recorded zero positive tests in the past week — Florida’s 2-deep is essentially intact.
More than anything else, Georgia’s blue-chip roster poses a crucial test of how far Mullen’s Gators have come talent-wise relative to the year-in, year-out recruiting powers that tend to win championships, and how far they still have to go. Mullen has undeniably raised the overall talent level in Gainesville, improving recruiting and adding 4 former 5-star recruits in the past year to a roster that had zero; the most notable, former Georgia DE Brenton Cox Jr., is well on his way to living up to the hype as one of the SEC’s elite edge rushers. That’s not nearly enough to close the gap — UGA boasts 16 former 5-star prospects, most in the nation, just for starters — but for the first time it might be enough to overcome it.
The stat: 4.1 points per drive
That’s the average yield for Florida’s offense this season on a per-possession basis, good for 4th nationally and 2nd in the SEC behind only Alabama. Through 4 games the Gators have scored on 28 of their 44 offensive possessions (64%), including 21 touchdowns; more to the point, they’ve done it with remarkable consistency, putting at least 1 TD on the board in 14 of 16 quarters. On a game-by-game basis, that comes out to points on …
• 9-of-11 possessions vs. Ole Miss (6 touchdowns, 3 field goals)
• 6-of-11 possessions vs. South Carolina (5 touchdowns, 1 field goal)
• 6-of-8 possessions vs. Texas A&M (5 touchdowns, 1 field goal)
• 7-of-14 possessions vs. Missouri (5 touchdowns, 2 field goals)
… the majority of which have covered 70 yards or more. Only 3 scoring drives have started in opposing territory.
By and large that success is a credit to Trask, who has put up eerily similar stat lines in all four games, in keeping with his reputation as a high-efficiency manager rather than a big-play slinger. It’s also a credit to Mullen, a traditionally run-oriented play-caller who has proven flexible enough to adapt to the strengths of a pocket quarterback and a well-rounded group of wideouts headlined by the uncoverable Kyle Pitts, who ranks second in the SEC in average depth of target (12.6 yards beyond the LOS), and the untouchable Kadarius Toney, who’s earned more than 60% of his 297 receiving yards this season after the catch.
Kadarius Toney broken tackle update (@PFF_College):
32 catches since 2018
24 broken tackles on those
75% broken tackle rate (25% higher than all FBS WRs) pic.twitter.com/oAPoSe6wv1
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) November 3, 2020
For its part, Georgia’s defense has allowed a solid 1.33 points per drive, just another one of the many categories in which the Bulldogs lead the SEC — scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, yards per play, etc. — despite a 41-point, 564-yard blistering administered by Alabama.
The one element Florida’s passing game notably lacks is a true long ball threat on the order of Jaylen Waddle or John Metchie III, which limits Trask’s options and could force him to execute perfectly or close to it just to sustain long drives. But as long as his protection holds up, he’s proven repeatedly that’s right in his wheelhouse.
The big question: Can Georgia run the dang ball?
The eternal question. Last week’s 14-3 win at Kentucky was UGA’s best rushing effort of the year, yielding season highs for both rushing yards (215) and yards per carry (5.0) while producing the first individual 100-yard rusher, Zamir White. And there’s reason to suspect Florida’s run defense is vulnerable against the run, given its issues in containing Ole Miss Jerrion Ealy (79 yards on 4.9 per carry), South Carolina’s Kevin Harris (100 on 4.5), and especially Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller (174 on 6.7), whose hard-charging afternoon against the Gators was arguably the best individual game by any SEC back this season.
An underrated aspect of the Aggies’ win over Florida was their success in shortening the game, chewing up clock, limiting the Gators to just 8 offensive possessions and magnifying the impact of the defense’s few stops. But pulling it off also required a career day from A&M QB Kellen Mond, who threw for 338 yards and 3 TDs and needed every bit of it to get his team over the top on a field goal as time expired.
Stetson Bennett IV is trending in the opposite direction. Against Kentucky, he finished just 9-of-13 passing for 131 yards and 2 interceptions, bringing his total to 5 INTs in the last 2 games after going pick-free in the first 3.
Against Kentucky, whatever — as long as the defense and ground game are holding up their ends of the bargain, they can live with the occasional low-volume clunker from the quarterback. Against Florida, that won’t cut it: Bennett will have to make some plays with his arm and keep the ball out of trouble, evoking his best performance of the season in Georgia’s Week 2 romp over Auburn. A functional George Pickens would go a long way in that regard; another triple-digit effort from White that keeps the down and distance manageable and the clock moving would go even further.
It’s ironic that, for all the blue-chip talent on both sides, the most important players in this game are a pair of former 3-star recruits who generated no interest whatsoever from any other Power 5 schools and were projected as career backups right up until the moment they were forced into the lineup.
But the comparisons between Trask and Bennett pretty much end there.
Despite his obscurity in his first 3 years on campus, Trask has emerged as a legitimate pro prospect with the size, arm, and proven production to credibly pass as a Heisman candidate and a potential first-rounder. Florida has refocused its offense around him with stellar results. Bennett, despite his initial popularity, is a borderline athlete who remains firmly in the middle of the pack statistically and continues to inspire questions about the status of his more highly touted backup. Georgia is going to lead on its defense and running game and ask its quarterback to do just enough not to screw it up.
That formula has worked before, and when the defense is as good as Georgia’s it can always work again on any given Saturday. But Florida isn’t trying to win last year’s game. The Gators have cut into the UGA’s margin of victory each of the past two seasons, taking them it the wire in 2019, and have taken another step forward this season with the arrival of the passing game. The Bulldogs haven’t moved an inch, which puts them in serious danger of being passed by.
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Florida 30, Georgia 27
Texas A&M (-10) at South Carolina
How high can Texas A&M rise? The Aggies (4-1) are up to No. 7 in the AP poll on the strength of a 3-game winning streak and very quietly the rest of the schedule is lining up nicely for a serious run at … well, something: A&M is certain to be favored in its next 4 games, including not-as-tough-as-we-thought dates with Tennessee and LSU, heading into what could be a very meaningful regular-season finale at Auburn. I really don’t want to use the “P” word here. But if we’re talking about a name-brand program with a 9-1 record, at least one quality win on its résumé, and an early road loss at Alabama as its only blemish, that team is in the conversation.
All of which is to say that a routine midseason road trip to South Carolina is exactly the kind of game previous A&M teams with vague ambitions would absolutely screw up.
That alone can tell us something about how the current edition handles its business. I’ve come back around on Kellen Mond as one of the SEC’s steadier hands behind center, which frankly might say more about the state of the position across the league than it does about Mond, specifically. (Having the luxury of a viable ground game for a change certainly doesn’t hurt.) But the opportunity for a special season is very much within the Aggies’ grasp.
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Texas A&M 31, South Carolina 23
Tennessee (-1.5) at Arkansas
Both teams come in at 2-3, but 2-3 feels very different for the side that began the season as a dark-horse candidate in the East than it does for the team that started as a laughingstock on a 19-game conference losing streak. At any rate, with largely unfavorable schedules remaining on both sides, this is a crucial game for preserving any chance of finishing .500 or better.
Personally, show me Jarrett Guarantano on one side and a defense with a proven propensity for pick-6s on the other, and I know just about all I need to.
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Arkansas 26, Tennessee 21
Vanderbilt at Mississippi State (-19)
This is the closest the SEC going to come this season to a true Pillow Fight between the league’s resident bottom dwellers, although it says a lot about just how far off the radar Vanderbilt is right now that Mississippi State is favored to win here by more points (19) than the Bulldogs have scored in their last 3 games combined (16).
MSU is likely to roll out a true freshman quarterback on Saturday making his first career start in a lineup that has been ravaged by attrition almost from the moment Mike Leach arrived as head coach. And yet even for an outfit in total disarray, Vandy projects as the rough equivalent of an FCS cupcake.
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Mississippi State 29, Vanderbilt 13
Week 6 record 6-0 straight-up / 3-3 vs. spread
Season record: 26-10 straight-up / 18-18 vs. spread