Florida now enters the difficult part of it’s schedule, starting with the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville. The last 5 games include 4 Top 20 and 2 Top 5 opponents. We’re about to see how much this team has either truly improved so far to get to a 5-2 record and within 1 win of becoming bowl-eligible, or if it’s more fool’s gold earned by piling up wins against mostly weaker teams.
This week’s game will be a major challenge, as Georgia comes in playing it’s best football after some struggles early in the season. The Bulldogs are led by QB Carson Beck, who, while not flashy, has put together a very good season as a first-year starter by playing efficiently and not turning the ball over. RB Daijun Edwards has come on strong the past month and has to to be slowed down considerably, or else it will be another long afternoon away from the Swamp for the Gator defense. The run defense has been horrific lately, allowing too many easy running lanes combined with poor tackling. The defensive staff really needs to get after the players to show more toughness and also play with better technique. Brock Bowers, UGA’s All-American TE, is out after ankle surgery, which will keep him out for at least a month. He’s one of the best playmakers in college football, and will be missed by Georgia’s offense. However, Oscar Delp is a more than capable replacement, and the Gator defense has no reason to relax. WRs Dominic Lovett (a transfer from Missouri) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint are excellent players, and the secondary needs to do a much better job of limiting long completions. Georgia’s offense isn’t as explosive as the previous 2 seasons and will miss Bowers to an extent, but still has a physical O-line and enough talent at the skill positions to be dangerous.
Florida’s offense will face it’s toughest challenge of the season this week. Georgia again has an excellent defense, despite the loss of more than a dozen players to the NFL over the past 2 drafts. This group may not have the uber-elite playmakers of recent vintage, but still plays tough, physical football and tackles well. The Gator O-line has to somehow get enough stalemates at the LOS to allow it’s skill players enough chances to make plays in space and also keep Graham Mertz upright, or this one will get ugly. Mertz has taken way too much punishment the past few games, and won’t last the season if it continues. Here’s hoping the off week helps get Kingsley Eguakun back at center and that the rotations at the other positions are finally settled. I’m not expecting the running game to have consistent success the entire game, but it must generate some first downs to provide some balance and give the passing game a fair chance. It will be very interesting to see if Billy Napier continues with the game plan employed at South Carolina that utilizes the entire field and plays aggressively, or if he goes back into a shell with risk-averse playcalling. This team’s best chance is for the offense to stay aggressive the rest of the season, no matter the outcome.
Special teams almost always contribute to an upset win, and Florida’s group hopefully finds a way to make a big play or two in the return game to help. After Trevor Etienne made such an impact on kickoff returns the second half of last season, the return game has been mostly absent in 2023. Trey Smack has been terrific as the FG kicker since taking over in the Tennessee game, and he’ll need to continue to take advantage of every opportunity he’s given. Georgia has it’s own good placekicker in Peyton Woodring, and Mehki Mews is one of the best kick returners in the SEC. The Gator coverage units have been very good so far, and that will have to continue – this team isn’t good enough to overcome any serious lapses in coverage leading to easy scores by the Bulldogs.
This game will be used as a measuring stick of whether Napier’s program is showing real improvement in year 2. It may still end up as a loss, and perhaps the score isn’t terribly close, but how all 3 phases of the game look could be crucial to his long-term rebuilding project……and also to recruits. He has an excellent recruiting class lined up right now, but it will be hard to keep it together if the next 5 games aren’t at least competitive.
There’s always a chance for an upset in a rivalry game, but it will take Florida’s best effort combined with some mistakes from Georgia for that to happen. The Gators likely can’t come from behind against the Bulldogs, so they’ll have to find a way to get an early lead and try to hold on. As of right now, Florida is likely still too young and lacks the physicality and depth necessary to make it happen.