It’s rivalry week. A huge game looms in Jacksonville with the winner likely representing the SEC East in Atlanta, and potentially bigger things to play for down the road.
I expect the Gator offense to have some struggles, so it’s on the defense to try and control the game and keep the score manageable. Georgia will rely on it’s running game led by RBs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift and a strong O-Line. Even in their loss at LSU they ran the ball effectively, only having to abandon it due to turnovers by QB Jake Fromm and falling behind by double-digits in the 4th quarter. The Florida front seven will have it’s toughest challenge of the season in controlling the LOS – if the Puppies win first down they will control the clock and it will be a long afternoon. If by some combination of run defense, turnovers, and effective offense the Gators can get a lead in the second half, once again it will fall on Fromm to have to make things happen with his arm, which is where he struggles. Playing with a big lead and handing off most of the game is what he was able to do all of 2017, but he has not handled the pressure of being forced to throw very well. On passing downs, the Gator DEs need to find ways to continue their excellent play and get pressure on the QB. Georgia’s pass blocking has had some struggles this year, so perhaps there are some big plays and drive-killers available. The Gator secondary will be have to play a lot of man defense, and will be challenged by WRs Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman and TE Isaac Nauta. They will have to stay disciplined and not peek into the backfield on run fakes. The entire defense will have trust each individual to do their job – no freelancing or over-aggressiveness leading to a bust and big play. Finally, I expect Justin Fields to see action at QB as well. He is a dangerous runner, but hasn’t been relied upon much in the passing game to date. I suspect there are a few pass plays in the game plan for him this week to try and surprise the Gator defense.
Florida’s offense has to find a way to put some extended drives together in order to allow the defense to get some rest and to shorten the game. Georgia will likely stack the box and dare Franks to throw to beat them, which is a good strategy until he proves he is accurate enough to make throws into tight windows. The O-Line was able to open enough running room to balance the attack against LSU and has to do the same in this game, as relying on the passing game for consistent production isn’t a viable option yet. Scarlett and Perine once again will have to get tough yards after contact, but I hope Mullen continues to incorporate them into the passing game to slow the rush and spread the field. The WRs have to block well, and get separation occasionally to make some big plays. CB Deandre Baker is an all-SEC candidate, so anyone not matched up with him has to make something happen. The Puppy defense has shown some cracks this year, so Florida must capitalize when some opportunities present themselves – whether with individual effort of by scheme. Georgia’s pass rush is nowhere near as formidable as last season. D’Andre Walker leads the Puppies with 5 sacks, but they only have 9 total as a team. The Gator O-Line needs to play their assignments and communicate – they stood up pretty well to Kentucky and LSU, and have to give Franks time and some clear passing lanes. I’m hoping that Mullen isn’t so stubborn that he forces the running game if it is not working, throws more on 1st down, and isn’t afraid to take shots with lower-percentage 50/50 balls downfield to the WRs. It’s not as if Franks completes 70% of his passes as it is, so it’s time to roll the dice and see if the WRs can win some one-on-one battles. I expect to see some of Toney on jet sweeps and wildcat snaps – he is due for a few big plays. If the Gators can get into the red zone, Mullen has demonstrated creativity and acumen with his play calls, and I’ll bet there are some new wrinkles we haven’t seen yet.
Both teams have excellent special teams. Georgia PK Roberto Blankenship has done a great job since last season and has made some clutch kicks under pressure. Hardman is a dangerous KO and punt returner with breakaway speed, so the Gator coverage units have to stay in their lanes and tackle well. Florida PK Evan McPherson continues to impress, and Tommy Townsend will be relied upon to punt well and flip the field. If the game is close into the second half, special teams could be the difference.
This year’s game has high stakes for the first time in a while, which will make the atmosphere even more intense. Both teams are coming off of a bye week, so it will be interesting to see which one took the most advantage of it for the stretch run. Florida has the bitter memory of last year’s debacle to try and make up for, quitting under the Swamp Donkey and embarrassing the program. Hopefully the staff has the players at a high emotional pitch while not being too hyped and making stupid mistakes. There are still a lot of guys on the roster that won the East in 2015 and 2016 and have experience in big games, so Mullen has that to build on. Kirby Smart is feeling some heat for Georgia’s performance at LSU, and I expect a better effort. I hope the discussions of how much Fields should play at QB becomes a distraction within the team, but my guess is that Fromm is still the guy and plays almost exclusively unless the Puppies fall behind by more than a TD in the second half.
As much as I want the Gators to win, I’m just not convinced that Franks can play efficiently enough and take advantage of big play opportunities to lead the offense to enough points. My worry is that even if the defense plays well initially, they start to wear down in the second half, especially if they can’t stop the running game. Additionally, the secondary is already thin, and can’t afford any significant injuries. After last year’s embarrassment, there’s plenty of motivation for the Gators to play their best.
Prediction: Georgia 31 Florida 20